This is one of those topics that is polarizing — like politics, religion or your favorite sports team. And today, no matter how well you think you navigate the complex, detailed and intricate processes that take place behind the catwalk, those of planning, designing, producing and delivering product to your customer, it’s guaranteed the cycle is too slow, too costly, too wasteful and just plain not good enough. Retail is experiencing a sea of change, and the waves from that change reach all the way back into the supply chain, impacting all participants.
One of the major factors driving that change is see-now-buy-now, a trend that started sweeping through the fashion industry several years ago, and also a trend that many designers would prefer to sweep right under the rug. (U.S.-based designer Tom Ford, for example, is one of the public detractors of the movement.)
See-now-buy-now, as its name suggests, refers to consumers who expect the looks they see on catwalks and red carpets to be available for purchase almost immediately, versus the standard lag time of many months between runway debut and store availability.
The rise of see-now-buy-now is not surprising; it reflects the perfect storm of smartphone-wielding Gen Z shoppers and their expectation of instant gratification. It would be unfair to paint this generation with the broad brush of being overly demanding, as unprecedented levels of product availability and accessibility is all they’ve ever known.
The reality is we’ve conditioned younger generations to be this way. For example, we’ve encouraged them to “like” brand photos on Instagram and “tap to shop.” So is it really surprising when they apply the same see-now-buy-now expectations to photos on social media from New York Fashion Week or when extremely popular fashionistas — eh hem, Blake Lively — debut new looks on the red carpet? Of course, they expect these items to be available for purchase immediately!
No matter where you stand on the disputed trend of see-now-buy-now, one thing is certain: Catering to this consumer creates both challenges and opportunities for brands and retailers.
It’s true that the challenges may seem more obvious and more daunting. Supply chains are increasingly global, which can result in longer and more rigid lead times for sourcing, production and transit. However, for designer products in particular, while it may be true that perfection takes time, today’s consumer is in a hurry, and retailers really need perfection “on time.” Historic lead times of possibly 10 months and delivery schedules of “when it’s ready” just don’t fit today’s realities.
But in all complexities lies inherent opportunity — and see-now-buy-now is no exception. For starters, the overpowering reason no design house can fail to consider see-now-buy-now is simple — consumers are demanding it.
And that demand isn’t going to lessen anytime soon. In fact, by 2019, Gen Z will comprise 32 percent of the global population of 7.7 billion, slightly edging out the Millennial population, which will be 31.5 percent based on Bloomberg analysis of United Nations data.
Successful businesses have to grow, increase volume and increase profitability — simply put, sell more and make more. Can your brand afford to alienate more than half the world’s population that was born or has come of age with a smartphone in-hand?
For that reason, many fashion brands are focusing on how they can get more products into consumers’ hands faster, without sacrificing the quality, creativity and emotion that is the essence of fashion.
Here’s a look at three areas retailers should consider when evaluating their approach to see-now-buy-now.
Put the Customer at the Center
It sounds relatively simple, right? Of course, the customer should be at the center of all decisions. But the challenge is, how can you engage a customer you don’t know? To get better and faster in bringing products to market — products that shoppers actually want to buy — you need to establish a complete view of the customer.
To achieve that 360-degree view of each shopper, retailers need to collect data across all physical and digital touchpoints, including browsing behavior, sales data and social media engagement. By analyzing both structured and unstructured data, retailers can develop customer-centric strategies in planning, promotions and assortments.
Achieving customer-centric merchandising strategies is not only effective in meeting shoppers’ needs today, but it also allows brands to understand and incorporate customer feedback earlier in the design process. With trends identified sooner and with greater confidence, the entire merchandise process can be accelerated, resulting in designs agreed upon faster, production readied and collections brought to market at an accelerated rate.
The Merchandise Office Must Evolve and Improve
The implications of see-now-buy-now are particularly impactful to the merchandising office — that group of individuals who have to plan, select, design, deliver and manage the logistics and lifecycle for each of the products that a retailer or brand company wishes to place in front of potential customers. Some areas of the retail/brand enterprise have already embraced the concept of “fail fast,” meaning they’re open to pursuing new innovations, quickly, even if they are unproven. The merchandising department is dynamic, works at a feverish pace, is often staffed with highly experienced people, and possesses tried and true processes (although built for a different era), usually all supported with legacy software — and miles of arcane Excel spreadsheets. How does this team move into the future?
One of the most neglected disciplines in moving people, processes and technology into the future is change management. This is critically important to the future of merchandising, and as such, the ability to get products to consumers faster while retaining the creativity, quality and emotion behind each design. Workflow and processes have to be rethought and job content has to change.
The bulk of the change in merchandising required to accelerate speed to market revolves around systems, processes and people. The merchandise organization needs to find ways to streamline its workload by planning and managing product holistically, significantly reducing the time between analysis, decision and action for every function across the entire merchandise lifecycle. This cannot be accomplished working through multiple, disparate systems — as previously noted, they are typically held together with Excel spreadsheets — and by doing things the same way because “we’ve always done it this way” and “this is how we work here.”
Business processes also need to work in a timely fashion, adhering to a strict calendar of activities and deadlines that reflect the merchandise selection, procurement, deployment and management of deadlines. Holistic systems and processes will allow retailers to connect multidisciplinary teams, foster a more collaborative work culture and keep product information — and products — moving faster.
See-Now-Buy-Now Affects All Retailers
While see-now-buy-now is most talked about on the runways of Paris, New York and Milan, and while fast fashion is most often associated with the likes of Zara and H&M, it’s important to note that these trends of accelerated product lifecycles are impacting all retailers — even those outside apparel.
Retailers and brands — no matter what products they are selling — are now expected to turn stock more frequently, introduce more products each year and provide consumers with a personalized experience, all while supporting an ever-expanding product collection.
Adapting faster, more customer-centric product lifecycle processes in today’s retail environment isn’t going to be easy. Clearly, new thinking and methods are required. But no matter what sector of retail you are catering to, you will have to achieve unprecedented agility, with more products conceived, delivered and cleared at an astounding pace.
It’s not a question of if you should adapt to this trend; it’s more a question of how quickly you are able to.
Peter Charness is senior vice president of merchandise lifecycle management at Aptos.