Levi's announces its strategy for back-to-school, and it's all about the digital push.

Back-to-school season is fraught for all the wrong reasons, but at least one denim giant won’t sit back and do nothing. Levi’s, ever the technology proponent, is reshaping its approach to b-t-s using digital tools, including a new group shopping feature, Snapchat virtual closet and remote clothing try-ons using virtual body types.

“One of the most exciting parts of the back-to-school season is going to the mall with friends and putting outfits together for the first day of school. Knowing that in-store shopping would be challenging this year, the Levi’s team went to the drawing board to brainstorm how to digitally recreate that shared experience,” the apparel company explained in a blog posted Thursday.

The plan is to hold virtual styling and shopping events that cater to small groups. The experience will be hosted by a Levi’s stylist, who will cover back-to-school fashion trends and offer styling advice and recommendations tailored to the group.

The technology comes courtesy of Levi’s new partnership with Squad, an online co-watching video app that works over the desktop web and mobile. “Using Squad, a group of friends can join a group video chat and easily share their screen to look at the same content together,” the company added.

Aimed at Gen Z, the app launched in April to bring the sort of social experiences people are missing right now due to the coronavirus pandemic. On Wednesday, infections ticked up to nearly 6.1 million cases in the U.S., underscoring the need for continued social distancing.

During a time when people miss being able to watch TV shows and movies together, shared streaming experiences look like a natural use case for the technology. So is shopping. And right now brands such as Levi’s need to do whatever it takes to appeal to students, many of whom may not be out to purchase new clothes just to sit in front of their bedroom laptops.

Overall, the denim sector has joined the long list of COVID-19 business casualties. Since March, students and remote workers have been leaning more into comfort-oriented wear, while brands like True Religion, Lucky and G-Star have filed for Chapter 11 and Gap Inc. has closed some 225 stores, including its Bay Area flagship.

As for Levi’s, the company said this summer that it’s cutting 700 jobs and last month, it reported a 62 percent plunge in revenues for the second quarter. That puts intense pressure on the brand to get back at least some of its mojo during peak shopping periods like back-to-school and the upcoming holiday season.

Its plan of attack relies on technology, an area of investment that Levi’s — creator of the Jacquard Trucker smart jacket and laser finishing pioneer — has long supported. Here, its latest effort joins a lineup of digital projects, including a collaboration with Zeekit, a platform that enables real-time virtual clothing try-ons using augmented reality.

According to the denim company, “One of the ongoing challenges with online shopping is imagining what the clothing will look like on your body type and then ordering the right size. To combat this challenge, the Levi’s brand is teaming up with a company called Zeekit to show three additional sizes on virtually rendered, inclusive models.”

The project isn’t quite the same as virtual apparel try-ons, with users seeing images of clothes layered over themselves. The idea is to allow shoppers to envision how the clothes will look on them by using body types that resemble them, which means the solution needs to be as inclusive as possible. If they resonate with shoppers, that could help boost sales while minimizing product returns.

Levi’s said it will start seeding virtual images from this project on Amazon “in the coming weeks.”

Kohl’s virtual closet stocked with Levi’s apparel on Snapchat.  Courtesy image

Another collaboration, this time with Kohl’s and Snap, does allow shoppers to see themselves in a Trucker jacket using a Snapchat AR filter.

It’s part of Kohl’s latest virtual closet, a project that started this spring with the retailer showcasing digital versions of products on the Snapchat platform. Shoppers can mix and match items and purchase them without leaving the app.

The latest partnership with Levi’s marks Kohl’s third closet, and it features the brand’s apparel for women. Users can assemble T-shirts, jeans and jackets to create their own looks, and then buy the entire outfit from Kohl’s.

With the b-t-s season in play, the timing of these partnerships could yield some important learnings ahead of the holidays. The company could zero in on shopping trends, as well as item popularity and product conversion rates per project. The information would allow the company to double down on successful features or apply the information to other projects — which, for Levi’s, may mean that school is in session in more ways than one.

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