Vogue Business: Despite the availability of technologies for online buying and digital showrooms, brands were caught unprepared at the end of February, when the Covid-19 outbreak arrived in Europe.
For the upcoming May and June season, buyers hope brands and showrooms will adopt formats similar to e-commerce sites, with high-resolution images, videos, zoom capabilities and detailed product descriptions.
Brands should also be mindful of regional differences, providing clear alternatives to fabrications and silhouettes when needed, and simplify decision making by sticking to bestsellers and established designs.
~ VOGUE BUSINESS ~
When cases of Covid-19 started to rise in Milan at the end of February, brands scrambled to put together virtual presentations and sessions for buyers who were deserting the city’s showroom appointments, which usually are held at the end of Paris Fashion Week. They will be expected to do the same in May and June, and possibly even September, as Covid-19 continues to jeopardise international travelling and large-scale events.
For the most part, upcoming fashion weeks have been cancelled or postponed, with London Fashion Week being the only major fashion week to stick to its schedule in June, albeit not in person. Following in the footsteps of Shanghai and Tokyo, the London showcase has announced an entirely digital format that merges womenswear and menswear in one gender-neutral platform, open to the general public, trade and press, that will include interviews, podcasts, designer diaries, webinars and digital showrooms. A number of brands will also have pre-collections to present to buyers in May, but it’s not clear how these showroom appointments will take place.
“We are trying to get everyone to give us visibility on what they are doing, but brands haven’t figured it out and some of them are struggling with samples,” says Feda Ghanem, vice president of merchandising at Harvey Nichols Dubai. Adding to the uncertainty of what it’s going to be offered and in what format, digital buying in itself remains a new and challenging experience for many.
Ghanem says his team only buys products remotely in special cases, like for continuity products or straightforward items like T-shirts. At Browns, digital buying has been more widely used, especially in cases when the buying team couldn’t travel to a specific location, but it’s still far from being the norm. “We have been buying virtually from certain brands in the past, but it’s very different to do it on a big scale,” says Browns buying director Ida Petersson.
While online showrooms and buying systems like Joor, Ordre and NuOrder have been available for years, a large part of the buying experience has continued to happen offline, with buyers zipping from one capital to the other to meet designers and visit showrooms. Brands, for their part, have not always taken full advantage of the technologies available as digital buying has been seen more as an add-on than a necessity. Many brands were caught unprepared by the sudden need to switch to online in March.
“We had brands who only offered sketches and we just had to use our imagination,” says Tiffany Hsu, fashion buying director at Mytheresa. Other issues included low-quality video and longer time consumption. The hope is that, with more preparation, brands will be able to offer a full range of tools, like high-quality video, 3D images and zoom-in capabilities, which will make buying online easier and more straightforward as budgets become smaller and stakes higher.
Using technology to the fullest
According to Kristin Savilia, CEO of digital wholesale platform Joor, which includes virtual showroom experience and bulk order management, brands can improve the virtual buying experience by providing samples and materials faster. “The reason [some brands] only had sketches is because they were late with their products and that is not something that we can fix,” she says. In March, Joor partnered with Ordre, another digital wholesale platform, to allow brands to upload 360-degree images created through Ordre-owned Orb360 technology on the platform. Savilia says the process takes 48 hours and has already been adjusted for the current travelling bans and lockdowns to allow brands to ship the merchandise to them. (Normally, Orb360 would send its image-capturing mobile technology to the brands.)
Digital wholesale platform Joor has teamed-up with Ordre, another digital wholesale platform, to allow brands to upload 360-degree images created through Ordre-owned Orb360 technology on the platform.
The platform has also been taking in suggestions from buyers after Paris Fashion Week, when they saw GMV for digital orders increase 2.5 times higher than average, including the implementation of video, which will be available in the next few weeks. “Seeing the model walk so you can see how the fabric moves and then getting close-ups of the materials is really key,” says Petersson. The format many buyers seem to hope for is similar to what general customers can usually access on e-commerce sites: a combination of high-resolution images, video, the ability to zoom in and a detailed product description. “Have images from all angles of good enough quality — that’s the least that we expect,” says Hsu.
Digital appointments and showrooms also proved to take longer than normal. For Elizabeth von der Goltz, global buying director at Net-a-Porter, the most successful appointments were the ones featuring models trying on the clothes, but they were also time-consuming because of the waiting time between one look and the other. “Using AR or avatars with better digital display will make the pieces clearer and easier to see digitally, and can also remove the need for a model,” she writes.
Regional differences, simplified choices and narrative
For Harvey Nichols’ Ghanem one of the biggest challenges of buying online will be determining fabric weight, alternative swatches and silhouettes, which are critical for his Middle Eastern clientele. “Sometimes we finish the entire buy and we point to around 20 SKUs that are missing to cater to our market, so we spend time going through swatches and silhouettes and working on the selection physically to come out with alternative solutions,” he says. “That is not going to be as practical digitally.” He says fabrication is a deal breaker, as is the possibility to adjust size, cover up and sleeves.
To simplify this process, Ghanem suggests brands stick to their established silhouettes and bestsellers, create an edit that is easy to navigate and, for his region specifically, offer a clear view of the alternatives and modifications available. As online retailers divide their products by category, brands should divide their online buying offer by themes, so that buyers can more quickly and easily navigate through the collection. “If I’m talking to a small brand the decision is quite easy because the options are not huge, but when you talk about [a bigger brand] then [the division] becomes critical because you are putting serious volumes on each theme,” he says.
Themes could also help brands establish a narrative, which is difficult to create when doing appointments online. Von der Goltz found introductions conducted by the designer particularly helpful, as they allowed her to create a connection with the collection and the fabrics she would have missed otherwise. In the same way, Nelson Mui, merchandising director fashion at Lane Crawford, thinks brands should try to engage in conversations about seasonal focus, bestsellers, designer’s personal favourite, upcoming marketing plan, budget and sales, which happen quite naturally during offline showrooms.
“These conversations and evoked emotions are all essential for us to share with our marketing and sales teams after our journey and engage the team on an emotional level to share the brand story with our customers,” he writes.
Learnings from China
Shanghai Fashion Week was the first to adapt to the new landscape by moving completely online in March. Brands presented collections through videos, AR shows and live streaming, with the opportunity to sell directly to the public in collaboration with Alibaba’s Tmall. According to Tmall, the opening event on the first day was viewed by an audience of 2.5 million for three hours and the format was an effective, quick reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic. But for buyers, challenges remained.
Foreign buyers with no knowledge of Mandarin struggled to navigate the Tmall app. The mixed format — which involved a see-now-buy-now model and public interactions — targeted the event to general customers rather than strictly industry insiders. Designers who participated agreed that the event was better for communicating with customers than with buyers. “Separating the sessions for professional buyers and the public would offer a better experience,” writes Mui, adding that there wasn’t a common showroom option, so they had to video call each brand one by one and view every piece during the call. For Petersson, having a guide online, just as foreign buyers usually have when visiting Shanghai, would have been helpful.
Lessons on transition from live fashion showrooms to virtual versions can be taken from Ontimeshow, one of China’s largest fashion trade shows, especially as some Western countries will slowly move towards lifting lockdowns in May and June. The trade show held its Autumn/Winter 2020 preview event, from 10 to 16 April, inside the TX Huaihai mall in Shanghai, as its usual venue at the West Bund Art Centre, like other major venues in the country, remained closed. The format included a far smaller selection of brands than usual, but it also allowed designers to meet a number of local buyers in person. To complement the offline event, the trade show is also planning to launch OntimeOrder, an online ordering system that will include 360-degree presentations of the products.
“The brands enjoyed the opportunity to be in a retail space because they were able to be more creative about telling their brand story and showing buyers what their pieces looked like in a retail environment,” writes Aroma Xie, co-founder of Ontimeshow.