The Devil Wears Data: The Fashion Industry's Battle with Digital

by Adam Walker on Tuesday 24 July 2018

The world of fashion has, over the past 10-15 years experienced one of the biggest revolutions since its conception, with “fast fashion” companies turning the industry on its head with cheap clothing and free returns. Indeed, the digital age of fashion has seen new contenders dominating traditional brands such as Marks & Spencers with these strategies. This coupled with an “online first” business structure or even foregoing a physical presence all together.

 

With many of these “newer” brands having been around for the best part of 2 decades the strain is beginning to show across the industry. The cost of cheap, fast fashion has become apparent with retailers having to constantly buy-in and upload new styles on an almost weekly basis. Multiple exposés have raised concerns over the manufacturing processes used by the industry and there have been growing concerns over fast fashion’s environmental impacts, due to the requirement of high volume, mass production at short notice that comes from following daily changes in trends.

 

The marketing industry was also forced to evolve, adopting the “rapid retail” model and building it into campaigns to help carry that message through. Countdown ads, retargeting, Google Shopping, Shoppable Instagram posts and dynamic SEO strategies all grew from, and helped grow, an industry where the most crucial factor is time.

 

So, as industry growth shows no signs of stopping, a “faster is better” mentality and emerging ethical issues, the question stands: is the current digital fashion model sustainable? If so, what can marketers do to pull the industry in that direction?


 

Growing Demand vs Lower Prices

 

Digital fashion, in particular fast fashion, relies on a mixture of consumer demand, ease of purchase and lower prices to drive transactions. The idea of bargain priced fashion at the touch of a button arriving the next working day is hard to beat, and consumers are becoming increasingly addicted.

 

The issue with this is that it is now the norm for online fashion and standing apart from the crowd either requires you to have the hottest designs or simply be cheaper and/or faster. The digital landscape necessitates both speed and value for money, so when consumers can get next day delivery from most retailers, how do you improve on that? Enter same day delivery and the eye-watering costs that run with it. 

 

At the same time, however, fashion retailers must deal with the growing demand for a better bargain as consumers seek out the cheapest vendors for their clothing needs. This has given rise to a “sale mentality” where some bigger brands have been forced to do an increasing number of sale events to ensure their consumer-base grows. To add to the issue, most retailers offer a standard 20% student discount to anyone with an NUS card or alike. So, when a sale like Black Friday comes round and brands offer 20% off full price, consumers are somewhat upset that they are offered the same price students get everyday. Thus forcing brands like Boohoo and Missguided to offer anywhere from 35-50% off full price clothing.

 

What this shows is that fashion is becoming an increasingly rapid race to the bottom of the price list, something which spells trouble for many digital retailers and their long-term prospects.

 

Free Returns Cost Nothing (Except The Earth)

 

One of the other big attractions to online retail is the “free returns” policy many brands now provide as standard. Rather than trying on items and buying a select few, consumers are now encouraged to buy a variety of styles and sizes, with the chance to return anything they dislike for free. This is an undeniably strong method of encouraging a purchase but the costs associated with the environment are beginning to attract the attention of environmental health organisations and governments.

 

In early 2017 the Mayor of London proposed a new “ultra-low emissions zone” for London following reports of air pollution levels being some of the worst in the world. Much of this has been blamed on an increase in the volume of couriers, delivery vans/lorries and general business traffic running through the city centre. The increased levies and charges could cost businesses dearly, with larger vehicles being charged £100 for entering the area during peak times.

 

Later in 2017, it was revealed that Oxford Street (one of the busiest central roads in the capital) will be pedestrianised by the end of 2018, resulting in many offices and businesses being off limits for vehicle loading/unloading.

 

As the world begins to prioritise the health of the environment, it is digital, fast fashion businesses who rely solely on deliveries of purchase, who will bear the brunt of the impact as rising costs and green taxes hit their logistics departments and delivery times.

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Ethical Shopping & Digital: Can It Work?

 

So the current digital model for fashion is broken, however there are brands looking to innovate in ways that move away from the “faster/cheaper” business model. In 2017 ASOS announced their new collection “Made in Kenya”, a range that promoted styles and sustainable manufacturing from African designers to a great amount of positive press, and in 2018 announced it would be launching a recycling scheme (similar to H&M’s or Zara’s). 

 

Meanwhile, Urban Outfitters has created an “Urban Renewal Vintage” to capture the demand for retro styles by finding, refurbing and selling second-hand clothing on-site. This model was originally popularised by the likes of Beyond Retro, who have created a huge online business empire simply through recycling old clothing.

 

So, as “ethical shopping” becomes one of the hottest trends in digital fashion, it would appear some retailers are taking the opportunity to diversity and move away from the “traditional” fast fashion model (if only partially).

 

Marketers: Know Your Influence and Use It

 

One of the great benefits of being a marketer is that you gain an understanding of not just how a consumer thinks but also how consumers perceive who they’re buying from. Any PPC analyst who has done an SQR can get a rough idea of the reputation of a brand. Programmatic advertising requires a fundamental knowledge and understanding of where your audience “exists” on the net and Social Media marketing allows marketers to see where people's’ interests lie.

 

Gathering this together allows us to paint a fairly clear picture of not only who your audience are, but what they are looking for in fashion retailers and what they prioritise. We can use this to help brands direct their strategies and their businesses in a way that can satisfy the consumer urge for sustainable fast fashion. We can model untapped areas of the market where consumers may be looking for an ethical retailer but aren’t aware of a retailer’s “eco offerings”. Whilst for the larger brands, we can help show them that the Global market is filled with opportunities where the audience is keen to “buy green”, giving them a foothold on their international strategies where they may have struggled before.

 

Whether you’re in-house or agency, you have a world of data available to you and you can use that data to start, drive and grow a sustainable, fast fashion strategy. The demand is there, you just have to show your brand can satisfy it.

 

Digital Fashion: A Choice Between Innovation & Implosion

 

The digital fashion revolution was just that, a revolution. It was a huge upheaval of the norms and a change in the market that rippled across different industries and sectors. However, a revolution without a goal is unsustainable and this is what we are beginning to see. Change for the sake of change is not something that can be maintained and the industry is beginning to see the seams fray.

 

What we do need, that is sustainable, is an evolution of digital fashion. An industry model that allows retailers to find their niche and deliver great quality without simply pursuing the fastest, cheapest option available and digital marketers should lead the way. We see data from both the business and consumers. Use it, adapt your strategy and be prepared to push for change.

 

Fast, Cheap and Good. You can have any 2, but not all 3.