Whilst retail in general is bearing the brunt of the downturn, fashion is feeling more pain than most. Here, Retail Assist's Product Director, Nigel Illingworth, describes ways in which fashion retailers are using technology to turn themselves into smarter businesses.

Whilst the world of fashion retailing is not alone in needing to adapt to a tough trading climate, it suffers more than most from external conditions. These include the demands of multiple season stockholding, complex supply chains, competition from cheaper markets, and fickle customers with less disposable income for discretionary purchases. We've seen these elements influence the way in which fashion retailers behave towards their IT suppliers and use IT.

In the past, in house teams would be expected to evolve a 5-year or even 10-year IT plan, which brought together commercial vision and IT investment. Today, it's short-term tactics and results that count, as retailers focus on 6-24 month developments that can make tangible improvements.

When it comes to supplier relationships:

  • Under-performing systems are no longer tolerated and retailers look to squeeze greater efficiencies from an existing core system.
  • Gone are the days when a systems change meant a long process, starting with an ITT. Today, pressured retailers want rapid results: a better system or a better deal from their suppliers.
  • Suppliers are expected to come up with flexible working and licensing models.
  • Large-scale capital outlays have disappeared, as leasing, rental and SaaS options become the norm.
  • Timescales have been squeezed. Lengthy implementations with long workshop programmes don't get signed off.
  • Packaged solutions have ousted bespoke developments. The former approach puts the main elements in place, with minor customisation cost-efficient and often be done by users.

In terms of how IT is used today, the focus is on 'quick win', justifiable changes that are easy to see, save money, and enhance processes, customer service and stock management. Increasingly, retailers use software solutions as the agent for improvement.

The customer experience:

  • Whilst many brands boast about store ordering, their processes are often cumbersome. The best amongst them use their supply chain software to create a swift and slick process, whereby items can be sent for home delivery or store pickup
  • Linkage and loyalty come from connecting with customers in new ways, such as via mobile phones, SMS texting and e-magazines. All can build brand loyalty and demonstrate customer care
  • IT solutions are helping fashion retailers to learn a lesson from their supermarket peers and improve flexible pricing and promotion.

Stock availability:

  • Inter-branch transfers done manually are labour-intensive and prone to inaccuracy. Today's IT systems look for overstocked or wrongly-stocked stores and suggest moves. This rebalancing of in-store stock means sales opportunities aren't lost.
  • It's especially important in fashion to phase stock deliveries. Having stock arriving ad hoc has cost and space implications and negatively affects cash flow. Better inwards tracking and control makes a real difference. Whilst this is often done manually on paper or spreadsheets, savvy businesses use their supply chain solution to give them control and a holistic view.
  • It's important to impose consistent standards for the whole business to use. Staff must be trained to understand and follow processes for replenishment. Here, IT can provide the backbone and prompt staff to take necessary actions.