The growth of e-commerce giants and their competition with traditional retail presents a challenge for upcoming and niche fashion brands. But with a strategic approach towards technology and a clear focus, niche fashion brands still have a lot going for them, says Fuel4Fashion founder Supriya Ghurye, fashion designer and brand consultant.

With the ongoing head-to-head confrontation between physical retail and e-commerce brands, the consumer has never had it so good. Both platforms have been aggressively trying to woo customers, invading the rival domain in the process. While physical retail tries to establish an online presence, online brands like Amazon and Myntra have been exploring options to create physical connection points with customers; the former by tying up with Shoppers Stop, and the latter by exploring mom-and-pop stores as potential sales points. Given the significant investments involved and the pace at which money is being burnt to acquire customers, the niche fashion brands - both online and offline have begun feeling the heat. Online niche fashion upstarts like Koovs and Limeroad are not only forced to compete on price, but also on visibility for their brand as the big brands spend heavily to acquire eyeballs and wallet share.

In such a scenario, what happens to the traditional and not-so-traditional boutique fashion brands? Upcoming fashion designers seeking to establish their brand through physical retail and with an online presence are seeing immense challenges in creating a loyal audience and keeping sales high enough to sustain the business. With the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) and analytics, big e-commerce brands and retail chains have started acquiring better understanding of the customer, and are therefore able to predict trends and saleable design styles more accurately, aiming at mass audiences, backed by the ability to manufacture in volume at prices that a smaller brand cannot match. So where do niche and start-up fashion brands go from here?

One possible scenario is that niche fashion brands become subsumed into the larger e-commerce or retail space, becoming a quasi-private label offering of the latter. HRX is a successful example of this strategy. If a brand has a loyal audience that these larger platforms would like to target, this might be a profitable opportunity. However, the risk of losing the identity that makes the brand unique may keep designers wary of such a step.

Niche fashion brands have little margin to invest in tools such as AI and data science, since their consumer base is also relatively small, but there are a few ways that these brands can experiment to find their niche audience and focus on them.

While developing a niche, look for one that is dedicated and more comfortable with buying specialised products than going in for generalised versions that may not necessarily serve the purpose as well. This requires a strong focus on the audience you are looking to cultivate and creating designs that will not only appeal to the core, but also attract buyers from fringe and adjoining categories. Buyer-centric designs are now here to stay.

Creating a unique experience through your app or website is another aspect that start-up fashion brands will have to give special emphasis on. With a smaller variety of products, niche fashion brands can create a better buying experience through the use of technology like virtual trial rooms and augmented reality, bringing the buyer closer to the brand. While the investment may seem high, getting there early will build fan following (and sales) much faster.

Investing in building a presence on social media is a strategy many smaller brands have adopted successfully. But few have created a completely thought-out structure that is designed to take a viewer from interest and sharing through the journey to purchase. Being Human has proven this successfully with its omni-channel strategy. This is now a must-do if smaller brands want to continuously attract and build customer base for the long term.

Another critical area is customer relationship management (CRM). Technology is now widespread and common enough for brands to find niche solutions. These are relatively low cost, yet yield great returns when used judiciously. Limeroad's email strategy focuses on this aspect, bringing curated lists of viewed products back to the visitor's mailbox for possible conversion to purchase.

An integrated approach towards the business using some or all of the above means that fashion brands have to move beyond the realm of design and into technology, but the transition is one that will keep your brands alive and well even in the face of competition.