Op-Ed | Is Fashion Ready for the Age of the Customer?

The game is changing and fashion brands must learn to test and iterate their products and experiences with real consumers, argues Nina Fuhrman.
By Nina Fuhrman. Source: Business of Fashion.

SAN FRANCISCO, United States — In a widely cited 2011 study, Forrester traced the evolution of the world economy through several stages of evolution, from the “Age of Manufacturing” (1900-1960) to the “Age of Distribution” (1960-1990) to the “Age of Information” (1990-2010) to our current reality in the “Age of the Customer.” The study claimed that we now live in an era where “power comes from engaging with empowered consumers.”

But as a veteran merchant who spent years at traditional fashion and luxury retailers, I was puzzled by this suggestion. Hadn’t it always been the “Age of the Consumer” in the fashion industry? Some form of customer obsession was on my list of goals every year. Isn’t that why I spent hours analysing sales reports, and visiting and working in stores?

I recently moved from New York to Silicon Valley where I now work for a human-centred design firm, innovating retail and other consumer experiences. In addition to analysing broad consumer data, I’ve had the opportunity to go deep with my research, visiting consumers in their homes, shopping with them, understanding what they expect of brands, and observing their circuitous paths to purchase. In doing so, I’ve learned far more than I would have through traditional focus groups and surveys, or by tracking web browsing behaviour. Most importantly, I’ve realised that in order to be truly consumer-centric, fashion brands need to much better understand their consumers and integrate their input into key product and experience decisions.

When I first heard about crowdfunding sites like Indigogo and Kickstarter, I was intrigued, but I thought their scope was limited. Then I noticed San Francisco-based fashion brands like Taylor Stitch and Gustin using crowdsourcing to determine what and how many products to make. With brands like Target now asking kids to vote on designs and Everlane taking a choose-what-you-pay approach to markdowns, I think it’s only a matter of time until this kind of thinking becomes pervasive and shoppers expect to be active creators of their products and experiences with brands.

It can be better to prototype and test products and experiences with actual consumers first, before too many resources have been committed.

In fashion, there’s a tendency for brands to perfect things before releasing them. But I’ve learned it can be better to prototype and test products and experiences with actual consumers first, before too many resources have been committed.

The wear test and fitting processes, typically conducted with employees of the brand, offer such an occasion. In all my years attending sessions where fit samples are approved and corrected, we repeatedly used the same fit model. Her comments about fit and comfort were valuable, but I bet we would have learned a lot more if we had also asked actual customers for feedback.

Limited production runs are another area of opportunity. Lululemon is doing this with the product that populates its lab stores. Steve Madden has been doing this for years, making a few pairs of shoes in its Long Island sample room to test in their New York City retail stores before committing to mass production. The samples don’t need to be perfect or even for sale, and value can be derived even if just a few items in the assortment are tested. Consumers will be thrilled that they were asked for feedback and will feel more invested and loyal to the brand as a result.

Testing retail and digital experiences with consumers is also invaluable. I recently worked with a brand that was interested in designing a new mobile experience in response to the increase in traffic coming from mobile devices. The brand’s inclination was to streamline navigation and checkout. But after spending time with several loyal and aspirational consumers, we understood that a more transactional mobile site wouldn’t make sense; they used mobile primarily for discovery and inspiration but still wanted to validate their purchase decision and pay on a desktop device.

It may come as a surprise that brick-and-mortar retail can be prototyped for consumer feedback too; everything from the physical environment to in-store services and experiences. Given the huge investment in fixtures, construction, digital tools and store associates, it seems risky not to, to ensure it all works together and is meaningful. Pop-ups are great for this kind of thing. Rent a space, or do it in the office, it doesn’t matter. I’ve seen new formats for stores and hotels mocked up in a week, and new service concepts and rituals can easily be tested and iterated in actual stores. Again, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Most consumers can exercise a bit of their imagination.

Finally, fashion brands typically lack consumer-centric organisational structures. Instead, they are composed of various functional teams, each with their own strategies and incentives and oftentimes located in different buildings or cities. Each functional team gleans intelligence about different aspects of the consumer, but rarely do they share their insights cross-functionally. A more holistic view of the consumer would help everyone make better decisions. After all, consumers experience brands as wholes and don’t distinguish between specific touch points.

Adopting a consumer-centric mindset doesn’t mean brands should offer a literal reflection of what consumers say they want. It wouldn’t be fashion if brands weren’t creating desire beyond what consumers can already imagine. But the game is changing and becoming more competitive, and fashion brands need to develop better consumer insight to inform their thinking.

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