And What Do They Really Look Like?
Five years ago we emerged from the worst recession since the Great Depression. In the subsequent years of recovery, we had a pretty good idea of what to expect in the fashion and retail sectors. We expected, and got, low single-digit growth, margin pressures due to higher wages in Asia, declining store traffic, and encouraging growth in online sales.
This year is different; we are a third of the way into 2017 and we still have no idea what impact new trade, tax and tariff policies are going to have on our businesses and on our customers. We are entering an unchartered period of commercial uncertainty for the fashion retail industry and we need a plan for going forward.
Retrospective Market Realities
While retail sales are predicted to rise this year by a healthy three percent, that figure masks a huge disparity among brands and channels. Some brands will thrive, but more will disappear from our retail landscape. We have already lost The Limited and Wet Seal, while Sears and Kmart remain vulnerable. Indeed, almost every major retailer has acknowledged that they have too many physical stores.
Meantime, Amazon’s growth ambitions in apparel are already having a significant impact on the sector. It is grabbing huge chunks of market share by delivering product to consumers almost instantly, at the best price and usually with free delivery. It is poised to become the largest seller of apparel in the U.S. within the next few months. And for those who try to compete with Amazon by offering seamless omnichannel services across channels, too few have the visibility and scaled-up access to their inventories to fulfill on that goal.
Why such a bleak picture? We did not recognize that something massive was happening as we tried to recover from the last recession. We went about business as usual but, behind the scenes, the customer that we used to own turned the tables. Consumers now own the retailer, not the other way around.
It is no coincidence that the beginning of this shift happened in 2007, the year the Apple iPhone was first introduced. Now, digitalization has empowered consumers to find what they want, when and where they want it and pretty much decide how much they will pay for it. And because so many retail transactions occur on, or are influenced by, mobile platforms, it is getting harder and harder for retailers to know where their customers are, and who they are. This, however, is exactly where technology, data and deep domain expertise can help.
Leveraging Data to Know and Fit Your Customer
Alvanon has leveraged body scanning technologies to collect large amounts of consumer data that help brands and retailers hone in on who their target customers are and what they really look like. The data can be sorted by country, gender, age group, ethnicity and, in some cases, household income, athletic body types, and active lifestyles. Hundreds of brands and retailers have had their fit standards validated, and established, with the help of our senior consultants and analysts who are trained to identify what is relevant and statistically significant even in small data sets.
The data are used to establish what ideal core size body a brand should adopt to target the sweet spot of their brand’s target demographic. In some cases, that sweet spot might be quite specific (mid-twenties, urban, single) but for others, including many lifestyle brands and mass-market retailers, the target demographic can be quite broad (spanning from teenager, to mom, to grandma). The methodology for assessing the population data and determining the optimum fit standard may be different in those cases, but the result is always the same: establishing the most “democratic” standard to provide the best fit to the broadest number of potential customers.
Establishing a standard of fit goes far beyond establishing the optimum core-size body. Shape and size are two different things. One of the more fascinating aspects of analyzing large amounts of data is that you can see how people’s body shapes differ as you move up or down across a range of body sizes. Although this may be intellectually obvious, it often runs counter to how designers are taught grade rules and how the industry actually grades product to sell in different sizes. Nearly all grade rules are linear; these rules were first established over a century ago to provide for larger and smaller sizes, but were designed primarily for ease and efficiency in manufacturing. Linearity ensures that the product from the smallest size to the largest size is exactly the same shape. Unfortunately, the bodies of the people who need the smallest size, or the largest size, are not the same; people do not grade linearly.
This is where we have identified some of the most profitable insights for clients over the last 15 years:
- By tweaking grade rules to alter the shape of the garments, even slightly, retailers are able to convert, fit, and satisfy a higher percentage of people who are bigger than or smaller than their core size.
- Utilizing the data with the right technical expertise to optimize grade rules can yield significant results in conversion rates, sell-throughs, reduction in returns and building of long-term customer retention and brand loyalty.
Libraries That Make You Smarter and Faster
Once the retailer or brand has established its solid core fit standard and grade rules, it has to embed those elements in its design and development process. It must establish a block library—standard pattern templates based on the core fit standard and grade rules. A block library should be utilized across a vendor base and factories to develop the actual production patterns for every style. Blocks are not measurements but actual pattern templates, in electronic form, embedded in your tech packs or PLM system. They are the 3D shape manifestation that allows both prototypes and production garments to meet your fit standard accurately every time.
For most brands or retailers, a block library should consist of no more than 10 to 15 core blocks which will cover 90+ percent of all styles to be developed. We call them the “open-book test” for the vendor or factory because if they use the block properly, as a template to create the style pattern, it not only ensures that the measurements, shape and balance will be correct, it ensures that it will be correct the first time. With speed to market such a critical issue, having the right blocks in place is critical to shortening product development cycle times and getting the right product in front of your customer as quickly as possible.
New Data on a Changing Population
Combined with the training and education on how to properly implement and execute a fit standard, both internally and through the supply chain, the core body standard, grade rules and blocks show how critical relevant data, expertly interpreted can speed product to market accurately and consistently and enable sustained customer engagement and growth.
Alvanon’s database of consumer body scans was collected between 2004 and 2012 in 24 countries, and we are often asked, “Are people’s bodies changing over time?” or “Is there any newer data that might indicate that we should be modifying our fit standard?”
We are delighted to announce a new strategic partnership with BodiData, Inc. a Silicon Valley-based technology company that specializes in generating big data on three-dimensional body shape and measurement. Our exclusive access licensing brings new insights to the changing shape and size of the U.S. consumer population.
BodiData’s database was created through the largest ever North American scan program, using millimeter wave kiosk scanner booths in 72 U.S. malls and department stores. It resulted in the largest database of U.S. body measurements in the world, with hundreds of thousands of data points for each individual. Our strategic partnership will give Alvanon’s senior consultants and analysts immediate access to this new data which now brings our world’s largest database of body measurement data to nearly 1.5 million men, women, and adolescent consumer body scans.
This new data will allow retailers and brands to track body size and shape changes over time and enable updates or tweaks to their existing fit standards to fit even more customers. Fit is a strategic issue. It is the number-one reason a customer buys a garment; the number-one reason they return it; and the number-one reason they come back to that brand.
We know where your customers are: they are on their phones, their tablets, and computers. We also now know what they look like: their size, shape, posture and stature. We know how they have changed over the past decade. This data, expertly interpreted for individual brands and retailers, will enable new growth and competitive advantage even in this year of marketplace uncertainty and chaos.