Omnichannel Buying: The New Path to Purchase for Indie Fashion

The consumer journey to purchase has evolved rapidly in the past few years. Not only are retail customers buying in-store and online, they are browsing online while in the store, discovering products on Pinterest, vetting stores on Yelp and using a multitude of screens and devices before they make a purchase. Shoppers have gone completely omnichannel.

So, what about when retailers are the customers? To discover the next big designers, identify which pieces to include in their inventory and ultimately make the purchase decision, retailers have gone omnichannel, too. And this is especially true in the world of independent fashion – where smaller retailers are searching every platform for the newest trends and hottest brands, so they can merchandise their stores with products that are both popular and unique.

We saw this process happen before our eyes at this year's Nolcha Fashion Week, a runway at New York Fashion Week dedicated to independent designers. We knew a lot more was going on off the catwalk and behind the scenes, so we took a survey of independent retailers to find out where they are discovering new looks and how they make their decisions.

The results: Independent apparel retailers want to feature independent designers in their stores. But in the interest of balancing risk and demand, half of the retailers we surveyed said they can only dedicate 5 percent to 10 percent of their inventory to independent design. So how are independent retailers ultimately choosing what they purchase? And what does it mean for the designers they purchase from?

Retailers' winding road from discovery to purchase
It's no surprise that retailers are tapping social media to discover new trends and designers. In fact, social channels have surpassed any other form of discovery: in our survey, 73 percent of retailers said they use social media to discover the latest trends in fashion – more than any other channel. An industry that used to revolve around lookbooks and fashion shows has put Instagram on a pedestal.

Social media has democratized fashion, and independent retailers are less concerned with what the stars are wearing, and more concerned with how many people "clicked twice" or "liked" a photo. In fact, less than 25 percent of independent retailers said they are looking to celebrities to inform them on the latest styles. Van Bolle, co-owner of DIG, told us, "While the celebrity factor is fun, emulating their fashion sense doesn't have the same ‘pedestal effect' that it used to.  Instant access to information has made the ‘what is she wearing' answer much less exclusive. Everybody's inclusion and social media access has now allowed customers the confidence to see themselves as just as much of an ‘influencer' within their immediate circles, as celebrities used to be for the public."

That being said, social has added a step on the path to discovery, not replaced one. Seventy percent of retailers are still scouring showrooms and trade show floors to discover new merchandise and more than a third are still going to fashion shows. These in-person events will always play a role in purchase decisions.  Mary DeBatt, manager of Blue Fish Clothing, even noted, "We've had the most success selling the clothes that we've been able to touch and try on."

Designers: Get smart about retailers' path to purchase
Just as retailers must constantly adjust to consumer buying trends, independent designers need to understand and react to the ways merchants are discovering, vetting and purchasing their wares. To make their mark in the mind of independent retailers, up-and-coming independent designers need to:
  • Get online. Building a social following is hugely important, and it may be worth putting some spend behind building that presence and making sure all posts and images present merchandise and designs in the best light.
  • Don't quit the hustle. As noted above, retailers want to check out those designs in person, so don't use social as a crutch. Use it to make yourself known to retailers so that when they do recognize you at that trade show, they can validate the quality of your clothes.
  • Focus on the first big win. Securing a big account does not come easily, but one win can make all the difference. We found that "where else the brand is carried" is the most important factor for retailers when considering the purchase of a new line.
Retailers: Mitigate complexity with data
New mediums on which to discover and vet merchandise have opened up a whole new world of options for retailers, which is absolutely a check in the positive column for a thriving independent retail ecosystem. But with more options comes greater complexity, and while it can become easy to rely on gut instinct alone to narrow choices and make quick decisions – don't.

Couple your killer instinct with real-time data about what is flying out of your store, who is buying it and which pieces have been sitting on the shelves for too long. With the tools available to retailers today, inventory analysis doesn't have to be complicated, and it can make all the difference for a person whose livelihood is dependent on always having the right product for the right person at the right time.

The independent retail industry is alive and well and constantly changing. As the path to purchase continues to evolve, both designers and retailers need to get smart about their buying and selling tactics to keep in step with the competition of a thriving industry.

Dax Dasilva is CEO of Lightspeed.
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