Outlook 2018: The View from Apparel’s Editorial Advisory Board

The apparel industry is always in flux. It’s built into the very nature of the product ― fashion — and it’s also built into the entire process, and the technologies involved in designing the product, producing it, moving it, delivering it, marketing it and selling it.

Yet, advances in technology in the past couple of years have so changed the world, and the world’s economies, and consumer behavior, that the retail landscape ― or, at least, portions of it — seems to be transforming at a faster pace than it has in the past.

Old models are breaking up quickly, as apparel brands and retailers scramble to keep up with seismic shifts such as the convergence of brick-and-mortar and digital, 24/7 anytime-anywhere shopping and demands for customization and personalization, all of which have upped the ante on instant gratification across product and delivery.

These old models are falling by the wayside in large part because of transformations wrought by technology such as smartphones, 3D visualization and advanced analytics, and we can expect this trajectory to continue, as technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), cryptocurrencies, robotics, drones, blockchain and others enable changes in both consumer and brand/retail behavior.

Like everything else, these technologies will offer both challenges and opportunities to apparel players, who will continue to grapple with a wide scope of business issues ranging from increased demands from consumers for sustainably produced apparel and transparent supply chains, to unpredictable weather patterns and political uncertainties. And Amazon.

Apparel checked in with its Editorial Advisory Board members to hear their thoughts on the coming year. We asked about the top challenges to the apparel industry of 2018, and which technologies they expect to be transformative. 

What are the top three challenges the apparel industry will face in the coming year, and how might these be overcome, if at all?

Chris Devous, Vice President, IT and CIO, The Antigua Group

I think seasonality will become more of a factor than in recent years. People tend to buy for the current weather, and retailers tend to stock for the expected weather, but in recent times what is expected and what actually happens have been divergent enough to drive price reductions and closeouts. Unfortunately, the supply chain has not changed dramatically, so overcoming incorrect predictions is ever more difficult and costly. The only way to overcome this is to reform supply so that it is more responsive. This would require moving manufacturing and textile storage/production closer to the consumer ― which is cost prohibitive. There may be a technical solution, but at the moment nothing dramatic has presented itself. I think it likely that a convergence of technologies, either new technology or new uses of existing technology would be necessary to create an agile supply chain. 

Consumer demand will become increasingly driven by the instant gratification offered by successful online retailers such as Amazon. This means more intense and short-lived trends that are more difficult to track and respond to. The only way to overcome this is to be a trendsetter rather than a trendgetter. The analytics that can predict trends successfully more than 30 percent to 40 percent of the time will win out.

Sustainability is going to be increasingly important as consumers tailor their buying decisions and brand loyalty to ecological concerns. The best way to handle this is to be sustainable throughout the supply chain. Zero emission mills, recycling, low emission transportation, everything that makes a greener planet.

Walter Wilhelm, Chairman, WWA Advisors LLC

Trying to rationalize the role of retail brick and mortar in the new era of e-commerce shopping is one of the industry’s biggest challenges. For example, will more stores follow the model of having all sizes and colors in a style available at retail but not for pickup when ordering (with the items purchased being shipped)?

The apparel industry will need to learn how to set up smaller production operations in the United States near key markets.

Funding will be needed for required infrastructure investments (e.g. updating ERP, PLM, and purchasing new cutting-edge technology).

Jim Thompson, CFO, Cavender’s Boot City

Supply chain — The BAT (Border Adjustment Tax) may not come back but the executive branch sentiment continues to emphasize bringing manufacturing back to the United States with proposed higher duties and other restrictions on imports. The geopolitical situation in Asia is also a risk for potential supply chain disruption. The risk can be somewhat mitigated by having multiple sources from different geographic regions where possible.

Shifting shopping patterns ― Everyone talks about the “Amazon effect” on retail. The growth in online shopping has disrupted traditional bricks-and-mortar retail, resulting in a smaller retail footprint. Now that Walmart has entered the space in a big way with Jet.com and continues to refine how to use its store network as distribution hubs, the retail model may be poised for another change. All retailers can watch and learn from what they are doing, replicating where practical and finding other ways to create a unique customer experience to bring customers into the retail store.

Pricing — The dollar has weakened a little recently after passing the new tax law but still remains strong against many currencies in Asia.  A strong dollar is good for the U.S. economy but a weaker dollar makes imported goods more expensive.  The majority of apparel and footwear are imported so a weaker dollar puts pricing pressure on these items. The competitive retail environment makes it difficult to pass along the higher costs in merchandise prices resulting in margin pressure. The dollar will fluctuate during 2018 as the details of the tax law and estimates of its impact on the U.S. deficit become known.

Trevor Little, Professor, TATM Department, College of Textiles, NC State University

One big problem with the “global” apparel industry is that everything is beginning to look the same. Consumers are not excited since they too feel that they will look the same. [Psychologist, psychoanalyst and author of "The Psychology of Clothes" John Carl] Flugel wrote in the 1930’s that “The paradox of fashion is that everyone is trying at the same time to be alike, and to be unalike, his fellow-men,” and this dilemma exists today. What we need is more of the “unalike.” As we moved from Mass Production to Mass Customization to Mass Variety the “industry” has placed a challenge to the consumer's pocketbook ― buy mass-produced at lower prices and look alike or pay much higher prices and look a bit different. So how will this transition play out over the next year?

Sustainability will continue to have influence. It's time for the industry to deliver “authentic sustainability” ― not just long overdue process improvements or human labor conditions. 

New materials will come on-stream and may play an important role in building a range of new products.

What newer type of technology (AI, robotics, blockchain, cryptocurrency, AR/VR, etc.) has most captured your interest, and how do you expect it to transform the apparel industry and/or your specific business? 

Jim Thompson, CFO, Cavender’s Boot City

Artificial Intelligence and its impact on predictive analytics will continue to be a tool used by retailers and the supply chain. Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality have the potential to transform the customer experience both online and in brick-and-mortar stores. I’m very interested in learning more about how both of those tools can be used to make better purchasing decisions and enhance the customer experience.

Trevor Little, Professor, TATM Department, College of Textiles, NC State University

PLM must articulate its economic return on investment to become an integral part of the firm.

AR may become more important than VR and offer important ROI for manufacturers, especially in digitally connected countries

The thrust of online sales will begin to influence the supplier’s modus operandi to be able to deliver merchandise that is in-demand — at the SKU level.

Robotics is slow to emerge but it appears that co-bots [collaborative robots, which interact with humans in a shared workspace] might be the interim approach.

A transition that is taking place is where more and more of the “apparel” formation is occurring at the “textile” formation stage. This progression continues as it removes significant amounts of direct labor from apparel assembly.

Jeff Marshall, Director of Marketing, Dragon Crowd
AR and VR open interesting opportunities for trying on clothes digitally.

Consumers are shifting toward shopping by full outfit or by event, vs. shopping for key pieces.

Walter Wilhelm, Chairman, WWA Advisors LLC

3D design is finally starting to be a must-have technology because it streamlines development and minimizes sample making. This is major.

3D printing for accessories and for some footwear elements is finally becoming affordable and fast enough to justify.

Wearable technology is still looking for a breakthrough but maybe this will happen in 2018 (as it did with RFID in recent years).

Chris Devous, Vice President, IT and CIO, The Antigua Group

Blockchain and cryptocurrency are worth watching. Imagine a world in which suppliers can be paid electronically without involving banks, letters of credit, or any of the other barriers we find ourselves dealing with. Imaging being able to set up shop without having to establish a banking relationship to get paid? 


Jordan K. Speer is editor in chief of Apparel. She can be reached at [email protected].


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