Phone-first Is the Way Forward: Lessons from Decoded Fashion


Did you know that 63 percent of Millennials use Instagram to learn about business products and services, and 74 percent take action after being inspired by a post?

That was just one of the many interesting insights shared at Decoded Fashion’s two-day New York summit, which saw brands, retailers, educators and tech experts sharing tips, strategies and lessons learned on the power of blogs to social fails and everything digital in between.

Phone-first is the way forward
Chasing a highly mobile audience, luxury department store Barneys New York relaunched its full-line, off price and editorial digital presences to become a fully responsive, phone-first experience, says Matthew Woolsey, executive vice president of digital. That digital standpoint, he explains, acknowledges that more Barneys shoppers will engage with the e-commerce site from their smartphones than will visit a brick-and-mortar store in any given week.

Expanding into editorial has been a somewhat roundabout yet lucrative means of blending customer engagement with commerce. By offering readers a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the seemingly glamorous world of a fashion headquarters or allowing them a new perspective on favorite designers through long-form interviews (all shoppable content, of course), Barneys invites customers to engage more deeply with the brand. Those who take time out of their busy lives to savor a bit of in-depth fashion journalism have the “deepest affinities” for the Barneys brand, notes Woolsey, and significantly outspend its average customer.

“We don’t care if you’re on a product page or have stuff in your basket,” Woolsey says. “We want you to click over to our editorial and read for three or four minutes. It might interrupt the commerce flow but it pays off in the end.”

And while long-form journalism might not seem like the most monetizable retail strategy, it’s easy to use analytics to prove its business value — and most important, it provides an authentic Barneys brand experience. Though the retailer is testing new technologies every day and running experiments with vendors, Barneys is careful to consider the investments that make the most sense from its distinct brand perspective. “You’re not going to widget your way to massive business growth,” he points out. “We aren't trying to come up with lists every day that are heavily merchandised because one area of business was slow that week.”

In an omnichannel world, retailers cannot afford to make the mistake of thinking of each touchpoint and customer experience in isolation. A Barneys shopper might, for example, engage with the official Instagram page, then click over to the e-commerce site, and finally make a purchase and opt for same-day delivery. “You can’t always predict what the customer journey is,” Woolsey says. “From a customer experience standpoint, it doesn’t work if you do three or four things right but get one thing wrong.”

David Lipke, editorial director at Joe Fresh, echoes the refrain of engaging customers through non-traditional channels. Less than a year ago the brand launched a blog that isn’t yet shoppable but still manages to rank among the top two or three referral channels to its e-commerce site. The blog outperforms both display and traditional print advertising, says Lipke, because Joe Fresh shoppers trust its blogger/influencer partners.

Better still, the brand has the numbers to back it up. When Joe Fresh worked with bloggers on a denim promotion, sales were twice the cost of the campaign. Its current campaign, which leverages 12 influencers, generates content that Joe Fresh redistributes through its Twitter feed and Facebook page.

You can’t get a Madison Ave. exec to take a selfie
Engagement might be the buzzword du jour, but actually getting fans and followers to engage is another matter altogether. Even the cleverest social media campaign will fall flat if customers fail to heed a brand’s call to action.

That’s precisely what OTTE discovered when it launched a campaign encouraging followers to post a selfie featuring themselves in OTTE clothing and in an OTTE store. “We got only five entries,” says Nancy Zhang, vice president and COO for the women’s luxury fashion retailer, which features five boutiques throughout New York City, in addition to e-commerce. Why? Well, bad timing, for one — the company launched the campaign during winter. But even more so, the initiative failed to acknowledge the differences in OTTE’s customer demographics.

“There’s a lower technology curve for the in-store shopper versus the e-commerce customer,” Zhang explains. “You can’t get a Madison Avenue executive to take a selfie.”

Amazon ruined e-comm for everyone else
Vishaal Melwani, co-founder and CEO of Irvine, Calif.-based startup Combatant Gentlemen, blames Amazon for permanently changing consumer expectations of what online shopping can and should be, with perks such as the instant gratification of same-day delivery. “We have a Millennial clientele,” he explains of his pure-play e-commerce men’s wear company, whose suits start at $160. “Some guy will call on Thursday and say ‘Hey, I need a suit for a wedding on Saturday. And oh, [expletive] it’s my wedding.’”

In order to cater to its young, demanding customers who shop five times a year on average, vertically integrated Combatant Gentlemen takes supply chain and analytics very seriously. “When we shear sheep for suits and plant cotton for shirts, we’re leveraging cloud-based analytics in real time,” notes Melwani. And because the world of men’s suits is relatively seasonless, Melwani says the company had to “reinvent the supply chain.” In late October, for
example, West Coast customers were still snapping up shorts while topcoats were selling strongly on the Eastern seaboard.

Combatant Gentleman is venturing into footwear, launching a line of $99 top-grain Spanish leather shoes, manufactured in India, under the label Toecap — at a remarkable 65 percent profit margin. It’s all possible, says Melwani, because of the company’s obsession with data and technology. “We’re tech first and fashion second,” he says. “We have more engineers in house than fashion people.”

The future of wearables
Everyone loves to talk about the promise of fashion tech and wearables yet little has come to market that has truly captured consumers’ hearts, minds and wallets. That’s because the industry is going about things backwards, says Michael Reidbord, a Fashion Institute of Technology professor and vice president of partnerships and developments for Kloog Inc., which is building a platform for innovation in wearable technology. For the moment, electronics hardware companies are the ones building products and forcing them into the market, rather than engaging with creative professionals and fashion visionaries who can better speak to the kinds of beautiful designs that people really want to wear and own.

Moreover, it’s the seasoned apparel veteran who understands, for example, the difference in how gabardine drapes versus a lightweight plain-weave fabric and why the sturdy, structured former would be better suited for incorporating sensors than the latter. “These are the kinds of things you need to engage with a textile designer about early on in the process when making wearables,” Reidbord explains.

Despite the fervent interest in the wearables space, the manufacturing supply chain still isn’t where it needs to be to accommodate novel sewing methods and new conductive materials. Cut-and-sew facilities simply don’t yet have the infrastructure and skillsets necessary to execute the next generation of wearable fabrics and garments, according to Clare King, president of Propel, a company that makes advanced textiles for the fire and military verticals.

The industry also needs to shift to where “tech is just another line on the trim sheet,” says Reidbord — just another component to be considered along with the usual buttons, zippers and fabrics. “If you can’t sew conductive textiles in a way that doesn’t interfere with all the connectivity, you’re never going to get anywhere,” he adds. Reidbord points to the booming activewear sector as a prime example of alternative ways to manufacture garments that bypass sewing altogether. Today many innovative activewear brands use lasers and special welding technologies to bond seams for improved fit and comfort.

“These are the things that are going to have to develop in order to create the kinds of conductive garments that are functional and also beautiful,” he notes.
The wearables industry, for now, is very much in its infancy. “The only thing that’s come out so far has been smartwatches,” says Reidbord. “I don’t even have a watch on. My kids don’t wear watches.

“It’s going to be years before you see killer products out there.”

—Jessica Binns is a Bay Area Apparel contributing writer specializing in fashion, retail and technology.

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