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Walmart, Continuing To Court A New Kind Of Customer, Paints It Jetblack

As the excitement of Walmart’s annual meeting dies down this week, it is pretty clear that the company is making a concerted attempt to court a more upscale consumer. The new website delivers a more lifestyle-driven experience that simplifies navigation and significantly declutters the homepage. But it may also signal less of a focus on low prices.

Much, of course, has also been made about acquisitions of more premium-focused brands and websites like ModCloth, Moosejaw and Bonobos. The central question (and one difficult to answer) is whether Walmart’s ownership is a positive or a negative. There are indications from third-party analytics provider ComScore that traffic at all of these sites has declined. It remains to be seen as to whether that’s an indication of ownership or other marketing strategies being deployed.

The largest acquisition, of course, has been Jet.com, which was purchased for $3.3 billion. Jet’s traffic is also reported down, but Jet is playing an even more critical role in the world of Walmart, as Jet’s founder Marc Lore has now taken a much more prominent position in Walmart’s overall digital strategy.

Walmart WMT +2.02% just announced the launch of a new service, Jetblack, a $50-per-month personal-shopping service. The service gives customers access to personal shoppers through text message. Customers can send a text requesting a specific product, and Jetblack’s couriers will deliver the product as soon as the same day. Customers can also make more general requests, like a birthday or anniversary present, and Jetblack’s personal shoppers will send recommendations.

The service, as described in a press release, is targeted at “time-strapped urban parents” and uses “a combination of artificial intelligence practices and expertise from professional buyers across the home, health, parenting, fashion and wellness categories, as well as parents themselves.” The service will fulfill products from Walmart and Jet.com but also reach out to third-party retailers to complete orders.

While this is a fascinating idea, it also leaves perhaps more questions than answers:

  • Will customers pay $600 a year for a service? It is difficult to find comparable examples, but popular subscription services like Netflix and Amazon Prime cost considerably less.
  • Does the Walmart connection matter? Although marketed under Jet, will it suffer from any stigma of being associated with the parent brand, which does not exactly resonate with the target customer?

As always, I applaud Walmart for thinking outside the box. As the acquisition of Flipkart indicates, this is no longer the lumbering Bentonville giant, but a company that is not afraid to make some big bets. This service is an interesting one, both to understand if a company can monetize personalized service on a larger scale and to see if Walmart can successfully court a new customer base.

By Neil Stern

Neil Stern for Forbes

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Walmart Shows Off its New and Improved Website

Walmart has invested in an extensive overhaul of their online experience to be a little less like, well, Walmart.

Relaunched last month, the new site creates a more lifestyle-driven experience that showcases relatable photography with more localized and personalized features that are significantly differentiated. A cleaner and more modern shopping experience with decluttered product listings was developed in efforts to attract higher-end brands and encourage shoppers to browse for products. Local offerings are present on the homepage based on your location, suggesting products based on shoppers in that area. If you’re in Chicago, you may see an advertisement for a Cubs tumbler mug.

With ecommerce accounting for 3.6% of U.S. sales, a clean and cohesive web experience is crucial. The website has around 100 million unique visits, compared to 180 million at Amazon, according to comScore Inc. Walmart continues to heavily invest in e-commerce, and the redesign is part of improving profitability. While impressive, Walmart continues to lag Amazon in terms of sales volume and sales growth. Of late, Walmart has created real momentum on the e-commerce side of the business with sales up 33% in the last quarter. They need to be closer to 40% to keep pace with Amazon.

This modernized shopping experience is part of a long-term strategy to broaden appeal and reputation beyond the traditional budget store roots. A partnership with Lord & Taylor signifies a new focus on fashion and home and Walmart Is now selling some of the department stores products on their site. As AI becomes a larger focus for retailers, we only see the shopping experience improving and becoming more personalized. The site also features customers’ local store profiles that includes the availability of services like Online Grocery order status and Easy Reorder, a feature that lets customers easily repurchase items they bought frequently in stores and online.  Walmart is betting heavily on using their store base as fulfillment centers, offering click and collect pick-up centers (free grocery pick-up) as well as discounts driven by the Jet algorithm to encourage in-store behavior.

Through this more specialized shopping experience, whether it’s from groceries or high fashion, Walmart hopes that each will make shoppers feel like they are browsing through a specialty store and plans to build out these specialty experiences across all categories later this year. They’re also offering free 2-Day Shipping without member fees. All of this is against the backdrop of Amazon Prime’s dominance in the U.S. and their latest price increase to $119/year.

The battleground between the two retail giants is taking shape. Walmart made a major advancement in site appeal—we’ll see what’s next.

By Alex Kaufmann

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Insights from the Retail Robotics and AI Conference and the Retail and Consumer Goods Analytics Summit. (Part 1)

“Data is the new oil” will be the “retail apocalypse” storyline of 2018. We will hear it – over, and over, and over again.

But unlike the apocalypse storyline – a shoulder-shrugging, sky-is-falling, backward glance at the past, data as oil is a forward-looking call to action.

In April, McMillanDoolittle sponsored Northwestern University’s and the Platt Retail Institute’s 2018 Retail Robotics and AI Conference. We followed that up by attending the 2018 Retail and Consumer Goods Analytics Summit. Combined with our strategic work in consumer insights, the internet of things, and immersive retail experiences, the conferences helped us coalesce some of our thoughts.

Our takeaway:

Retailers need a data strategy – how to capture it, how to use it, how to embed it within the culture of their organization. But more importantly, they need a retail strategy.

Clive Humby first coined “Data is the new oil” in 2006, after introducing retail to loyalty programs and data gathering with the Tesco Clubcard in 1993. A decade after data first became oil, Jack Ma described “New Retail” – including the linking of data from the digital to the physical world. Since then, Chinese companies have led the way in capturing and learning from data. After these companies, Amazon struggles to catch up (yes, we said struggles). And trailing Amazon, the remainder of US retailers wonder where to invest in data strategies.

The truth is that until there are massive disruptions that create access to and the interpretation of more and more data, “winning” on data alone is impossible if you aren’t an Alibaba or Amazon. That’s why data isn’t a strategy.

The winners in retail are, and will be, those that find the positioning that elevates them to the top of the consideration set. Today, data can refine that positioning to a level it never has before – this is the “quick-win” data opportunity. The “quick-win” incorporates new methods of capturing consumer insights, such as machine learning. It is an achievable and inexpensive step to fine tune your retail positioning utilizing new access to data. In turn, refining your positioning is the first step to developing your data strategy. More on that tomorrow.

By David Weiss

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The Story of Macy’s Acquisition

Macy’s announced its acquisition of Story today.

Story, the 2000 square foot location on 10th Avenue in Manhattan, opened in 2010 and has been rooted in the retail trends that consumers on the higher-end of the market have been migrating towards for over a decade.

Story made its name offering a limited time, curated assortment focused on a theme (or story) and consistently reinvented itself every two months.   It began by partnering with digitally native start-ups and evolved to work with retailers like Target and product companies such as Intel.  And in a time when co-working spaces are showing up in malls across America (or co-working spaces are hosting retailers), Story is experimenting with this as well.

Along the way, Story has hosted start-up pitch events which have included judges such as Neiman Marcus President and Chief Merchandising Officer, Jim Gold.  With the recent Macy’s acquisition, perhaps it is not coincidental that (Macy’s-owned) Bloomingdale’s CEO Tony Spring will be a judge at the next Pitch night – May 7th.

So why would Macy’s purchase a single concept?  Because STORY embodies one version of what retailers should be if they choose not to compete on the broadest assortment or on the lowest price.  Consistent newness.  Curated selection.  A chance to be surprised and delighted.

Of course…. this is something that department stores embodied in the past, and I’m sure Macy’s/Bloomingdale’s has the internal talent to create its own Story.  But Story neither has the internal red-tape, nor carries the staid legacy of the mother banners.

Given the size of the transaction, Macy’s isn’t hoping Story will improve its financials.  But maybe Story can help the larger company emphasize some of the fundamentals of retail.

By David Weiss

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Another Retail Shoe Drops: Nine West Declares Bankruptcy

Retail bankruptcies in 2018 are starting off similarly to the way 2017 finished up with wave after wave of prominent retailers filing for bankruptcy. The latest casualty of Retailmageddon is Nine West, the iconic seller of shoes who will no longer be selling footwear as their saga unfolds. Nine West joins Toys R Us, The Walking Company, Bon Ton and Claire’s this year, and it is only in April.

The Nine West story follows a similar path of many retail bankruptcy stories: declining traffic to the stores, excessive debt accumulated through private equity ownership and retail headwinds in the category (shoes in this instance). Nine West had an extra layer of misery added to their struggles, as it was also a prominent wholesaler to department store chains, many of whom are dealing with the same conditions.  And let’s blame Amazon.com as well: certainly their push into fashion and apparel, as well as ownership of Zappos, couldn’t have helped.

There is a potential path out for Nine West.  Ironically, it would be one that would have them depart from the footwear category.  In the mid-90’s, through a series of acquisitions, the company was once the dominant player in women’s footwear, sold through their own retail store network of branded stores (Nine West, Easy Spirit and others) as well as a dominant wholesaler to the department store ranks. The stores are all gone now (save perhaps an outlet or two) and the company has a $200 million offer from Authentic Brands Group to acquire the Nine West and Bandolino Brands. Through a $300 million loan, Nine West would remain an ongoing wholesale entity focused on what the company deems is a profitable and growing handbag, jewelry and jeanswear business.

And so, the ongoing debate continues. Are we facing a sea change of conditions that is threatening the future of brick and mortar retail? Or, is this simply the natural thinning of the herd, hitting poorly positioned and debt constrained retailers first? The answer is complicated and probably a little bit of both. While overall retail sales have been strong, buoyed by a robust economy, retailers still need to radically reshape their business models with fewer, more productive stores.

I expect I will be writing this story a few more times before it’s all said and done.

Neil Stern for Forbes

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A Sustainable Disruption of Fashion

Just as the retailers of “basics” were fundamentally ill-equipped to deal with fast fashion, fast-fashion is fundamentally ill-equipped to respond to sustainable initiatives.  This leaves an opportunity for the legacy brands to regain relevance.

After a year of struggling sales and a forecast of challenged margins in the next quarter, H&M outlined its strategies for a return to growth at its Investor Presentation Day on February 15th.  The company focused on three items:

  1. Investments in technology and its online business
  2. Slowing its store growth
  3. An aggressive sustainability strategy

Its sustainability goals are aggressive, particularly for a fast fashion brand.  CEO Erling Persson was quoted as saying “I want to sleep well at night knowing we have done the right thing.”  The company has set a goal of collecting 25,000 tons of used garments at its stores by 2020 – up from 17,000 in 2017.  By 2030, the company wants to use only 100% sustainably sourced raw materials – up from 35% today.  And H&M is striving to achieve a 100% climate neutral supply chain by 2030.

For over a decade, styles and trends have swayed from skinny jeans to athleisure and Louboutins to Adidas.  The evolving fashion has its normal impact on retailers and brands.  Staying the “hottest” has never been easy, and the adoption and then discarding of style seems to have accelerated.

The rapid turnover in look has been enabled by fast fashion retailers like H&M and Zara.  A trend can be set on store floors in four weeks rather than eighteen months.  And the ability to offer fast fashion at a low price has made the customer’s adoption of a new trend affordable.  H&M and Zara, perhaps the ultimate retailers in inexpensive,  disposable fashion have grown rapidly in the United States since they entered the market. Remember the mall in 2000?  There were 10 H&M stores in the US.  Today, there are 536 stores generating approximately $3.4 billion in US sales.

The result? Clothes are cheap.  The Fed’s consumer price index for a piece of apparel has dropped 1% since 2000.  The same measure for coffee has increased 38%.  And we do mean discarded; the EPA estimates that 10.5 million tons of clothes and other textiles went to the landfill in 2016

Cue the macro-trend that is just gaining speed and will drive the consumer’s buying patterns in the next five years – and has fast fashion worried.   Younger consumers are re-thinking their purchase behavior.  Sustainability and traceability are on the rise.  The loop-to-loop evaluation of apparel is gaining speed.

Consumers are asking:

  • What resources are used – and wasted –  by the pieces of clothing I buy?
  • What environmental impact does the production and distribution of my purchase have?

This is an opportunity for new retail disrupters – the brands that were born considering their impact from the cradle to the grave.  It challenges the basic premise of fast fashion.  But perhaps even more intriguingly, there is an opportunity for an oxymoron – a disrupter emerging from the staid legacy brands.

Smaller brands and retailers have embraced the idea of re-use for years, partially as a result of the focus on quality that these brands were born with.  Think of APC collecting, displaying, and reselling its own jeans from its consumers.  Eileen Fisher, known for its high-quality yet simple and eternally stylish pieces, has taken this idea many steps further when it opened its RENEW stores and announced the Vision2020 initiative.  Vision2020 creates goals for the company to pursue as they evaluate the product lifecycle from creation to reuse.   These include using the most sustainable fibers possible, using only organic cotton and linen, monitoring and reducing the amount of chemicals used in dyeing, insuring that wool comes from sheep that are humanely raised, that US Operations will be carbon positive, and that the company will take back old clothes and reuse their fabrics.

Yet the small brands are not alone, and bigger brands have adopted some of the principles.

Gap is ‘upcycling’ denim to create new pieces and created a capsule shop in New York City as part of their “Gap for Good” campaign, focusing on increasing the sustainability of its products.  Gap announced this past April that by 2021 it will obtain “100% of its cotton from more sustainable sources.” In addition, Gap states that by 2020, “80% of the brand’s apparel materials will be produced with sustainable fibers.” Gap is partnering with Better Cotton Initiative to help achieve and monitor their goals.  Within the Gap corporate umbrella, the namesake brand is not alone.  Athleta also announced that they will also make a push for more sustainable resources and materials in their products. They promise that 80% of their materials to be made with sustainable fibers.

But the true opportunity to embrace and own the mantle of sustainable, quality products has yet to be tapped by a large classics retailer like Gap.  That opportunity may one day be as large and ubiquitous as the opportunity fast fashion captured fifteen years ago.  Just as the retailers of “basics” were fundamentally ill-equipped to deal with fast fashion, fast-fashion is fundamentally ill-equipped to respond to sustainable initiatives.

Yes, H&M has its sustainability strategy, and Zara has recycling programs in place.  Both provide containers in their stores for clothes you no longer wear.   But those efforts will be challenged to mask the idea of buy cheap, wear, dispose.

To take advantage of this opportunity, a classics-heavy brand – like Gap –  could do more than quietly launch a Gap for Good campaign.  The brand must own a position as offering high quality and green goods.  That principle must echo through every effort the brand makes, from the shipment of the goods to the product on the shelves, to the lighting in the stores and resonate in its marketing.  Imagine that pivot, and you can see Gap as a relevant brand.

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Why Nordstrom Local is Big News

Today, Nordstrom announced the Nordstrom Local concept and an opening of a 3,000 square foot location in West Hollywood. This is a big deal.

Real Estate and Inventory have always been potential albatrosses in shoe & apparel retail. But with Local, Nordstrom can eliminate inventory as a risk and can use real estate as an advantage.

Revenue Growth is a challenge for Nordstrom. There are only so many great malls in the country. Arguably, Nordstrom is in most of them. Similarly, Nordstrom Rack’s store fleet numbers 225+. How many more locations are there? The company has always focused on ecommerce, so that isn’t a missing hole where they can grow revenue faster than the rate of the market (or Amazon.)

But Nordstrom Local can focus on high-streets, in high-end shopping areas, with low inventory risk. A great example – Highland Park, Texas. Highland Park Village is home to Chanel, Theory, St. John, Jimmy Choo, a movie theater, and a high-end grocer. There are great reasons to shop there. But a trip to Highland Park Village, in all likelihood, would not be in addition to a trip to North Park Mall. Nordstrom would have lost out on a target customer’s shopping occasion. Now, open a Nordstrom Local there. Throw in the BOPIS, a nail-salon, and a personal stylist, and now the customer receives additional services from Nordstrom at a convenient location.

And your inventory risk isn’t increasing substantially. Personal Stylists could follow a guide-shop model, at least in-part. Nordstrom has been a leader in BOPIS. Its new drive-by pick up is a great experiment too. And although Trunk Club probably isn’t a revenue driver, it’s presence – along with refreshments – will make it easier for a boyfriend to stomach an hour-long shopping experience, and not just a fifteen-minute experience.

Nordstrom continues to experiment and innovate. This is great to see.

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Knowing Your Customer Looks Like This

If Dolls Kill wants you to know about them, you soon will.  A misfit or Miss Legit will introduce you to the brand the next time you hit the club, a rave, or a festival.  You will see the brand thru Femail Fashion Finder, find the Dolls Kill site, and purchase the next outfit a rebellious non-conformist needs to “aggressively fight the higher power” and unapologetically “raise hell.”  When you get it, you might unbox your package on Youtube and post on Tumblr. And as you get ready to go out, you might share your selfie with the brand’s 1.3 million Instagram followers, 582,000 Facebook followers, and an untold number of Snapchatters. 

For a brand launched in 2011 and sold only through its own site, those numbers are pretty good. By comparison, Dolls Kill competitor Hot Topic – with its 30 years in business, 600+ stores and an ecommerce platform – has 1.8M Instagram followers.

The beautiful execution of Dolls Kill’s word of mouth and social media strategy is that… if you aren’t supposed to know about Dolls Kill, then you don’t.  It seems that not a single dollar has been wasted telling the conformists and mainstream that Dolls Kill exists.  The fashion and retail industry press is just catching on – potentially due to a recent $2M investment in the company.  But a google search for Dolls Kill news led to only four legitimate news articles on the first two pages of results.  This is even more remarkable given that Maveron Capital –a venture firm co-founded by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz – invested in the company in 2014.

The company’s results are private– a 2014 article written by Jason Del Ray for ReCode – at the time of the Maveron investment – states that the company had been profitable since it was founded in 2011 and would surpass $15M in revenue in its third year.

Why the success?  Why have few ever heard of the retailer, yet so many misfits follow it?  Why would a firm that also invested in Zulily, drugstore.com, Ebay, Shutterfly & Groupon see potential here?

Because Dolls Kill knows who its dolls are.  There are five dolls, each a personas their customer wants to be There is a succinct description of each on the site.  And while you can shop by category, the easiest way to shop is to click on a doll and see what you need.  The first four frames for Darby were a t-shirt, jeans, vest and bandana.  The next four were a choker, lipstick, a raglan, and another pair of jeans.  In the third set you could find the sunglasses you needed to complete the look.  In all, Dolls Kill had selected 129 items to suit a Darby.  By comparison, Hot Topic had 18 trend subcategories (the closest equivalent to the dolls categories on the site).  In the first trend – cosplay (costume play for the uninitiated) there were 218 items.  Merchandising by category replicates the focus of the curated assortment; Dolls Kill lists 373 dresses, and competitor Urban Outfitters lists 627 dresses.

Piecing together the bits of information available, Dolls Kill is so focused on its customer that its marketing spend and assortment is –in turn – efficient and effective.  The proof will be in the numbers, which we may not see for a while. But other retailers should take note on what knowing your customer looks like.

David Weiss, Partner, McMillan Doolittle 

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Apparel Ecommerce: The 3 F’s and Avoiding the Failing Grade

For some time, Free shipping has been the difference between me completing a purchase or abandoning my cart online.  Simply put, free shipping is table stakes.

Retailers don’t like it.  Whether you consider the cost of shipping an operating expense or part of the cost of goods sold, free shipping hurts the retailer’s margin – and contributes to the low profitability of the online channel.

But it has gotten worse for retailers.

Testing out Buttoned Down, Amazon’s private label clothing line for men, I – appropriately enough – bought six white button-down shirts.  Three of one size, three of another.  If the quality was good, and the shirt fit, I would keep three and return three. 

Simultaneously, I needed new jeans for work, so I purchased six pairs at Levis.com. I ran the same experiment… three of one size and three of another. Free shipping came as a given.  Prime membership had cost something, but I don’t remember paying for it, and at Levi’s, I had well-passed the threshold for “Free.”

My white shirts were delivered in two nights.  My jeans took…. forever.  It was probably only five days – maybe even four – but it felt like an eternity, and I was frustrated.

Fast delivery is now table stakes.

Five days – for clothes that I bought for myself – had never been a disappointment before.  Now it felt unbearable.  A few years ago, fast delivery would have been a service offered by a strategic retailer in order to position itself.   Now, fast delivery – like free delivery – is a requirement for me. How fast does fast need to be? Two days for fast, free shipping feels good – Amazon set that standard.  And it feels reasonable to pay more for weekend or overnight delivery.  Will two days feel reasonable for long?

Now – about those returns.

Buying multiple sizes of the same item meant that I would make a return.  And Free Returns are offered by many companies. In this case, Amazon provided this perk.  Levi’s did not.  But wait… are free returns really a perk or does the customer expect it?

The cost of the 3 F’s – Free Delivery, Fast Delivery, Free Returns.

Amazon defrays some of the cost of the 3F’s with Prime.  Even including the Prime revenue, Amazon still loses money on its shipping practices.  Over $7 billion in 2016 according to Geekwire’s analysis.

Levi’s doesn’t even try to deliver 3F’s.

Levi’s gives you a hurdle just to get one F, free shipping.  They rely on the brand and their own site’s exclusive products to get the sale.  They are ceding the majority of the potential channel revenue to their retail accounts.  The sales to their retailers could be more profitable than their own direct channel.  Is it unrealistic to believe Levi’s could view their owned ecommerce site as solely a marketing tool and vehicle for exclusive products in the near future?

Now let’s say you are a newer ecommerce apparel company… how much could the 3F’s cost you?  I don’t know.  If I make a personal shipment using UPS 2-day air, from Chicago to San Francisco, my ups.com quote is $34.00+.  Do companies get discounted rates?  Of course, but even $20+ cannot be borne by the company.

How do you avoid a fourth F – Failing?

Two subscription businesses that rely on the ecommerce channel – Stitch Fix and Trunk Club – defray the cost of free shipping and free returns with a service charge for the total transaction experience. Like Prime, the free isn’t really free.  Trunk Club goes further in its efforts to reduce returns and now provides the opportunity to review your trunk and decline items before the trunk ships.  There is no fast delivery.  Personalization and Convenience are the service differentiators that these two companies use to avoid the black hole of failure.

I just placed orders with both retailers in order to test the differentiation strategy. I can’t wait to see what happens.

David Weiss worked for Levi’s from 2010-2013.  He no longer has knowledge of the internal operations or strategy of the company. 

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The Customer Makes the Difference

In the new world of retail, customers are not only deciding retailers’ success, they are becoming part of it. Not only do they want to be served well, they want to be in the driver’s seat and be part of the creation of the product. They believe that the easiest way to fully understand them is just to ask. Retail is no longer just “customer-facing”; it is about inventing tomorrow together with the customers.

So what if the next retail revolution is the customer?

Customer driven retail reminds us that retail is about making products available that will make customers lives better and happier. Several cases featured in Retail Innovations 11 demonstrate this key driver of innovation while showcasing aspects of another key driver: technology.

Frank & Oak, a fashion retailer for men which began as a pure-play retailer in Canada, uses its store layout, retail real-estate location strategy, community and technology to satisfy and engage loyal customers. chicagoseedstore-1

–As part of its real-estate strategy, Frank & Oak invited customers to vote on where its next stores should open. Votes were cast through the purchase of gift cards and based on feedback, the retailer opened two locations, one in Boston and one in Chicago.

–Frank & Oak’s ambassador program, a private network of customers across North America, helps ensure innovation within the merchandise mix by enabling its online community to provide feedback on existing products and new merchandise.

–The Toronto flagship store is a multi-use space showcasing products and engaging customers. The space also serves as a bar offering whiskey tastings for loyal customers on occasion.

In India, Creyate is a platform that functions as a 3D design studio, enabling customers to use advanced technology to create, personalize and customize garments that fit them perfectly. Creyate extends beyond the traditional techniques of customization and personalization, allowing customers to create their own garments on iMacs, using 3D technology to create a rendering of the item where it can be customized with the individual’s choices. Creyate customers can access their designs online and in-store. creyate-1

–Customers at Creyate enjoy a QR code based shopping experience. QR codes contain fabric choices and design options, which appear on screen. Stores are also equipped with a virtual wall mirror / digital screen integrating Kinect-based, augmented reality, enabling customers to try clothing on virtually, making the experience of customization feel “real”.

–Designs are mixed and matched at Creyate, providing a curated collection of fabric and design details, allowing for 100,000 unique products.

–Specialists help customers choose designs that suit them and take measurements so the product is a perfect fit. They also tailor recommendations and facilitate a unique and memorable customer experience. They consult on specific garments and complete wardrobe solutions and are also available for home visits.

While technology remains a major driver for innovation as retailers seek to understand the customer, it must be usefully applied to serve a consumer need. An understanding of how people live, dream and shop is at the heart of customer driven innovation.

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