Several years ago I was driving north on a major interstate highway when a southbound 18-wheeler crossed the median and drove across the northbound lanes, hitting an SUV that was approximately 50 yards in front of me. I found out the next day that the driver of the vehicle, the only occupant of the car, had died — a woman in her forties, married with two young children. I’ve thought about that woman many times since then and wondered about the various shifts in the winds and our days — which butterfly wings had flapped — that separated our paths by so little and yet so much.
Certainly, our days are full of examples of the butterfly effect of chaos theory, but it’s a rare moment when the universe reveals a glimpse into those two paths simultaneously. In fiction, the concept can make for a great story — think, It’s a Wonderful Life, or Back to the Future — especially when given the opportunity to go back and make the small change that will affect the outcome in a positive way.
Like weather patterns, traffic accidents and life in general, the market is subject to a myriad of global forces over which we have little or no control. Yet, advances in technology are making it possible to eliminate some uncertainty and channel our powers into altering the path of our businesses onto a more efficient, sustainable and profitable trajectory.
Technology solutions are making it increasingly possible not only to gain visibility into every step of the apparel supply chain, but also to measure and analyze the effects of changes made along each link. Technology can provide the intelligence to determine optimal assortment and allocation scenarios, it can allow you to figure out the common traits and preferences of your Facebook fans and it can provide you with timely alerts when problems arise so that you can take action before disaster ensues. It can allow you to respond quickly to negative reviews online, or quickly provide consumer feedback to designers that can be used immediately to alter a silhouette.
Technology, of course, also can give your competition a leg up, and in the hands of the consumer it can be an absolute wild card that is sending retailers flying in new directions. Consider the letter that Target sent to its suppliers earlier this year asking them, among other things, to create special products to help set it apart and shield it from price comparisons that consumers are performing in-store on their smartphones.
Such showrooming is an increasing problem for retailers, particularly those that are not vertically integrated. Not losing your customer along the path to purchase, says Lisa Gavales, EVP, chief marketing officer of Express, requires new thinking and new actions that will keep a customer focused on your brand from start to finish. She suggests that apparel companies keep the following lessons top of mind when tackling this challenge:
1. Channels are irrelevant. “Customers buy to solve a problem. It’s about our brand vs. another brand; the competition is the other brands, not the other channels.” To make the brand the focus at your company, be sure to make your bonus structure channel agnostic, and prices consistent across channels, she says.
Sophisticated technology solutions — such as those offered in this Buyer’s Guide — are allowing both consumers and businesses to wield power like never before. And although you can’t control the cost of fuel, drought in cotton-producing regions or comments from every social media butterfly — it is increasingly possible to get control over your enterprises by making changes both small and large that minimize costs, provide visibility, boost productivity, speed product to market, improve customer relationships, build your brand and ultimately pump up the bottom line.
2. Common consistency outranks corporate culture. “You need to think about the customer first, and build the brand around that.”
3. Simple doesn’t mean easy. “You must be where your customers are — and you have to provide trusted sources of reviews and recommendations, blogs, editorial and other media.”
4. Social media is not marketing. Thinking about social media as a marketing tool is “like asking what the ROI is of your air conditioning,” says Gavales.
5. Branding outranks sales. “Branding is the No. 1 reason to invest in digital.”