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Physical Connection

With beautifully designed boutiques being an essential aspect of their brand identities, high-end fashion brands look to technology to give them an edge over online competition.

Fabrics, buttons, cuffs and collars – with its bevy of choices, bespoke tailoring can make a grown-up feel like a kid in a candy store. With one caveat: Unless you’re a creative type with exceptional visualisation skills, it’s not always easy imagining what these disparate elements look like when put together. Enter the Brioni Virtual Mirror.

Launched last year in the menswear brand’s new flagship store in Milan, the interactive mirror lets clients simulate suits on a virtual mannequin, using thousands of fabric and colour options. That’s just for starters. The end goal of a three-part development process is to let customers see visualisations of themselves wearing their chosen designs, and in high-definition, no less.

Clearly, we’ve come a long way from a time when a smart mirror was simply one that returned a svelter reflection. With e-commerce taking on ever-growing proportions in the multi-billion-dollar luxury fashion industry (see the next feature, Tech Mate), more brick-and-mortar retailers are looking to beat online sellers at their own game. Expanding their reach by operating their own Web stores is just part of the omni-channel equation. In a digital age, the future of retail lies in harnessing technologies that merge the real and virtual worlds.

Time to focus

But not all technology is created equal. For such innovation to be meaningful, they should solve actual problems – like the Brioni mirror – or offer ways for premium brands to strengthen their unique selling point, which is personalised service. Says Lynda Wee, an adjunct associate professor specialising in retail management at Nanyang Technological University: “The personalised human element is still key for luxury shoppers but, today, ‘personalised’ has taken on another dimension. Shoppers expect retailers to offer services across various channels in a way that’s relevant and seamless. They expect tailored communications and deals, not junk.”

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So, while digital screens showcasing the latest runway shows and ad campaigns have become mainstays in many boutiques – creating an immersive environment essential to brand-building – radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology takes things a step forward by screening targeted content.

The chic geek of the fashion pack, technology-wise, British fashion giant Burberry uses RFID (among a plethora of other features) at its Regent Street store in London, which it describes as “part-event space, part-innovation hub, part-store”. When held near certain screens or fitting-room digital mirrors, items fitted with RFID tags trigger relevant content. So, as you try on that honey-coloured trench coat, deciding whether to buy or not to buy, a video showing you how the garment was lovingly put together in an English workshop might start playing. Talk about the power of persuasion.

Beacons, which are Bluetooth-based hardware devices that detect specific apps, are another emerging technology that can help businesses to seal the deal with customers who are already near, or in, their stores. With a reach of 3,500 stores – including luxury brands like Tod’s and Marc Jacobs – across 70 malls in Singapore and other parts of South-east Asia, location-based retail service Sprooki offers a beacon-based app that allows shoppers to receive messages from nearby participating stores.

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As in real estate, beacon technology is all about location. Sprooki co-founder and managing director Claire Mula notes: “Our data shows that response rates to relevant messaging near the store are, on average, five times higher than those to digital communication that is not location-targeted. All brands are interested in how they can engage their customers in relevant and intelligent ways, when they are most likely to welcome it. And this is typically when they are near or in a store.” 

Room for growth

Despite serving highly connected populations, retailers here and in the region have been relatively conservative when it comes to adopting in-store technologies. “Many are still focused on the fundamentals of their digital and e-commerce strategies”, observes Mula. Cost would be another factor.

While wired, local Burberry boutiques display only a fraction of the digital wizardry powering its Regent Street flagship. Digital screens play the brand’s latest campaigns and show footage, and staff are armed with iPads that can be used to create and view customer profiles, which include their fit details, product preferences and purchase history.

On a similar note, we’re not holding our breath for the arrival of an interactive mirror at the Brioni boutique at Marina Bay Sands. 

That said, staff at the Uomo Group (which runs Brioni in Singapore) use another popular, if older, technology to communicate with their most important clients: Using Skype, sales associates virtually acquaint time-strapped shoppers with selected new wares.

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And sometimes it’s not just a matter of infusing reality with the virtual, but testing the increasingly fuzzy boundaries between the two. The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands went the “click and collect” route, a system favoured by those who want to take their time to browse and buy online, without the potential hassle of having deliveries go awry. Blurring the lines between offline and online, The Shoppes’ new digital platform allows customers to “browse and reserve limited-edition items exclusive to (the mall)”.

Somewhat ironically, though perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the more interesting recent examples of digital integration comes courtesy of a virtual merchant. 

“Shoppers expect retailers to offer services across various channels in a way that’s relevant and seamless. They expect tailored communications and deals, not junk.”

Lynda Wee, Professor in Retail Management, Nanyang Technological University. 

Having started out as an e-store, fashion retailer Inverted Edge recently opened its first shop at Scotts Square. Created in partnership with US-based innovation and design firm Qlik and Deloitte Digital Southeast Asia, the store’s centrepiece is a continually changing digital showcase of fashion-related images that customers share on social media.

Says Inverted Edge founder Debra Langley: “Technology these days isn’t a ‘thing’; it’s totally integrated into how we lead our lives. Retailers have to look at how this integration affects consumer behaviour and what we have to do to get in sync with that, but also be in sync in such a way that we can constantly innovate and adapt as that behaviour continues to change.” 

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