Most shoppers know that retailers are watching their every move: what they’re searching on store websites, what they’ve bought in the past, and how much money they’re willing to spend.
But clothing companies don’t just want to know how they can sell you something their designers have dreamed up; they want to know exactly what you’re looking for and then design it.
In a marked shift from how trends and clothing reached shoppers in the past few decades, retailers are now using shopper data to decide how to design clothes, which sizes to provide, and how frequently they should be restocking. And, thanks to the ever-growing impact of social media and online shopping, data collection is happening everywhere, from upstart clothing brands to mall anchor stores, both online and in-person.
Why? It’s all because shoppers want what they want when they want it — now.
“If you don’t give consumers what they want, they’ll go somewhere else,” Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at analytics firm NPD Group, told Yahoo Style. “The sphere of influence has shifted. We’re no longer looking at stores or the designers as a point of entry to what’s important; we’re looking at what influencers are telling us or what trends are showing us.”
Data dictates design
For startup clothing company MM.LaFleur, whose inventory is aimed at professional women in their mid-20s and beyond, the design process directly accounts for customer feedback and data. Because the nascent company primarily sells “Bento Boxes” (a set of items curated by the brand), the reliance on user data is paramount.
MM.LaFleur said it keeps a “constant feedback loop with customers” through feedback surveys or direct calls with its shoppers, all to rework existing products so it keeps its shoppers coming back. For example, the company has modified its popular Tory dress twice, based on what customers say they want: It has added a zipper guard and fabric to the bust, shifted the neckline, and so on. An even more dramatic evolution for an MM.LaFleur product is the Sarah dress, which has evolved six times based on shopper preferences.
As a result, the company said it’s grown 300 percent year-over-year since it launched in 2013, noting that 40 percent of its customers come back within three months of their first purchase, a figure that’s “far above industry-standard,” said Tory Hoen, editor in chief of MM.LaFleur’s blog, the M Dash.
Some stores collect data qualitatively. Zara, the world’s largest retailer, solicits feedback from its store managers across the world based on conversations they have with customers, which influences how the company designs new products and redesigns its most popular items.
In one instance, Zara’s Spanish designers consulted with American store managers, flying them to company headquarters to work on sketches. Based on those discussions, 25,000 of the same black women’s wrap coat for winter were designed, produced, and shipped worldwide.
Where’s the data coming from?
Trend forecasting firm Worth Global Style Network, more commonly referred to as WGSN, helps mine data for retailers across the world, to better help them determine how and when to stock items using its proprietary data tool, WGSN Instock.
Recently, WGSN interpreted data that underwire bra sales were down slightly to mean that the uptick in feminist marketing made the “humble bra” a “noticeable retail victim” this year.
“Flamboyant feminism deflates bra,” WGSN declared in its Instock trend report in January. “Going braless or wearing more relaxed styles has become a subtle but discernible finger up to the patriarchy, and Valentine’s marketing this year showed a discernible shift towards self-gifting in line with the feminist mood sweeping popular culture.”
And just as WGSN isn’t the only company to keep retailers on top of trends, social media isn’t the only treasure trove for retailers searching for what shoppers want to buy. Online shopping site Polyvore tracks the items shoppers search for, then delivers that “Polydata” to fashion editors and its own social media channels. It also shares information on top-searched categories each season with retailers. (Disclosure: Polyvore’s parent company is Yahoo.)
That search data can sometimes bring unexpected trends to the surface, influencing what you see in stores. Polyvore spokesperson Ellen Cohn reports it saw a “surprising” early spike in searches for swimwear in January, compared with the same searches one year earlier. Specifically, searches for “nude” swimwear jumped 145 percent, high-leg one-piece swimsuits increased 99 percent, and neoprene swimsuits rose 48 percent. Polyvore then shares related metrics to retailers, specifically about how their products and advertisements perform on its site.
Is data enough?
Data is so important that major companies have done away with their creative heads altogether in favor of data-driven strategies. In 2015, struggling retailer Gap eliminated its creative-director positions across its companies, including its namesake brand and Banana Republic, going so far as to call its creative directors “false messiahs.”
Relying too intensely on data, however, isn’t a be-all and end-all for retailers eager to convert customer preferences into sales.
Katie Smith, senior analyst at retail analytics firm Edited, said, “In recent years many retailers lost sight of their customers and had their whole businesses go astray,” precisely because they were too focused on what the data told them, ultimately ignoring what makes their clothing unique.
“Consistently iterating on what works will limit the scope of a retailer’s offering. Repeat runs are great for the core offering, but healthy retail needs high levels of newness and that balance can’t be found in reworking the hits,” Smith said in an email. “Retail has to take some risks too — do things that challenge and educate the consumer.”
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Alexandra Mondalek is a writer for Yahoo Style & Beauty. Follow her on Twitter @amondalek.