July 13, 2022
Flying around the world to trend-spot at the most cosmopolitan locations. Getting paid to peruse the latest fashion magazines. Spending your days comparing silk fabric swatches and honing the perfect spring color palette. The life of a product creator sounds insanely glamorous — and it can be. But it’s not all glitter and cashmere.
“If you’re designing a product assortment, your biggest frustration is knowing probably 30% of it won’t get to the market,” says former adidas General Manager of Outdoor & Golf and current MakerSights advisor, Tim Janaway. “The consumer doesn’t actually get to buy it, wear it, or have any sort of say in the matter. And that’s because there are too many cooks throughout the whole process making decisions primarily without ever consulting a single target consumer.”
Just 30% of product and merchant professionals report that their brands’ assortments are consistently informed by consumer input. While the majority of brands consider historical sales performance and high-level market trends, the biggest factors shaping most assortment decisions are stakeholders’ intuitions and opinions.
And you know what they say about opinions: Everybody has one. Which is why most brands spend up to two years developing a single assortment. Merchants want to sample each new print — half of which never make the cut – while Finance requires teams to cut the longtail, often forcing product creators to drop their most exciting styles. And Sales demands additional last-minute SKUs to meet the needs of specific retail partners.
By the time an assortment is officially released, most design and product professionals find themselves suffering from a severe case of whiplash. Not only is this level of emotionally-driven chaos not sustainable, but it’s also not conducive to crafting assortments consumers love in today’s data-rich, demand-driven market.
That’s why leading consumer-obsessed brands are leveraging the latest consumer data analytics, metrics, and technologies to more accurately predict target audiences’ preferences and demand. Using this information to help guide assortment decisions streamlines product creation in three key ways. Let’s dive in!
“A lot of brands try to focus on the consumer, but it’s at more of a macro level,” says Janaway. “Focus groups are intermittent and can help brands validate their larger strategy, but you can’t really use them to work on each individual product or all of the colorways you are considering.”
While some consumer feedback is better than none, such high-level insight leaves assortment teams to debate over every color, pattern, and product detail. The result? Hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars are spent developing graphics, swatches, and samples for pieces that never make it to consumers. Not only is this extremely frustrating for product creators, but it also drags out the already lengthy concept-to-consumer process and generates unnecessary waste – physical and financial.
“Until recently,” continues Janaway, “the data and tools have not been available to help brands analyze product feedback on a more consistent, real-time, and tactical level.” Now the latest assortment management technologies allow product creators to solicit direct consumer feedback on specific seasonal themes, new colorways and patterns, 3D CAD drawings, and more. This empowers brands to drop particular concepts and styles before spending time on artwork and/or sampling.
For example, an international athletic apparel brand begins evaluating consumer sentiment as early as the concept review phase of assortment development. The brand uses MakerSights consumer testing functionality to assess seasonal direction and narrow its design focus before committing to sketches, swatches, and samples.
This has successfully minimized the number of subjective debates that occur during the brand’s product creation process. Not only does this allow the team to make assortment decisions earlier in the product creation process, but it also reduces design team time previously spent creating assortment artwork and samples.
How many times has Finance told product creators to “cut the long tail” at line adoption? Probably more than you care to remember! Avoiding eroding margins and diminishing returns is critical for every brand, but knowing where to draw the line isn’t easy, and brands often miss out on new audience segments and opportunities by playing it too safe.
As Janaway says, “Product creation teams are constantly told to pare down assortments and reduce the long tail, but these decisions are usually based on historical financial data from the last 2-3 seasons. So, the long tail usually contains all your bold new products and the pieces you intentionally included to diversify the line, for example; more women's styles, more inclusive sizing, bolder colors, etc. This means creators are being asked by Finance to essentially kill their brand-defining products.”
This is why leading brands go beyond simply cutting the long tail to prioritizing SKU productivity, a metric that helps teams capture the most market appeal with as few SKUs as possible. They’re identifying and adopting bold styles that extend the Reach of an assortment to niche consumer segments while dropping low Reach products and cannibalizing items. What’s more, this analysis is done using forward-facing consumer sentiment data on the current product mix, versus sales performance data for past assortments.
Understanding the incremental Reach of each product in the assortment enables teams to take more calculated creative risks. It also gives product creators the confidence to push back on indiscriminately cutting the longtail and make the case for adopting bold new styles.
“We are now able to create, tweak, adopt, and drop styles based on what we know consumers want, versus what we think they want,” says Caitlin McGilvery, Director of Merchandising at Faherty. “MakerSights enables us to take more calculated creative risks, and we’ve seen considerable growth from making consumer-led decisions, like adding belt loops to men’s pants and decreasing the length of men’s shorts.”
Regional and go-to-market teams usually get involved in assortment discussions toward the end of the concept-to-consumer process, at which point most decisions have already been made. But this doesn’t stop these teams from weighing in and pushing back on global hero styles and brand stories. Low forecasts and last-minute requests for additional commercial styles ensue, leaving product creators rushing to deliver additional newness that meets marketing and sales demands.
“Part of the reason why brands become over assorted is because every retailer wants something different, or marketing has its own ideas about what will sell in a particular channel,” explains Janaway. “It’s not uncommon to have an American working with a German trying to figure out what a young Chinese consumer wants and the final decision being made months later by a 50-year-old buyer based on no consumer insights! So the carefully crafted styles and assortments get sliced up through the process. It’s very frustrating.”
One way to help combat these last-minute scrambles and maximize product commerciality across target markets from the get-go is to factor channel- and region-specific consumer data into concept and sketch phases. Dearfoams uses this strategy to help sell into specific retail partners like Kohl’s. For example, when developing their recent women’s assortment, the brand ran eight consumer sentiment tests against nearly 2,500 females. Strategic panel selection and targeted segmentation questions allowed them to isolate specific department store customers and tailor their learnings and subsequent assortment decisions to these accounts.
“We wanted to go into our sales meetings with confidence, having all of our i’s dotted and our t’s crossed,” said Dearfoams Chief Merchandising Officer Angela Kenney. “We did a lot of pre-sales testing using MakerSights to measure sentiment and demand for consumers who shop at specific retail stores. This enabled us to sell into these partners with little to no push back.”
Brands can also minimize over assortment by calculating Reach across region-, channel-, and wholesale-specific audience segments. Scenario planning allows teams to rapidly test product mixes and ultimately craft assortments that widen global appeal, while also including a narrow selection of differences with a clear point of view that make the biggest impact.
Every job has its challenges, and design and product professionals face a number of unique hurdles in their quest to craft assortments their current customers and aspirational consumers love. However, harnessing real-time, direct, forward-facing consumer data can make their lives much easier.
Giving consumers a seat at the table during the concept-to-consumer process helps teams make critical assortment decisions faster, earlier, and more objectively. The result is fewer sketches and samples, more confident creative risks, and less last-minute scrambling.
If you’d like to learn more about how brands like Faherty and Dearfoams are successfully calming product creation chaos with MakerSights, let’s talk!
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