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Retail Trends

5 Exciting and Insightful Takeaways from the WWD Summit

Dan Leahy

November 7, 2022

If you work in fashion or retail, you’ve read Women’s Wear Daily (WWD). First published in 1910, the journal is commonly referred to as the “Bible of fashion.” So when I was asked to host a session on the mainstage at this year’s WWD Retail and Apparel CEO Summit, I couldn’t help but be excited. 

I was honored to take the stage alongside Niall Maher, Chief Merchandising Officer for Ralph Lauren Polo, to discuss how the brand’s culture of curiosity has enabled it to successfully evolve with consumers for more than half a century. I was also thrilled to have the opportunity to hear from other industry titans representing brands like J. Crew, Bloomingdale’s, Coach, Louis Vuitton, Tommy Hilfiger, American Eagle, and Aerie.

The event was a day and a half of engaging conversations, insightful learnings, and thought-provoking predictions. I can’t possibly keep all this goodness to myself, so in no particular order, here are the top 5 hot topics and key takeaways that stood out to me from this year’s sessions. 

#1: Prioritizing Consumer Obsession Over Fashion

Despite being one of the world’s most well-known fashion brands, Ralph Lauren attributes its success to its dedication to style — not fashion. Niall explained why during our conversation: “Style is shorthand for personal style, and you can’t have personal style without understanding the person. So Ralph’s consistently curious about the customer. His whole world view is actually about putting the person at the center, understanding that style comes from within. It’s not externally hoisted upon people from designers or editors or influencers.”

Over recent years, the brand has taken great care to put the teams, tactics, and tools (including MakerSights) in place to “put this curiosity to work” and better understand target consumers across markets. This consumer-obsessed approach to product creation and merchandising has led Ralph Lauren to make several key updates to its various labels, including transitioning Polo Sport to a unisex brand. Most recently, Ralph Lauren saw a 64% annual increase in AUR, as well as a spike in consumer value perception.

“There can be a misperception around Ralph Lauren that we stand for timelessness and we have this unwavering sense of who we are,” shared Niall. “At the root of that is a constant curiosity about what’s next and a constant desire to evolve and reflect our customers’ changing dreams and aspirations.”

#2: Digitizing Product Creation Processes

Connecting to consumers has always been a priority for Ralph Lauren. But the days of Mr. Lauren himself walking through the brand’s flagship store and asking customers what they think are long gone and in need of scaling. Traditional in-person focus groups are too slow and expensive to gather the SKU-level of insights today’s brands need to create products that consumers across diverse regions, preferences, and channels love. 

Niall and many other fashion leaders at WWD spoke about using the latest and greatest technology to help them keep pace with shifting consumer sentiment at scale. Voice of Consumer platforms, like MakerSights, allow brands to collect near real-time feedback from hundreds, if not thousands, of consumers around the globe on product details like concept, colorway, silhouette, pattern, and more. These digital product testing and consumer insights tools also make it easy to filter and analyze results across current and aspirational consumer segments, informing key assortment decisions at each stage of development and go-to-market.

Another increasingly popular technology that accelerates product creation and saves brands significant production costs is 3-dimensional computer-aided design, or 3D CAD. These high-quality visualizations allow brands to quickly narrow down the number of physical samples they need to produce to only those that teams feel most confident about moving forward with. For instance, President of Accessories and Footwear for Michael Kors, Pippa Newman, recently sang the praises of 3D CAD during DVF InCharge.

#3: Balancing Art and Science

Historically, seasonal newness has been derived from the latest runway trends and designers’ artistic visions — especially for luxury brands. Assorted styles are usually dropped, adjusted, or adopted based primarily on stakeholder opinions and intuition. The result? Overassortment, overproduction, a lot bigger markdowns, and a lot thinner margins. 

Fortunately, as more brands embrace consumer obsession and digitally transform, they are learning how to use consumer data to focus creativity and guide assortment decisions. As Todd Kahn, CEO and Brand President of Coach put it during his session, “We’re at our best when we balance magic and logic.” This means creating a true “test and learn'' environment where target consumers provide feedback on experimental newness from concept to sell-in.

Niall and his team at Ralph Lauren have also learned how to effectively balance the art and science of product creation by seeking proactive “insights” rather than reactive “hindsights.” Hindsights usually come in the form of sales performance data or customer reviews after a line has already launched and it’s too late to make any changes. In contrast, insights can be used to inform on-going creative direction and ultimately deliver products that consumers want.

Going back to the recent DVF InCharge event in NYC, Gabby Hirata, President and CEO of DVF, shared that the brand takes a similar approach, which she called “Math and Magic.” Rather than immediately going all-in on unproven seasonal styles, the team places minimum orders for new styles, colorways, and materials to test them out with consumers and avoid excess inventory.

#4: Winning Over Gen Z

One of the hottest topics at WWD Summit was how brands can appeal to Gen Z, or consumers born between 1996 and 2012. Officially the largest generational group as of 2020, Gen Z now has $360 billion in disposable income burning a hole in their pockets and Gen Zers enjoy spending money on fashion more than any other form of “entertainment” — but getting them to spend it will require brands to hone in on three key areas, according to session host Meta.

First, Gen Zers want to play an active role in co-creating the products they ultimately purchase, giving brands that embrace consumer obsession and digital testing a major advantage. Second, brand affinity matters: 67% of this generation says that what a company stands for impacts whether or not they will purchase their products. And last but not least, whatever value or mission your brand chooses to stand for, it must be 100% authentic, or Gen Z is out.

These are fair and honorable demands, but figuring out how to meet them while still winning Gen Z’s wallet share can be a bit of a balancing act. For instance, Gen Z is exceptionally vocal about calling brands to protect our environment, and among the first to sound the alarm for greenwashing. However, they are also largely responsible for the rise of wasteful yet inexpensive fast-fashion brands like H&M, Zara, and Shein. 

Winning over this up-and-coming generation requires brands to think outside the box by getting involved in the circular economy. Partnering with resale, thrifting, and consignment companies like ThredUp, Crossroads, and the RealReal enables brands to reach Gen Z today and earn their loyalty tomorrow, without having to sacrifice their margins or integrity in the process.

#5: Strengthening Omnichannel Experiences

Another way to Gen Z’s heart is through omni-channel shopping experiences. And since the pandemic forced consumers to temporarily replace physical stores with digital commerce, Millennials and even Gen X are now demanding that brands increase fluidity between digital and brick-and-mortar shopping experiences too. So how can brands give consumers the ease of shopping online with the excitement of being in-store?

One of the easiest and most common omni-channel experiences to offer consumers is BOPIS, or buy online, pick up in store. According to a recent study, 81% of brands plan to also increase or maintain livestream selling over the next year. Sunglass Hut is an example of a leading brand that’s known for bridging physical and digital commerce by offering shoppers the ability to customize and order products they love online from computers inside their stores.

During his WWD session, Bloomingdale’s Chairman and CEO, Tony Spring, discussed his mission to change the brand’s perception from a “department store” to a “modern marketplace.” The brand kick started this initiative by using data about the products that consumers from specific regions purchase online to inform in-store inventory in these regions.

From WWD to 2023

These are just a few of the brands and topics featured during this year’s WWD Retail and Apparel CEO Summit, but I hope you found them as interesting and insightful as I did. With so much uncertainty surrounding 2023, it’s especially important for brands to take the time to consider new technology, learn from peers in the industry, and find ways to get closer to their consumers.

My team at Makersights recently launched a guide that covers several of the topics in this post in more detail, plus additional trends and predictions that we believe will impact brands in the new year. From pricing strategies to responsible fashion, learn more when you download the free eBook!

Dan Leahy
Co-founder and CEO, MakerSights

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