Personalisation: An antidote to the homogeny of fast-fashion?

by: Kseniia Galenytska

With the ability to instantly adopt catwalk fashion and provide trend-led clothing for an affordable price, fast fashion retailers have been among the bigger value gainers in the last few years. The success of fast fashion has been near universal, thanks to efficient supply chains and economies of scale that have allowed fast fashion brands to market design-led offerings at very low price points. One of the most successful fast fashion brands over 2012-2017 in absolute value growth terms was H&M, which grew by USD 4.8 billion according to Euromonitor International provisional estimates as it expanded aggressively beyond its core market in Western Europe. However, as fast fashion becomes widely available, it is erasing identity and true personal style is becoming obsolete. Millennials are becoming disillusioned and eager to recapture their own personal style, seeking unique and individually tailored products that reflect their own values rather than following a homogeneous style. Brands in the fashion industry are already offering personalised products to consumers and are currently looking for ways to deliver personalised solutions quickly and on a larger scale.

adidas seeking speedier personalised solutions

Sportswear giant adidas was among the first players to bring customised products to the masses, through the likes of its mi adidas platform where customers can personalise shoes, choosing between various graphic prints, and add a personalised message. The challenge mi adidas is facing is that it takes a few weeks to deliver the product to consumers once manufactured. In a digital world where consumers are used to accessing products instantly this remains a main turn-off factor limiting the prospects of personalised fashion.

Thus, in an attempt to deliver speed to consumers and to be able to address their unique needs within days, adidas is placing factories closer to consumers, opening a brand new automated manufacturing plant in Ansbach, Germany in late-2015. In fact, Speedfactory is adidas’ attempt to develop the capacity to deliver customisable goods quickly, as automated technology is expected to transmute digital designs into customised footwear within hours, and deliver it directly to consumers in Europe within a few days.

The new era of 3D printing bringing mass production

adidas’ partnership with Silicon Valley start-up Carbon brings the mass production of personalised shoes even closer. The result of this partnership is Futurecraft 4D, a major adidas footwear innovation for 2017. Futurecraft 4D uses light and oxygen and is able to manufacture 3D-printed midsoles on a scale of 100,000 pairs by 2018. Although companies have demonstrated shoes with a 3D printed midsole, this is the first time a sportswear manufacturer will produce and sell 3D printed midsole shoes on such a large scale, since the new technology speeds up the manufacturing process and brings down print time. With footwear, the ultimate goal of adidas would be to replicate the ‘Knit for you’ pop-up shop that saw the real time creation of custom sweaters based on a body scan of each buyer. Such innovations and speedy customised solutions is a great strategy for adidas to catch up with its main rival Nike; with preliminary Euromonitor International estimates putting value sales at USD30 million in 2017, adidas still remained far below Nike which saw global sales of USD47 million in 2017. However, the preliminary data is also showing that adidas has begun outperforming Nike by delivering much higher growth of 16 percent, while Nike has reported growth of just 1 percent in 2017.

Customised footwear also has the potential to maintain robust online sales growth rates for retailers. Globally, 16 percent of footwear is sold online in 2017, making footwear one of the most digitally penetrated fashion categories. According to Euromonitor International’s 2017 Global Consumer Trends Survey, in 2017, 47 percent of respondents indicate that one of their main motivations to buy products in brick-and-mortar stores is because they prefer to see or try the product before buying. However, if brands were able to offer customisable footwear so that consumers would be confident that it is a perfect fit, then this would have the potential to significantly accelerate the growth of online shopping.

Artificial Intelligence making mainstream strides

As consumers are increasingly shopping online, retailers are looking for a way to enhance the consumer shopping experience. Thus, they are already using AI that is analysing data collected from the consumers’ searches and previous purchases to provide personalised recommendations of the products that consumers might need in future. In November 2017, Alibaba, which holds 72 percent of apparel and footwear internet retailing sales in China, used artificial intelligence to bring personalisation into brick-and-mortar stores during Singles’ Day, a Chinese shopping festival, by installing fashion assistants called FashionAI that acted like personal stylists. The technology could transform commerce by giving consumers an incentive to visit brick-and-mortar stores at a time when offline retail is declining in favour of online. Such a move is in line with the Chinese government’s plan to lead the world in AI by 2030, with China already being among the largest investors in AI technology.

Personalisation will remain a key trend within the fashion industry for years to come. However, brands really need to work hard to bring personalised products into the mainstream by reaching the scale, speed of production and delivery that fast fashion retailers provide. With adidas selling personalised sweaters through its “Knit for you” pop up store for USD215 however, brands still need to reduce the production costs to achieve true disruption.