Retail, shopping & leisure

Try on your virtual dress for size

One of the difficulties of buying clothes online (though apparently not if you are Zappos selling shoes) is that you can’t try them on. Connect, a tech company founded by Alcatel-Lucent, has come up with the clever idea of mapping your body at a kiosk in store to be uploaded into the cloud for when you need to “try something on”. You then go shopping via your mobile or even on smart TV, where you can chat with a personal shopper or get the opinions of your girlfriends via social networks.

The idea is possible in the US because of 4G LTE (long-term evolution), which offers high speeds, reduced lag time, and huge possibilities for creative marketers. As one spokesperson said, “It’s not all about speed, but the services we can have when connected to the cloud”. It has already led to the birth of a new kind of agency, the “augmented reality retail specialist”.

Online retailer, Asos, says 8% of visitors arrive from non-traditional sources, such as their mobile phone. But this trend will certainly rise as people become more accustomed to using alternative ways to access the internet and also to paying for items with their mobile phones. M-commerce is already working well in developed countries like South Korea, or emerging countries, such as Africa. It is just taking its time in the UK or US, where people are wary of spending money in new ways until they can trust the process.
Ref: The Financial Times (UK), 24-25 September 2011, Trying on the future. F Harkin.
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Search words: M-commerce, mobile, 4G LTE, Connect, virtual shopping, tablet, smartphone, profiles, pester, mobile payments.
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Fashion to combat pollution

Imagine if you knew the clothes you wear could purify the very air you breathe. Catalytic clothing is an exhilarating concept created in the UK by Prof Tony Ryan at Sheffield University and Prof Helen Store of the London College of Fashion. An invisible coating of titanium dioxide added to the fabric interacts with sunlight to make the electrons more reactive. These electrons then break down water molecules in the air, which speeds up the process of purifying the air. Moreover, you can apply this coating in the laundry every few months!

Catalytic clothing is only one example of how science and fashion can merge to create innovative ideas. The Japanese fashion giant, Uniqlo, has launched the Innovation Project Japan (IPJ), which aims to create clothes that are technologically advanced as well as being lighter and more convenient to wear. Its design director claims the object of this clothing is “to make people’s lives easier”, an ambitious aim considering this is clothing we are talking about. The project has already created breathable, water-repellant jackets, anti-bacterial fabrics and others that can protect against harmful UV rays.

Ermenegildo Zegna, the Italian designer, came up with “zero-weight” suiting using a blend of wool and silk weighing only 145g per metre, compared to 200-240g for most suits. Patagonia, an outdoor clothing brand, created fleece from recycled plastic bottles as far back as 1993 and now uses recycled polyester across its range of clothes. It is fair to say this trend for scientific clothing will continue, particularly as people are attracted to more adventurous holidays and become exposed to more extreme weather.

The prospect of making a difference to global warming by wearing a particular item of clothing may seem a bit far-fetched, but provides a nice marketing story. And as Prof Ryan points out, if each person could take out half a gram of nitrous oxide from the environment, and one million wore the clothes with that ability, it could make a difference.
Ref: The Daily Telegraph (UK), 7 October 2011, Clothes from the chemist. R Wilkinson.
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Search words: pollution, clothes, chemistry fashion, Uniqlo, Innovation Project Japan (IPJ), scientific, catalytic clothing.
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Far beyond Jim’ll fix it

When Jimmy Saville was knighted in the UK, the book about Jim’ll Fix It said, from now on, “Sir James will bring his influence to bear in arranging matters to your satisfaction”. This seems to neatly describe the new world of concierges, or fixer firms, set up to look after those with the money to spend in their “family office” or almost any area of their lives with a need. The very rich, we are told, “seek much more rigorous results”.

There is even an organisation, The International Concierge and Lifestyle Management Association (ICLMA), set up to represent companies worldwide in their quest to fix up the rich. According to the Global Brand Simplicity Index, 10-23% of consumers are willing to spend more for an uncomplicated experience. Certainly at Quinessentially, set up in 2000, there are 800,000 private individuals (so we are told!) regularly paying around 24,000 UK pounds to use its concierge services, from the mundane tasks to helping with house purchases.

This is customer service far beyond what most of us experience. This is where the fixer goes and stays in the villa you have earmarked for a holiday, and tests the bed, the service, and the weather, to see whether it will suit you before they book it for you. Or having someone at your party, making sure everybody is taken care of, until the bitter end, and who rearranges your schedule the next day so you can sleep in. Or who makes sure you eat at the very best restaurant wherever you go, and meet whichever globizens you need to meet – every night on a whirlwind European trip.

Concierge services are variously known as “ruthless curation”, “editing the world”, “uber-filters” or “sift working”. To the rest of us, it may sound a little bit daunting. After all, if someone else is making all those nasty little and large decisions for you, are you really living your own life? Is it just pay out to cop out?
Ref: The Financial Times (UK), 1 October 2011, Small world, big business. S Roberts.
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Search words: concierge services, Quintessentially, fixer, family office, business, holidays, Globalista, Red Savannah, globizens.
Trend tags: Income inequality, experience economy

The death of diversity – and excuses

There is a theory that each category can only include one specialist retailer in competition with Amazon and Walmart, the two giants of retail. Thirty years ago, it used to be three: good, better and best. If the theory is true, it explains the collapse of numerous companies in every category, including Borders in books and Circuit City in consumer electronics. Some say office supplies could be next, at least in the US where Office Depot, Staples and Office Max compete. The upshot for the consumer is: less choice.

Online competition has hurt every physical retailer; the difference is how well they handled it. Comparison shopping, smart phones, better security, and consumer recommendations, have helped make shopping online an experience to trust – and it can be cheaper. It works even in categories where you would think it couldn’t. Who could once have imagined buying shoes without trying them on? Yet Zappos, bought by Amazon, has successfully persuaded us to do just that.

Physical retailers now have to offer more than just goods, they have to provide an experience that people want to repeat. This explains the popularity of the Apple shops, with its transparent staircases, and why JC Penney has recruited the man behind the Apple stores. Now people don’t just want to go shopping – they can do that online - they want somewhere compelling to go. No excuses.

On the other side, direct sales like Avon, Tupperware and J Hilburn, are experiencing a revival. In the case of J Hilburn, a tailor comes out in person to measure you for the outfit you chose on the internet. Direct sales are also increasing in emerging countries, because they lower the costs of distribution. Selling direct in any country makes sense because it brings that special human touch, compared to a website or a catalogue. Expect more of this for people who are willing to pay for it.
Ref: The Financial Times (UK), 23-24 July 2011, Borders collapse signals a new chapter. B Jopson.
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Search words: Borders, Barnes & Noble, books, Amazon, Walmart, electronics, online competition, office supplies, grocery, Ocado, Apple, direct sales, Avon.
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Share and own alike

The idea of sharing, rather than owning something, is very much a post-materialist one. Sharing fits perfectly with healthier, more environmentally friendly consumption – and it saves money. In p2p lending, it also takes power out of the hands of the banks. Rachel Botsman’s book, What’s mine is yours: The rise of collaborative consumption, describes this trend and the companies that are taking advantage of it.

Car sharing is now ubiquitous, as parking becomes increasingly tricky and people start to question the superiority of the car. It also helps to reduce traffic; companies like Zipcar in the US and GoGet in Australia, are rapidly increasing membership. Another trend is to share your home with travelers, through Airbnb, where homeowners rent out their place for one night or more to people who want a more authentic experience of travel. Meanwhile, social lending, through Zopa and Lending Club, is a valid response to what Mintel found to be a wide distrust of banks (84% of us). Not only that, social lending offers a better rate of return to lenders (8.2%), and an average 20% lower interest rate for borrowers.

Botsman says the 20th century was defined by credit, advertising and individual ownership. She claims this century will see reputation, community and shared access come to the fore. We hope this is true. The only way that all three can start to characterise modern life is through the development of trust – and that can only be built slowly. We have lost trust in institutions. Now it is time to start regaining trust in each other.
Ref: CNN (US), 2 November 2010, “Sharing” replacing “owning”. R Botsman.
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Search words: transport, Zipcar, car-sharing, Airbnb, social networks, “social lending”, Zopa Lending Club.
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See: What’s mine is yours: The rise of collaborative consumption, by Rachel Botsman, HarperBusiness 2010.

How to eat on the cheap

In sharp contrast to the story above, Far beyond Jim’ll fix it, consumers in Britain are looking for ways to eat as cheaply as they can. Retailers in turn are offering various “austerity measures” to help meet that need.

One is own labels (private label products), which are increasing their presence on shelves all over the world and reducing space for manufacturer labels. Own labels are not necessarily cheaper but they often are. For example, Waitrose, a more upmarket brand, plans to add another 100 own label lines. Second is price cutting, which seems endless and ultimately crippling for the retailer, but both Tesco and Sainsbury have pledged to be cheaper. Tesco will offer 500 million pounds in price cuts; Sainsbury guarantees to be cheaper on 13,000 brands.

A third strategy is quite the opposite: offering treats. Greggs the bakers have sold 1.5 million UK pounds’ worth of luxury doughnuts.

Shoppers have their own strategies. One is to buy in bulk, and use the items up slowly or club together with friends or family to save money. They also swap money-saving tips online and get together when buying online to reduce delivery charges. Other individuals are choosing to buy much smaller packets of the items they need. For example, many shoppers split 1kg packets of mince into portions. This is described, ironically as “a more professional approach” to shopping. Sales of carrots, potatoes and mince have also increased, according to Wm Morrison, a UK supermarket, because people are more likely to cook from scratch.

The most interesting aspect of this story is the purchase of luxury doughnuts, which suggests shoppers are looking for something to console them in the middle of their austerities. We see it as a continuation of the trend to save money on the most basic and boring of items, while reserving cash for the more exciting ones. Tricks or treats, perhaps.
Ref: The Financial Times (UK), 15-16 October 2011, Consumers set store by “professional” approach to shopping. B Jopson.
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Search words: household costs, jumbo packs, Asda, delivery, multi-buy, budget, money-saving tips, social networks.
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