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Top 5 Hottest Business Trends for Apparel Brands in 2018

31 July 2018

By Ethan Morgan

Ethan is in the marketing team at Volo, and specialises in writing about retail trends and news for our blog, white papers and reports.

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Staying on trend is essential for apparel brands’ survival – but to do that they’ve got to have their business infrastructure and strategy on point. These are the top 5 trends of 2018 for apparel brands, manufacturers and retailers when it comes to their business priorities.

Differentiation

In a market as busy and noisy as apparel, brands need to know their niche inside out, and know how to stick out to consumers with a proposition and brand that demands attention. When customers are engaged and bought into the brand vision, lifetime customer value and average basket sizes increase. The world of apparel is littered with examples. Patagonia is a great example of a brand that understands its niche and its message, which not just allows but encourages it to make bold political and moral statements.

patagonia brand website statement

The above image is from the homepage of Patagonia's website late last year, in response to political events. Outdoorsy, eco-conscious, wildlife-loving apparel consumers can identify with the cause and the message behind the brand, which combined with the subsequent press coverage gave Patagonia a significant boost in sales and audience.

Of course, this directly political stance isn't appropriate for many brands, but it provides an example of the power of having a defined ethos and perspective, which is a lesson most brands can learn from. 

Experience

This next point is closely tied to the first. One of the clearest and best ways to differentiate as an apparel brand is to offer customers an experience they don't get elsewhere. Look at the way Nike and Adidas have invested extremely heavily in in-store experiences like the ability to test products out on a track and live sports event screens. 

Experiential retail doesn't have to be the domain of multibillion dollar operations with expensive store footprints though. Innovating with online experiences is a more accessible way for many brands to begin, including with social and app-based interactions. Don't be fooled - a responsive site that works on a mobile, generous returns policies and fast/free shipping options are just the table stakes at this point. Delivering a genuinely outstanding user experience in terms of loading speed, ease of use & attractive design is the open space for differentiation.

Intelligence

Retail Insiders' Cathy Hotka recently called out brands and retailers' unwillingness to invest in technology. 

"Every retail company is now a technology company...

If Amazon is spending 8% of gross on IT, why isn’t everyone else?"

This way of thinking is arguably the biggest difference between Amazon and almost any other major manufacturer, brand or retailer. If you sell to consumers, you need to be tech-enabled and integrated. Jeff Bezos knew that when Amazon created (or bought) data tools that helped them to forecast demand, monitor pricing and algorithmically decide which offer for any given product in the catalogue was the best value for customers. Amazon's ability to track millions of relevant retail data points gives it an unprecedented control over demand forecasting and inventory management.

To compete, apparel brands should be seriously considering where their demand forecasts are coming from and how they could be made more accurate. Even the largest businesses are struggling with this - Swedish apparel giant H&M recently disclosed an unsold inventory problem worth $4.3 billion.

Personalisation

Building on the previous three entries, personalisation relies on technology to deliver a customised experience. So few apparel brands are able to get this right that it's a fantastic way to stand out. It's often thought of as a very unattainable standard, but in reality there are simple functional tweaks that can help customers feel individually valued. One example is to introduce size-memory functionality which will automatically filter website searches towards items which are in stock in the shopper's size (if known).

Deeper examples of personalisation include item recommendations which can be intelligently personalised according to browsing and purchase histories. Other innovations like H&M and Zara's smart mirrors aren't technically personalised at all, since they recommend based on the item worn, but still feel like a tailored experience for the customer. 

Social

Social media is already familiar territory for many brands, but that's not to say they're always making the most of it. Enterprise social is still a relatively young field, and remains incredibly fast-moving - both in terms of the sheer volume of content and in terms of the rate of change. 

As is often the case with such environments, smaller and more agile brands are more likely to win in this space. Manchester based shoe brand Public Desire have built their brand largely through Instagram, and there was no secret ingredient according to founder Tayyab when he spoke with Volo. In fact, the most important strategic element was to empower his social media team to speak to customers in the same way that customers themselves spoke, whether in Twitter customer support or Instagram lifestyle-type posts. 

Apparel products are a natural fit for social channels, especially for those whose demographic skews younger. Expect to see more challenger brands rise from social media followings having built more authentic customer connections than traditional forms of advertising allow for. 

Commerce through social channels has been surprisingly slow to get off the ground, with both Facebook and Twitter having tried multiple times to implement purchase functionality. For a more likely contender, look to Instagram's experimentation with shoppable posts, its own payment functionality currently being trialled and a massive presence of brands and engaged shoppers. 

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