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Disruption, Technology and the Future of Fashion, Apparel and Shoes Business, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

Like the food processing industry, it’s easy to think of clothing manufacturing as a labor-intensive industry where advanced technologies and innovation might have little impact.  Nonetheless, this business is undergoing massive disruption as entrepreneurs focus on making shopping easier, less expensive, more convenient and more satisfying for consumers, while lowering costs and creating efficiencies on the manufacturing and logistics end.
The biggest disruption of all has been through the internet and ecommerce—the same source of vast change facing all categories of consumer goods that have traditionally been sold through retail stores.  Websites enable shoppers to order clothing and shoes from home, try them on, and return them if they aren’t satisfactory.  Ecommerce sites are able to offer vastly greater depth of merchandise styles and sizes than physical stores could ever accommodate.  An early innovator in this regard was Zappos, a shoe-selling site that grew to massive size by offering an extremely deep inventory.  Zappos was quickly acquired by Amazon.  Amazon is very focused on becoming the world’s dominant seller of shoes and clothing, and it is well on its way to achieving that goal.  Traditional clothing and apparel retailers are suffering an immense competitive challenge thanks to the internet, and many have closed their doors.
The internet also enables other key changes.  These include the ability of small startup apparel firms to reach global audiences, while working with limited marketing budgets.  Some of these companies offer unique styles.  Others offer unique services like modest prices on custom-made apparel, or the ability for customers to enter their sizes and style preferences into a subscription site like Stitch Fix, which then sends boxes of clothing on approval on a regular basis.  Ecommerce also offers a logical way for manufacturers and retailers to get rid of old or slow selling merchandise at discount prices.  These internet-based advantages and conveniences are daunting challenges to store-front retailers.
Advanced technologies have also vastly altered the supply chain, making it possible for retailers to quickly order and restock apparel and shoes, even if they are manufactured on the other side of the globe, which is often the case.  Supply chain advancements have also enabled the growth of “fast fashion” companies such as Zara and H&M, where designers are able to quickly react to changing styles and consumer interests, and get low-priced items from the designer’s desk, through the factory, and to the stores in a remarkably short time.  Another function of the internet, social media, is driving both styles and consumer tastes, as many consumers are now heavily influenced by fashions that they first see on photo-oriented sites such as Instagram and Pinterest.
Bigger changes are in store over the near future, as robotics and 3D printing make it possible to reshore manufacturing, so that fashions, sometimes made to custom order, can be manufactured in factories near major cities in the U.S. and E.U.  Custom-made running shoes are leading this trend, as are largely automated apparel factories that can run 24/7 with few employees.  Apparel manufacturing software and factory automation will continue to advance at a very rapid pace.  This includes the adoption of revolutionary on-demand clothing production.  In this business model, consumers select the apparel they want, including color and size.  The item isn’t manufactured until this custom order is received.  It is then manufactured and shipped directly to the consumer.  The practice ensures that consumers have access to the desired styles, fabrics, colors and sizes they want, while eliminating all inventory costs and risks for the sellers.
Meanwhile, smart fabrics are changing the nature of what we wear. Features already include athletic apparel with better performance and moisture wicking; fabrics embedded with electronics and sensors; fabrics that incorporate nanotechnology; as well as fabrics treated with metals to combat bacteria and odors.  This will accelerate over the near future.
New augmented reality (AR) technologies, in both physical store dressing rooms and mobile apps, will make it easier than ever for consumers to see, in a virtual manner, how fashions might look on them and how they might fit—before making a purchase.  Consumers will be the beneficiaries of these trends, as they will enjoy wider choices, more custom-made opportunities, faster turnaround of new styles and fashions, as well as low prices driven by manufacturing efficiency.  New technologies will definitely make it possible for consumers to obtain shoes and apparel with a better fit, often more closely tailored to specific individuals’ needs.

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