Brands such as Adidas, Nike, Levi’s and Burberry are adopting artificial intelligence in everything from customised running shoes to chatbots helping customers choose jeans
From the factory floor to the checkout basket, artificial intelligence is fast becoming a central plank of the fashion industry.
Market intelligence company International Data Corporation found that by 2019, at least 40% of retailers will have developed a new customer experience using an artificial intelligence (AI) platform.
Companies are now choosing to move away from traditional ways of shopping by using automation technology as an essential tool of today’s buying experience.
In the hope of increasing productivity and profitability, while also giving consumers a personalised experience, retailers are looking to eliminate inefficiencies and cut down on costs – and AI is ticking all the boxes.
The chief technology officer at UK-based clothing store Missguided, John Allen, says: “In ten years from now, we might see emerging players that have never had merchandisers or buyers in the traditional way, and brand management that is done entirely by two or three individuals – and the rest by social media-driven content.”
His company, which began life in 2009 as an e-commerce brand, has digitised its supply chain in order to develop into an organisation selling across online, wholesale and traditional retail channels.
Mr Allen adds: “We’ve moved from having lots of things in spreadsheets and separated isolated systems into a single view of pretty much everything from the point we raise the purchase order for the product, right the way through to who it’s sold to.”
According to a report by global management consulting firm Boston Consulting Group, retailers who have applied this have seen a 6% to 10% increase in sales – and consulting firm Accenture says sales could ultimately rise to 59% by 2035.
These are the brands who have incorporated artificial intelligence within their business:
Famous for its three stripes – the German sportswear brand is leading the way in the industry with AI. The sportswear giant, owned by brothers Adolf and Rudolph Dassler, opened a heavily automated manufacturing plant in Ansbach, Germany, in late 2015.
Named the Speedfactory, it pairs a human workforce with high-tech machines such as 3D printers, robotic arms and computerised knitting to make trainers usually mass-produced in the Far East.
Digital designs can be constantly tweaked for customisation and can be made in less than a day – compared to the three months it can take to turn a product from materials into a product in Asia.
The impact of the technology is evident in the brand’s new AM4 – Adidas Made For – running shoe series, which use athlete data to tailor the footwear for different cities.
There are plans to bring the futuristic manufacturing to America, too, by opening a Speedfactory in Atlanta, Georgia.
In April 2018, Nike announced it had acquired Invertex Ltd, a Tel Aviv-based leading computer vision firm with the hope of improving its innovations.
In September 2017, the brand introduced a new system called The Nike Makers Experience. It allows customers to design their own trainers in-store, choose their own graphics and colours using augmented reality (AR), with the trainers made available to customers in about 90 minutes.
Nike also has a system in place called Grabit, which uses static electricity to assemble shoes and works at a pace 20-times faster than a human alone could do.
The company also partnered up with tech platform NOVA to produce 3D images and material simulations to show designers how the shoes would fit.
This significantly reduces the prototyping phase – a process that would usually take up to a year and several samples before the prototype is ready for production.
And as if all that wasn’t futuristic enough, Nike also uses robots to paint trainers mid-sole.
Levi Strauss & Co
Levi Strauss & Co’s roots go back to 1853 when it began making denim jeans in San Francisco – but heritage hasn’t stopped the iconic brand from moving forward with the times.
It has recently created a virtual stylist programme that uses an artificial intelligence chatbot and assists customers with purchasing choices.
Designed by personalisation platform True Fit, the service was introduced to cut down on customer dissatisfaction and returns.
t incorporates the same training into the robot received by Levi’s human employees and will consider the customer’s body shape and type of jeans they desire – while also asking questions like “how do you like your jeans?”
Marc Rose, executive vice president and president of global e-commerce at Levi Strauss & Co, says: “We are on the leading edge of a challenge that all retail companies face today – how to create a seamless and personalised shopping experience for consumers, and new technologies like our virtual stylist programme are integral to that evolution at Levi Strauss & Co.
“No matter where the consumer chooses to shop, we want to give them a personalised experience that leverages our expertise in fit and style to address the biggest challenge of finding the pair of perfect-fitting jeans.”
British luxury fashion brand Burberry, which has clothing stores located around the world, was one of the first retailers to introduce AI to the luxury fashion industry.
In 2006, it started using big data and artificial intelligence to help boost sales and customer satisfaction.
In the same year, the company saw a 50% increase in repeat customers after announcing a customer management programme the year before, which lets customers voluntarily share their data and Burberry use the information to give customers a personalised experience in-store and online.
Vice-president of IT David Harris says: “We are formulating our AI strategy now – we believe that AI can deliver business value through making better products, faster, cheaper processes and more insightful analysis.
“For instance, we certainly see the potential for machine learning to improve and automate a number of our support processes, such as dev ops and testing.”
Spanish fashion house Zara, which belongs to the Inditex group, has recently created a programme that aims to speed up the in-store pick-up process, in which robots collect items from the stock room and hand them over to customers.
The programme works by allowing customers who have placed online orders to scan or enter a code at collection points in-store – and the robots search for the order and bring it to a drop box where a customer can pick it up.
Some 85 store in the US have already implemented the service and Zara has plans to open a digitally-inspired pop-up store in the UK. The collection-only service will feature both men and women’s clothing and when paying for their items, customers will use a Bluetooth credit card terminal.
The implications and negative consequences
The retail industry thrives off better customer experience, greater choice and buyer advantage, and when there’s an alternative offering that will also cut costs, it often proves tempting for businesses.
AI is useful and pragmatic but has potentially negative ramifications, such as leading to the downfall of the interaction between buyers and sellers, while also killing the creativity that comes with working in the fashion industry.
The most worrying consequence is the number of jobs it could destroy. According to a study by American research company Gartner, AI will automate 1.8 million people out of work by 2020.
But global chief marketing officer at tech firm IPsoft, Anuragh Harsh, doesn’t quite agree.
In a Linkedin post, she asserts that “artificial Intelligence can never replace human skills, innovation, and creativity”.
She continues: “But in an era dominated by digital tools, it has never been more important for humans and machines to collaborate and complement each other.
“Although tech trends and consumer habits will continue to change, customers will always prefer the personal touch. For these reasons alone, we can expect AI to rock the fashion world.
“As the technology continues to improve agility along with top-line performance and customer service while lowering costs, it seems that AI and the fashion industry are a perfect fit.”
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