Technology vs people in fashion: Will robots prevail?

With self-service checkouts having become an integral feature of modern supermarkets and consumers increasingly trading the high street for online shopping, it is no secret that the retail industry is being increasingly disrupted by technology.

The tech-driven transformation of retail looks set to continue with the 2019 Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey, the largest technology leadership survey in the world, revealing that UK retail is set to lose over half a million jobs to robots.

The fashion industry is however one aspect of retail that, compared to the likes of supermarkets and electronic stores, is less predisposed to robots fully taking over the jobs of humans.

A sector driven by personalised taste

Fashion is inherently personal, where one person’s tastes can be entirely different to another’s. Due to the personal nature of fashion, a human element of retail is required in both trend and product decisions, as well as on the shop floor; where human assistants help consumers find products to match their individual tastes.

The ‘traditional’ way of buying fashion items, namely finding and touching a product, trying it on and looking at ourselves in the mirror, and deciding whether or not to make the purchase, is void from online shopping.

It could be argued that the need to visit high street stores, have face-to-face interaction with shop assistants and experience the personal nature of shopping, means that machines will never fully surpass the human element of shopping for fashion items.

Fashion design

Great fashion design comes from the inspiration, creativity and talent of fashion designers. Robots might be able to cut and sew fabric and AI algorithms might be able to predict style trends, but when it comes to designing clothing, the human touch is still irreplaceable.

Getting the right mix

The savviest of fashion retailers are getting the mix right between utilising innovative technology and maintaining traditional retail practices delivered by people.

For example, using clever AI algorithms can help retailers tailor product recommendations and create collections consumers want to buy. AI-powered tools can help fashion retailers manage inventory in a more streamlined and efficient manner.

ASOS uses AI ‘Fit Assistant’ technology, which involves a platform that goes through a database of item information and purchase histories, to find the right fit for a customer. H&M uses AI and data to analyse receipts and keep popular items well stocked.

However, Primark is a well-known fashion store on the high street of virtually every major city in the UK, without an online presence. Do they demonstrate that customers still love the thrill of finding a great item on a shopping trip?

Zalando, the European ecommerce retailer, is astutely combining technology and tradition. The company was founded by start-up and technology savvy individuals, who realised their systems and processes were not including a human element to decide trends.  Subsequently, Zalando went on to hire people with diverse retail backgrounds (F&F, M&S, Hunkemoller, matches.com, Adidas) into their product teams.

In order to fulfil the omnichannel demand, and to help streamline data and operations, the shrewdest of retailers are appointing those with technology skills to help create innovative products and systems, as well as those with the creativity, inspiration and personability to reach out to the ‘softer’ more human side of fashion.