With trade shows and runway presentations on hold, the footwear industry is embracing technology to help re-create the buying experience — and it may never go back.
Global pandemic restrictions have temporarily eliminated the possibility of gathering together, whether for large-scale fashion shows or intimate showroom appointments. That inability of buyers to review new collections in person has forced the industry to get creative. Just as other parts of the footwear business have recently turned digital, from internal meetings to sampling to selling, so too has the buying experience
Virtual showroom technology allows a brand to create an online space that showcases their products, using high-resolution imagery and an interactive user interface. Buyers are invited to visit the showroom at their own convenience and explore the product selection visually. They are frequently then able to complete purchase orders within the same platform.
This technology is not new, but adoption has escalated in recent weeks. With brands of varying size, style and price point now offering a virtual experience, industry experts believe that this may be the start of a permanent shift toward digital selling. Here are a few reasons why.
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The Fashion Calendar
Fashion shows used to be the primary way for a brand to showcase new product, and brands have traditionally followed a universal calendar when releasing new collections. But recently, conversations about designer burnout, excess production and timeliness have caused several brands to change the way they present collections. Most recently, Gucci and Saint Laurent announced their intention to move toward fewer shows.
Without the tether of traditional runway shows, brands are able to be more flexible, and virtual showroom technology takes that one step further.
“There are no longer any limits in terms of time nor geography,” said Romain Blanco, managing director at showroom platform Le New Black. “A virtual showroom can happen from anywhere, at any time.”
This sentiment was echoed by Simon Lock, founder and CEO at wholesale marketplace Ordre. He noted that brands are able to show virtual collections as soon as they are ready, and buyers can access the showrooms without needing to plan travel or book stays; a much more cost-effective option. The lower barrier to entry makes it easier to produce smaller collections more frequently, that are in tune with consumer demand.
Kristin Savilia, CEO at wholesale platform Joor, believes virtual options can help accelerate the evolution of the fashion industry. “When recovery ultimately happens, the high-quality events will persist,” said Savilia, “but other events will remain fully digital. This is not a bad thing for an industry that has historically traveled an excessive amount, overproduced samples and generally needs to be more sustainable in its practices.”
The Virtual Benefits
The virtual showroom companies FN spoke with all reported significant increased growth during 2020, likely a result of pandemic restrictions, but executives predicted those gains will continue even as the physical channel reopens. Describing showrooms as being in need of “reimagining not replication,” Savilia noted that the virtual option creates new value for retail buyers.
Olivia Skuza, co-founder and co-CEO at wholesale platform NuOrder, agreed: “Retailers do not want to take huge risks — especially now — buying a large volume of pre-book products. The virtual online tool supports buying more frequently and taking on less risk as products sell in the marketplace, whereas the physical model doesn’t.”
The financial benefits extend to the brand side, too. Virtual showroom platform BrandLab has created digital environments for its customers that would be difficult to book in real life, whether due to cost or sheer practicality — the company says it could even host a showroom in space, if requested. Virtual showcases also eliminate the cost associated with multiple installations across markets.
“If a U.S. brand does not sell to Europe, but is planning to, there is a huge cost in finding agents or distributors, attending trade shows or paying for showrooms,” said Dan O’Connell, founder and chairman of BrandLab Fashion. “[Virtual showrooms] let a brand explore new ways of selling or attempt new capsules for new markets, without the huge cost of physically setting up.”
Then there’s the data captured from each digital experience, which is hard to track in a physical environment. Skuza noted that a brand would be able to measure which items buyers clicked on in real-time. Traditionally this information is only anecdotal evidence, collected by staff in the room. However, now the data could be used to predict the best performers and unpopular items, thus streamlining production and reducing waste.
The Next Evolution
As the footwear and fashion industries move toward a “new normal,” experts believe the future lies in a hybrid approach of virtual and physical showrooms. For instance, buyers might first review collections digitally and then save in-person assessments for their shortlist of products or favored brand partners.
To help ease companies into this new business model, digital showroom platforms are rolling out new enhancements to their existing offerings.
At Joor, an upcoming feature will allow brands and buyers to collaborate in real-time on interactive style boards, to improve the chance of conversion. BrandLab, meanwhile, is focusing on the quality of an immersive experience, suggesting that 360-degree imagery won’t be enough. For Le New Black, it’s about educating the customer on the value of the platform.
“Virtual showrooms should be a new point of contact for the brand. It should receive at least as much attention as any e-commerce website, both in terms of marketing and experience,” said Blanco. “An e-commerce website is required for any brand that wants to reach their B2C buyer; so too should be the virtual showroom for B2B.”
Ordre’s Lock, however, predicts that these platforms could eventually remove the need for a physical component at all. He believes that the ease of technology — and cost of physical buying sessions — will favor virtual solutions going forward.
For the most part, market experts believe samples and in-person showrooms won’t be completely erased. After all, face-to-face interactions have always been a critical part of the footwear industry, one known for its close-knit community. But going forward, they may be saved for other opportunities, like store openings or activations, leaving buyers to embrace a digital future.