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AAFA: How Technology is Driving Change in Selling and Sourcing

Technology is transforming the retail industry faster than most can fathom, but the American Apparel & Footwear Association is keeping its members abreast of what’s happening.

At the Association’s 2014 Annual Executive Summit last week, industry leaders talked all things tech and addressed what businesses will have to do to remain relevant in the very near future.

Kurt Cavano, GT Nexus founder, chairman and chief strategy officer spoke at the summit’s opening session and said we are entering “The New Machine Age.” It’s becoming increasingly easier to develop and adopt new technologies, and the changes are happening fast, he noted.

According to Cavano, Bill Gates put it best when he said, “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.”

Innovate or die may be the latest buzz phrase in the industry, and while the notion has never been truer, retailers will have to start implementing new ideas to keep pace with the changing consumer.

It wouldn’t have been a tech talk without mentioning Amazon’s futuristic mini drone delivery service called Amazon Prime Air, which could soon be delivering orders to consumers via an octocopter that loads itself and then uses GPS to travel to a shipping address within thirty minutes.

“We are all chasing Amazon,” Cavano said. But one tip Cavano gave for staying at the forefront of what’s happening with technology is to explore what innovators are doing on Kickstarter. Because of the crowd-funding concept behind the platform, young designers are able to do things “completely riskless” which fosters unhindered creativity.

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Cavano also discussed the concept of “Collaborative Commerce,” the new sharing model behind brands like ZipCar and Uber, a new app that lets you call a driver at the touch of a smartphone button.

“Millennials are happy to not own,” Cavano said. “They are happy to share.”

In terms of the apparel industry specifically, companies like Threadflip, which lets users buy and share second-hand clothing from their closets, and Bib + Tuck, a fashion swap site where users can sell items from pre-approved brands, are also capitalizing on the sharing model.

At StoreEnvy, a virtual mall of sorts, emerging brands can launch custom stores in a matter of minutes. With online store builder Shopify, users can create an e-commerce site in less than half an hour. “On a Saturday afternoon, you can start a whole store,” Cavano said.

Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing is another transformative trend in the industry and the advent of at-home printing looms could change the landscape of ready-to-wear. OpenKnit, a loom-like device can turn 3D printing files into finished knitted clothing and while the company is still tweaking the technology, the goal is to soon be able to allow consumers to make custom clothing at home.

Digital printing has quickly risen in popularity and with the advances in technology, it just keeps getting cheaper to print, Cavano said. Consumers can now print digitally for as little as $0.50 per square foot.

Then there’s the whole notion of omnichannel: creating a seamless experience that lets consumers shop anytime, anywhere. Also, the offerings arising that allow for that easy experience will be vital for retailers.

The concept behind commerce platform Mozu is “Limitless Commerce,” the kind of experience today’s shopper is constantly seeking. Mozu helps business manage their entire online presence in one place from commerce to branding to customer engagement and publishing. ”It’s putting an omnichannel front-end wrap on your back office,” Cavano said.

With Bonobos Guideshops, men can walk into a showroom of sorts, get fit and style advice from expert guides and then any purchases made are delivered to their doorstep within a couple of days.

At Yihaodian, Walmart China’s e-commerce business, customers engage in 2D commerce and peruse virtual aisles, select the groceries they want, and the goods in their “shopping cart” get delivered home later that day.

Because many of today’s retail offerings and services are happening online and operating costs are going down, it’s getting more affordable for retailers to offer better services.

Since Blue Nile, an online fine jewelry retailer, operates solely on the web, it’s able to offer diamonds and gemstones at much more affordable rates. And a company called 20×200 is doing the same thing for high-end art.

“This technology is empowering a whole new set of disrupters,” Cavano said. “Take a look at what the technology is doing and how it is empowering people to grow so fast that they are changing the world.”

And when it comes to innovation, expansion and growth, “Don’t just think about going overseas,” Cavano said, “Overseas is coming here.” China-based based e-commerce giant Alibaba Group just announced they’d be opening virtual store fronts in the U.S., Cavano explained.

Cavano’s final takeaway for the audience: “Follow the Geeks,” he said. “The geeks are changing the world.”