The world of retail has been moving toward the digital realm for some time, but the Covid crisis of the past 10 months has throttled that shift into overdrive.
Shoppers are increasingly using e-commerce to fulfill their fashion needs as many brick-and-mortar stores remain shuttered. And with physical showrooms closed and in-person trade shows canceled, brand and retail buyers are increasingly looking to conduct business virtually.
While 2020 has quickened the pace, there have long been advantages to moving certain operations online, according to Aditi Pany, founder and CEO of digital wholesale marketplace Qalara.
Based in Bangalore, India, the Qalara platform aims to connect a network of artisans and small-batch suppliers across Southeast Asia to retailers around the globe. Pany, who spent a decade working for India’s largest retailer, Reliance Retail, along with other consumer goods businesses, founded the marketplace in 2019 as a means of elevating the profile of small, ethical manufacturers of responsibly sourced goods.
The site, which is backed by Reliance Industries, features home decor, apparel, fashion accessories and furniture, all made by vetted artisans and supply chains. “We define consciousness as goods that are handmade, artisanal, eco-friendly, organically produced, recycled,” or what the group calls “fair and social”—products that are value-driven or made by underserved groups like widowed women or the disabled, Pany said.
“Our intent was really to offer the economies of aggregation to small producers and enable them to be competitive in the global economy,” Pany added. But the platform is also designed to help small-to-midsize businesses (SMBs) and retailers across the globe source “conveniently and reliably from this part of the world.”
“These kinds of goods are not just a trend today,” she said. “I think they’re inherent to a broader, meaningful move to sustainable consumption.”
Qalara hand picks each of its partners, and it has also worked to connect them with a wide range of vetted downstream materials suppliers in order to increase traceability, control pricing and lower lead times.
While the company’s primary buyers currently reside in Europe, the U.K. and Australia, business in the U.S. and Canada is picking up. What’s more, Southeast Asian buyers are beginning to show interest in the locally sourced goods on the platform.
A critical advantage to doing business online is the ability to quickly and efficiently leverage data, Pany said. In serving different markets, it’s important to understand what’s trending regionally in terms of aesthetics, silhouettes, price points and other factors. “We are at a very initial level but we’re also beginning to mine data across these markets, to be able to translate that into more precise product direction,” she said. Qalara also sees opportunities to collaborate with businesses, especially digitally native ones, on co-creating products tailored specially to their audiences.
The responsibly sourced, artisanal, small-batch production model—which is quickly gaining traction as the antithesis to the wasteful mass production responsible for fast fashion’s rise—is actually perfectly suited for the Internet age, Pany said. Producers in Qalara’s network can quickly create small quantities of goods based on data-driven buyer needs, eliminating waste. And if something doesn’t resonate with shoppers, retailers can pivot quickly during the selling season, effectively chasing sales.
Despite its many facets, Pany was quick to call Qalara a technology-based company. She is intent on leveraging the tools that the tech space has to offer, in service of makers, retailers and the end consumer. To promote traceability, the company is using QR codes on the tags and product pages for a range of items that link to geo-tagged videos of their production processes.
“When consumers scan it at a point of sale, which could be digital or physical, you can just look at an abridged video of the product being made,” she said. “We can also provide the name of the artisan or the community, and provide a link so that consumes can make a direct contribution.” That engagement, she added, could be critical to providing an “aha” moment for shoppers, who are becoming increasingly interested in where and how products are made.
Pany believes seamless engagement and transparency between retailers, manufacturers and shoppers is the way of the future. “This is our small way of close-looping the supply chain,” she said.