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Bonobos Exec Micky Onvural on the Best Uses for AR, VR

As a digital native, Bonobos is finding the balance between physical retailing and wielding technology to innovate the shopping experience.

Speaking at the Intersect Fashion conference in New York City, Bonobos co-president and CMO Micky Onvural said the men’s wear retailer constantly evaluates the technology landscape but remains caution about investing in areas that doesn’t add value or improve the customer experience. “I don’t know if our job is to create new technologies and ask consumers to adopt new things,” Onvural said. “I think our job is to take technologies that have reached critical mass of adoption and make them more relevant to their needs and the needs of our business.”

Alexa is one such technology that’s approaching critical mass among consumers, Onvural added. So far, digital voice assistants have proven most useful for replenishment ordering of household essentials, though because of their growing popularity—especially among digital natives—brands are trying to figure out the best approach to these emerging voice services. “What I’m fascinated [with] is how to leverage that technology to deliver the customer experience in a way that makes Bonobos even more indispensable,” Onvural said.

Imagine querying Alexa in the morning about a suitable outfit for the day because it’s pouring outside—and ideally, she’d replied with something like “Bonobos says you should wear your tech chinos because they’re water repellant,” Onvural explained. That kind of interaction could add value without immediately defaulting to commerce—though selling through Alexa is something Bonobos could be interested in further down the line.

Even “buzzwords” like virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) must be evaluated thoughtfully instead of being rolled out just because they’re the newest cool kids on the block. Onvural emphasized that new technology must provide some sort of tangible benefit to the customer. Digital fitting rooms are another technology that’s oft-discussed in fashion circles—but how do they help shoppers?

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“I don’t know if it’s there yet to offer a really valuable experience to the customer, and certainly not necessarily a more valuable experience than coming into the store,” Onvural said.

However, high tech’s sweet spot is powering fashion experiences that neither stores nor e-commerce can provide at the moment. “Imagine buying ski clothing; you can’t really demo that in a store, and you can’t ski online,” Onvural said. “But if you create a VR experience that enables you to have the experience of what it would be like to take them down the slopes, wouldn’t that be great? What are the experiences that technology can create that don’t work in the store or work online today?”

Bonobos’ Outfitter feature helps customers create full head-to-toe looks and is getting a much-need tech upgrade. Previously a process that merchants managed manually, the Outfitter now uses artificial intelligence to automate tagging products with attributes, making the tool much more scalable, the CMO said.

Five months into 2018, the “retail apocalypse” headlines are beginning to fade, and Onvural agreed that stores will be relevant for the foreseeable future—though their form and function likely will evolve. “I believe there will always be a place for customers to come look, feel, touch product and have a human interaction,” she said.

“Now we have to take that concept…into new formats. We’re working on something for later this year that is more of a local store. This is not revolutionary by any shape or form,” Onvural added. “But we’re starting to think about how to stay true to the concept but evolve in terms of what the experience is like for the customer and what it looks like in its physical manifestation. So it’s less for me about the future of physical stores as we know it and think about it. It’s more about how you maintain that concept of the interaction.”

Bonobos runs 49 physical locations, including 18 that opened in 2017 and one that launched this year. In stores or “guideshops” that don’t carry physical inventory, the employee-customer interaction is everything.

“It’s interesting how quickly you can get into a conversation with people when it doesn’t feel like selling,” Onvural said. “When it’s getting to know the total human, it’s not necessarily about ‘buy these pants.’ It starts a very different conversation.”

In fact, unlike traditional approaches to retail staffing, Bonobos store associates, AKA “guides,” aren’t incentivized to sell product in the moment. Instead, “they’re incentivized to build a relationship, which I think changes the dynamic and makes customers more willing to open up,” Onvural explained.