CoBots and Snapshots
Fellow Robots, a Silicon Valley robotics company specialises in retail inventory tracking cobots shop assistants. Is this the future of retail?
Fashion has never moved faster. Inspiration is everywhere and when it strikes, buying the look your heart desires is as simple as tapping an app. Next day delivery is commonplace. Luxury retailers, like Net-A-Porter and city-based boutiques even offer same-day delivery. But – as the most stylish among us will know – simplicity takes work, and today’s apparel businesses have a feat of strategy, scheduling and budgeting to perform in order to get those jeans to die for directly to your doorstep.
“They [fashion retailers] launch sometimes up to sixty ranges per annum. And when they do, the products come into their Distribution Centre [DC] at different times because they’re sourced at different manufacturers – knitwear in Portugal, jeans in China or Vietnam, jerseys in Tunisia etc. But the time to launch all the product lines is set.”
Maurits Teunissen, CEO of StyleShoots has worked in the industry for over thirty years and knows exactly what it takes to meet the expectations of today’s fashionistas. In the background, time is everything and it’s critical that the latest fashions spend the shortest possible time in the DC before landing in your wardrobe.
It should be an adventure to shop online – it should be fun and entertaining! It should be cool!
Before the products are anywhere near the DC, retailers are already planning how they will push your style buttons. In the days before online, fashion held all the cards, scheduling launches by season, using worldwide Fashion Weeks as the guide to the looks we would all see on the High Street in the coming months. Today, we expect to be able to buy whatever we see, when we see it. But apparel and footwear were a little slow to catch up.
By the time traditional fashion retailers started to make the move into online stores, Maurits and his team had already developed a a 3D imaging tool to help retailers plan their store layouts, supported by “a very basic photo studio kit”. As it transpired, this tool was to become fundamental to the images we now see in apps, digital signage and – crucially – on social media.
“By 2008/9 our customers at Adidas, Hugo Boss and Tommy Hilfiger came to us saying ‘Well we’re using your imagery for our in-store communications, but we would like to use it to populate our website’”
Businesses were capturing photos as if they were shooting for Vogue or Cosmopolitan. But the rules of the game are different…
Sounds crazy to think that just ten years ago, big name brands were looking for a way to bring their in-store offering to life online, but when you think about the volume of lines, seasons and simply responding to street style trends, apparel is a complex beast…compared to, say, white goods. The challenge lay in constantly creating a web-ready ‘catalogue’ that could cope with high volumes of new products, presented in an appealing way, but was also time and cost effective. “It's a huge constraint, getting all the content ready to go online,” explains Maurits
Maurits’ team, led by Product Development Director Anders Jorgensen, started to study the way that images were captured by these retailers and quickly concluded that it was quite a cumbersome process.
‘Fashion shoot’ conjures up images of a glamourous location or a whitewashed studio, with models, a photographer, assistants, stylists, makeup artist and set builders. Editorial fashion shoots are long and expensive, even before you factor in post-production retouching and editing. While many fashion retailers still find the ‘fashion edit’ (as the editorial is often referred to) a valuable part of their marketing and PR mix, the reality is that most online fashion photography is just product photography. But these simple shots of clothing – designed to show fabric, shape, fit and colour – still require space, time and money.
And the players in online fashion are potentially endless. If your brand is right and can get the right product in the hands of the right people at the right time – for the best possible price, then you’re quickly a darling. Fashion is fast, and its lovers are fickle, so in order to be competitive you have to move quickly and get those looks online first. However, producing hundreds of product images a day is a big challenge and, as Maurits explains, you have limited options.
You can assign more people – more photographers, more cameras and more retouchers. Or you can think smart and use technology.
“We looked at the way businesses were struggling with images, spending massive amounts of money on creating content and we thought there must be a better way. So, we formed a team with the task to streamline that process and make sure that these businesses can get their hands-on high-quality content in seconds instead of hours.”
This team led to the birth of Styleshoots ‘Horizontal’ and ‘Vertical’ systems – for simple product shots – quickly followed by Styleshoots ‘Live’, a system for creating images and video content with a model in a fraction of the time of traditional fashion shoots.
All the Styleshoots systems are essentially a complete photo studio in one machine, meaning that the model can simply walk in and out of the ‘booth’ and be photographed or videoed instantly, with consistent light and camera angles for every shot. It’s a groundbreaking piece of technology that combines the Canon EOS 5D, 1DX or new EOS R with powerful software run by a Mac and controlled by intuitive software on an iPad. The camera movement is automated with robotics and the images captured, processed, resized and output, ready for use, in seconds. Video can be ready for upload in fifteen minutes – including any editing for multiple channels. “Even the most efficient studio couldn’t produce 60 to 80 cinematic product videos a day, but our customers are”, says Maurits. It means that walk-through videos and social media stories alike are generated at the touch of a button.
Social media has dictated this need for speed, and while Styleshoots’ technology was once helping to match the expectations of demanding fashion lovers, there’s an argument to say that it’s now the driver of demand. Online fashion giant Zalando operates on the principle of ‘same day produced’, “so the goods arrive in the morning, and they have them online at the end of the day.” In under 24 hours, they can be all over Instagram, giving the fashion hungry their latest fix.
The future potential is even more incredible. By building new technologies into Styleshoots, it’s conceivable that photography for online fashion retailers may be about to get smarter. Artificial Intelligence and multi-camera set-ups that can build new information into the photographic equation and may change the look and feel of how a product is presented.
“If I am a womenswear retailer selling a red knitted top to the Californian market, I can style it with hot pants. But in another state, the same red top would be paired with jeans or a skirt.”
Speed to market, adaptability, reduced costs and a greater understanding of their customers through AI? Despite playing catch-up, apparel, footwear and accessories retailers are now fast in deploying the tech tools and analytic insights that see them becoming the ones to watch at the forefront of innovation. And you only have to open an app to see it.