While technology and innovation flourish on the consumer side of fashion, inside headquarters, not much has changed in years. The way in which merchandising and planning groups work and the systems they use have barely evolved from the three-ring binders and green screens of the 1970s. Buyers and merchandisers, many of whom grew up as digital natives, are caught in an awkward time warp as they navigate from their role as a consumer to their role as an employee in an office with technology that often stifles their natural capabilities.

That’s all changing—radically.

Buyers in pioneering organisations are getting into technologies that are transforming how they work, and how fast, by bringing more clarity than ever before to key merchandising and planning decisions.

Last night, your retail buyer rallied friends for dinner via Facebook, made an OpenTable reservation based on Yelp reviews, chose her outfit by querying Pinterest and asked Siri for driving directions. Her life and the way she makes decisions are informed by technology that’s engrained into the way she lives.

But when she arrived at work this morning, those richly designed mobile interfaces, fed by smart, dynamic artificial intelligence learning tools, were absent. Her power to translate real-time data into fast decisions went dormant for the day, and she faced the important task of driving her organisation’s assortment performance using analogue tools that resemble the Yellow Pages, Ceefax and Teletext.

The opportunity is significant.

While consumers have long since adapted to a more visual, data-driven and connected retail experience, most retailers have been incredibly slow to adapt data mining, predictive analytics and data visualisation tools within their organisations, leaving buyers to rely heavily on best guesses and instinct. Further, the various feeds of visual and analytical insights often interfere with one another, making it more difficult for buyers, merchandisers and suppliers to settle on the best action to grow sales or limit markdowns, etc.

Pioneering organisations are driving sustainable growth opportunities by adapting the technologies that exist in the consumer space and bringing them into retail management.

As they do, they are upgrading to high-definition tools with the intuitive functionality that employees have come to expect from technology they use in their daily lives. These HD Merchandising tools deliver four important improvements:

1. Help employees visualise product and attribute trends

2. Guide employees to new discoveries and previously hidden relationships

3. Give employees the power to interact and collaborate the way they do in social media

4. Connect employees and business partners around the globe in real time to make better, faster decisions together

VISUALISE

Consumers buy based on what they see. But in deciding what to offer them, buyers and merchandisers have been stuck in a process that disassociates product appearance from performance. It’s not possible for buyers and merchandisers to fully integrate their respective visual and analytical skills when each product is reduced to, for example, Style 7035276. Pioneering retailers are merging financial data and digital product images with planning software, rather than wading through SKUs and spreadsheets before transitioning to product sample rooms.

The days of “Monday Morning Reports” filled with rows and charts (even visually striking ones) will finally pass as digital-age performance reporting adapts to reflect our photo-centric culture. Interactive product imagery that is tied to financial performance metrics is enabling buyers and merchandisers to glean deeper insights more quickly by seeing trends instead of drudging through endless rows of data. This is driving more compelling assortments and simultaneously forecasting their profitability. These shifts are resulting in measurable performance improvements, including 10% to 20% increases in inventory productivity and up to 15% fewer markdowns, through decision-making processes that are 30% to 40% faster.

GUIDE

Buyers and merchandisers used to base decisions on limited information that was often a year old.

They now face the opposite problem—relentless streams of apparently conflicting data. No human can aggregate, digest and act on such a flood of inputs, leaving buyers and merchandisers humming along to white noise and, frankly, no better equipped to make decisions than in the past.

The call to action is to dramatically improve the tools that guide teams to discover better operational solutions every day. Fortunately, technology has caught up. Behind-the-scenes data mining now provides automated recommendations to guide buyers’ and merchandisers’ focus to key areas for evaluation, using statistics to correlate product, location and customer attributes with performance and financial metrics. Rather than spending time crunching data that may or may not provide actionable results, buyers and merchandisers can now rely on software to suggest mathematically intelligent actions. The software identifies business opportunities in real time that might otherwise have been blurred among the spreadsheets, report binders and sample racks.

This guided interaction with data lets buyers and merchandisers focus more on strategy, improve their processes and deliver better, faster recommendations. For example, wholesalers can make more informed and easily understood recommendations to retailers regarding pre-season product selection, quantities and allocations, and in-season re-orders, resulting in faster order decisions and fewer missed opportunities.

Also, these high-definition merchandising tools help buyers and merchandisers coordinate with marketing by easily sharing images of real-time top sellers that are available in inventory. As such, the products that anchor the retailer’s home page or catalogue cover can be the ones with the most financial potential right now.

INTERACT

Consumers have been conditioned to expect dynamic screen interactions. We hover our cursor over digital images knowing we’ll see additional information. We click photos, and new windows of product details appear focused solely on the selected product—yet it is only now that buyers and merchandisers are able to leverage such functionality to make business decisions.

On the merchandising side, such technology allows access to point-of-sale data that updates, reorganises and filters images—not codes—on interactive reports. The days of scrolling to spreadsheet cell AC36 for a statistic on Style 7035276 have gone the way of overhead projectors, replaced by dynamic images, in this case tied to instantly viewable sales data.

On the buying side, images that can be dragged and dropped let buyers digitally manipulate assortment plans until an optimal visual and financial mix is achieved.

Pioneering retailers are ensuring that the technology which buyers and merchandisers use reflects the evolution of consumer-facing technology. And as consumers migrate to mobile, so too can this technology. What’s really interesting is that interactive software with guided recommendations and dynamic photos lends itself to mobile communication in ways that spreadsheets and physical samples never could.

The promise is that mobile technology could unchain buyers from their desks, allowing them to spend more time visiting stores, competitive shopping, networking with vendors and observing consumers while simultaneously working directly with one another to make critical business decisions.

CONNECT

Buyers and merchandisers in pioneering organisations are now finding the same connectivity at work as they have become accustomed to in their personal lives e.g. instant messaging, video calls and peer group feedback on daily decisions via social media.

Taking assortment planning, line reviews and style-outs into the digital workplace enables teams to better collaborate across geographies and functions. Travel downtime is now used to participate in virtual style-out meetings and to remotely approve open-to-buy requests.

Buyers and merchandisers are also incorporating social media insights into their processes. They are crowd sourcing product feedback both internally among colleagues and externally among consumers as well as reviewing blogs and product reviews to understand their customers’ requirements. Retailers are using these near real-time insights to inform past-season performance reviews and future-season planning. This allows the consumer to drive how products are grouped and reviewed by buyers. It also helps retailers talk to consumers in their own language, and buyers and merchandisers should be speaking that same language when planning assortments, reviewing product performance and gleaning insights from past seasons.

“The language that we actually use when marketing our products comes from language that we hear in our reviews and social media,” Diane Ellis, CEO of The Limited, said in a 2015 NRF Big Show omnichannel panel moderated by Kurt Salmon partner and retired Macy’s CAO Tom Cole. “Many times, we tried to come up with great descriptors for a product—why the fit is great or why a particular style—and it didn’t necessarily resonate with the client. But being able to leverage her testimonials—using the actual customer language about the fit, style, fashion—really was important to her. We can then bring that into our language.”

BENEFITS AND WHERE TO START

Only a handful of companies have started the switch to high-definition merchandising, but it will soon become the standard, and the results are startling. Pioneering retailers and brands, having liberated the digital natives among their buyers and merchandisers, are achieving sales increases of up to 5% and improvements in stock turns of up to 20%.

The roadmap required to deliver high-definition merchandising varies depending on each organisation’s starting point and priorities. Each of the visual, guided, interactive and connected advancements yields incremental business improvements that, when woven together, create a truly revolutionary model which represents the perfect fit for today’s digital world.