Can a Digital Tailor Help a Global Retailer Individualize its Offering?

In Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, viewers are treated to two fantastic scenes that show the futuristic world of retail.

Set in 2054, the first shows how advertising uses retinal scanning to hyper-individualize offers. The film's lead, John Anderton, no longer sees just ads, but Lexus, American Express, and Guinness personalize promotions that communicate to him on a first-name basis, with details of his membership and how products would fit his unique lifestyle.

In the second scene, Mr. Yakamoto (John again, but with a new set of eyes) enters a Gap. Again, the retinal scans identify him, and allow the store to communicate and engage with him on a personalized level, discussing his past purchases and preferences.

Outside of the use of a traditional mall (RIP), the scenes show a prescient understanding of the megatrends in personalization we've come to expect in the experience economy.

Consumers have quickly come to demand customized news feeds and radio stations that are personalized to your listening preferences - but has the same degree of hyper-individualization reached the realm of modern retail?

Of the most advanced retailers, Suitsupply has rapidly vaulted above its peers. Their immaculately crafted digital and physical experiences have allowed them to personalize shopping in new ways. Their continued expansion (and their fantastic new women’s line) shows the value in their unique formula, blending outstanding products with consumer-centric retail technologies. Their savvy use of Salesforce as a CRM platform, real-time text updates for alterations, and mobile scanning/MSR check-outs are just a few examples of their thought leadership in this space.

Suitsupply's meteoric rise is the perfect inverse to the downfall of so many major retailers who have not managed to deliver in the experience economy - massive chains like Macy's, J.C. Penny, Gap (uh oh Minority Report), and Payless have recently announced mammoth store closures.

The modern consumer's appetite for heightened levels of individualization continues to dismantle massive businesses who deliver genericized offerings.

That is except, for perhaps Uniqlo.

The Japanese brand, which operates over 1,600 global locations and has ambitions of being the largest retailer in the world, would seem a similarly vulnerable target in the era of rampant personalization. Slowdowns in their US expansion are perhaps evidence of this, but a recent Uniqlo announcement hints that it may be the lone major fast-fashion retailer to be stealing pages from savvy higher-end and online-only retailers.

The offering, a first for Uniqlo, is a new bespoke men's shirt program. Leveraging their knack for simplistic design, the online-only program allows a customer to have a shirt tailored to their sizing and stylistic preferences in four easy steps. In testing, the purchase can be completed in less than 45 seconds, and it guarantees home delivery in less than a week – all for less than $30.

Consumers may have questions on product quality and value, but if you’ve read this far, the right question to ask is, how does a custom shirt offering allow Uniqlo to fortify it’s physical network of 1,600 stores while its peers are being decimated?

And that’s the elegance of the program. What postures as an innocuous men’s tailored shirt offering, is a perfectly designed means for collecting aggregate market data on sizing and stylistic tendencies, that can transform the way stores manage and augment their inventories. With 800+ shirt permutations, a smart brand like Uniqlo can look at purchase data, identify trends or patterns, and distill their in-store offerings accordingly. Much like Amazon uses AWS to test the market for better hosts for their online business, Uniqlo is using their new shirting program to digitally test their markets for how they should adjust inventory levels.

The ultimate genius here is that it allows for a brand that’s regularly lumped into the fast-fashion category, to begin the process of stocking smart inventory, that can compete for customers looking for more individualization. Not necessarily an altogether novel retail concept, but a particularly important one for a brand who’s inventory fluctuates little from store-to-store, or even season-to-season.

And in the end, perhaps we should have expected this. Tadashi Yanai, the founder of Uniqlo, has said that in the new retail battleground, "information and digital innovation will determine the winner." He's recognized that this is the very strategy that's bolstered the global appeal of innovative brands like Suitsupply, and to compete going forward, Uniqlo needs to be just as inventive.

Just as the new rules of retail were forecasted by Minority Report, Uniqlo seems the most adept of the apparel mega-retailers to learn from them and adapt. After all, in the experience economy, personalization is the only size that fits.

Addison Hoover