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Katie Baron, Director of Brand Engagement at Stylus and one
of Retail Futures 2020 Critical Friends

There is no doubt that COVID 19 has brought unprecedented challenge to the retail industry, prompting a feeling of ‘reset and rethink’. In many ways Retail Futures 2020, the Fashion District Innovation Challenge Prize, couldn’t be happening at a more relevant time. The competition, for fashion-tech start-ups with innovations that could transform the future of retail, is also a window of opportunity for both the start-ups and retailers. Unearthing the founders and bringing them together with industry experts, Critical Friends, will allow them to test the potential and explore the application of their ideas, possibly resulting in a wave of new thinking. 

Stylus, are the trends partner for Retail Futures 2020, and they are offering the winner a 12 month membership of providing access to essential cross-industry consumer insights and free entry to Decoded Future London. Fashion District Director, Helen Lax, asked Katie Baron, Director of Brand Engagement at Stylus and also one of the competition’s Critical Friends, about her expectations of the applicants, especially in the context of the current retail environment. 

With lockdown raising anxieties about the
physical brand environment there are also numerous
opportunities to elevate the way technology is used in-store to
add practical, personal or theatrical value”.

Katie Baron

HELEN LAX: What will you be looking for when you meet the shortlisted SME businesses? 

KATIE BARON: Either originality – a totally new ‘product’ or initiative that’s responding to new appetites – or something that improves, evolves or perfects existing genres (such as virtual fit, to name just one) by embedding new tech, connectivity or interfaces etc. that acknowledge the user’s perspective more deeply. 

I’ll be looking for people that have observed how consumer attitudes and behaviours have shifted over the last year or so – in retail but also in wider terms as regards how people are now consuming, engaging with brands or indeed interacting with one another within retail or social media, to ensure that their idea genuinely responds to the prevailing mood and needs.

I’m also most excited by people who are willing to consider collaborative partnerships, including those with sectors beyond retail, that may be the key to unlocking their idea in full. This is equally true regardless of whether the tech is consumer-facing or more operationally focused. We often see decent ideas that become great when a pivot or partnership is suggested.

HELEN: What do you think will be their key factors for success?

KATIE: It’s important that the idea can really hold its own – that it’s something that has the capacity to be evolved by the team that has devised it and won’t become usurped or could simply be replicated by a brand’s in-house team in a couple of months. Understanding how the idea may be freshly iterated is key, alongside a degree of agility to cope with a landscape that’s constantly in flux. 

The ideas need to have a very clear benefit to either brands or consumers. This may sound obvious, but we sometimes see some very clever uses of or development of technologies that are largely irrelevant in terms of real-world usage. 

An idea that’s possible to deploy at scale is also likely to be key.

HELEN: What challenges facing the industry can fashion tech SMEs address?

KATIE: While lockdown has been great in terms of spurring a huge uptick in digital engagement it’s also shone a spotlight on how lacklustre many digital brand experiences really are, how poor many brand omni-channel strategies are and the soaring need to reimagine data to ensure relevancy online.  There is now a brilliant opportunity to dive into those spaces and make a massive difference. 

On a practical level for fashion brands there are also numerous issues including virtual fit and product trialling/testing, sensory engagement, how to deal with overstocks, connecting online search to physical spaces, how to navigate and embrace online communities. Delivering retail tech that serves to better humanise the brand experience is another excellent area to address. 

With lockdown raising anxieties about the physical brand environment there are also numerous opportunities to elevate the way technology is used in-store to add practical, personal or theatrical value – from pre-booking concierge tools to zero-touch technologies that will maintain top tier experiential concepts while still in ‘safe social’ mode.

HELEN: What is your advice to a growing retail tech SME in this time of COVID 19? 

KATIE: Feel optimistic about having hit a highly unusual period in time where consumers’ affinity with technology has never been higher. The key is to look at which areas of retail have experienced an acceleration since Covid-19 struck, and why, and draw on those appetites.