How Subsequent-Gen Tech — Like NFTs — Are Disrupting Retail

Consumers may be overwhelmed and understimulated by their newfound online shopping habits.

“The more sites there are, the more brands there are, the more direct-to-consumer brands there are — the more overwhelming shopping has become,” said Julie Bornstein, chief executive officer and cofounder of mobile shopping app start-up The Yes, at the Fairchild Media Group’s Tech Forum.

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The session was titled “The View From Next-Gen Fashion and Retail” and covered everything from NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, to the direct-to-consumer trends defining the new retail environment. The conversation was moderated by Adriana Lee, technology reporter at WWD.

Witnessing the steady progression of digital in fashion over the past 20 years in various retail mainstays including Urban Outfitters, Sephora and Nordstrom, Bornstein also counts a recent chief operating officer role at Stitch Fix. Today, she is convinced that “there’s a shift in where people are buying that will continue to grow but off of a larger [e-commerce] base that happened over this last year.”

To service that shift and remedy snags in the experience, she launched The Yes in May 2020 after two years in development. The app tailors shopping recommendations based on a series of yes/no questions and includes a range of fashion so contemporary brands like Everlane and luxury brands like Bottega Veneta appear in unison.

“Basically what I was trying to do, as a professional shopper myself, was to take the amazing brands that exist on the market — really high-to-low and emerging to established and covering all categories, and say, ‘Let’s bring you all together and make it easier for the customer to really find what she’s looking for in one place and make the pain points of commerce simpler,’” Bornstein said.

The Yes recently iterated on that mission with the launch of its e-commerce platform, which borrows the same data intelligence as the successful app.

While Bornstein found success launching amid the pandemic, many others continue to hold their breaths in anticipation as to whether a turn toward athleisure or more dressy apparel will stick.

“I think it’s going to be a bit of a gradual return,” Bornstein said. “Since March, each month, we’ve seen a doubling of going out clothes, whether it’s dresses or heels selling, so you can tell that people are vying to go out again, and it’s exciting to see. So, I do think that there will be a boom but that it will come back more gradually, in part, because different places are opening at different times, and in part, because work is going to be a little slower. Probably in the fall, we’ll be buying workwear again. I think by the beginning of next year, we’ll be in a great place, and hopefully, there is some revenge buying as well,” she added.

From an innovation standpoint, the pandemic could serve as a bit of a wake-up call.

“I think the pandemic crushed budgets, so people were in a good way forced to think about ‘OK, maybe we can’t do technology as a marketing gimmick,’ which I’m not a fan of,” added Karinna Nobbs, co-chief executive officer, The Dematerialised, an invite-only marketplace for authenticated virtual goods which launched amid the pandemic as well. “We need to think: ‘How can this technology be useful? What pain points does it solve in the customer journey?’ That is a true, critical success factor of innovation.”

Speaking of digital innovation, NFTs are one such phenomenon growing in appeal in the fashion and art worlds.

On whether NFTs will have lasting resonance, Nobbs said they are not just for hype but rather are the “ultimate embodiment of direct-to-consumer because it means you can directly retain loyalties on a lifetime level.”

Nobbs also warned laggards who fail to see the value, saying “just because it’s digital doesn’t mean it’s not real.” An Edinburgh-born educator on the pulse of innovation, Nobbs founded a circular economy concept store called “HOT:SECOND” two years ago. The store enabled people to trade physical goods for digital garment experiences.

On The Dematerialised (her current venture), digital NFT collections like “RenaiXance,” a seven-piece co-branded collection that included items like earrings and corsets, sold out in a matter of minutes — or seconds in the case of a secret sneaker drop.

The Dematerialised recently launched a drop with digital brand Tribute Brand (since sold out) which included effervescent gowns, jeans and a shimmery image mimicking gaseous matter.

She reiterated that NFTs are also “brilliant for fandom or loyalty,” saying brand loyalists will be eager to save important historical moments via NFTs. Already luxury brands such as Burberry, and most recently, Givenchy Parfums are in the NFT game.

Some hiccups remain in adoption, as users still need to retain cryptocurrencies and set up dedicated crypto wallets before owning special brand moments.

And it’s not just the crypto or luxury community buying into NFTs, but also the sustainability consumers who, according to Nobbs, “want to know what can they do with it when they don’t need it anymore,” asking whether items can increase in value in the future.

However, the mining of cryptocurrencies is already under criticism for its hefty environmental impact caused by the power-intensive computer calculations, and NFTs are accessory to that.

Regardless, both Bornstein and Nobbs remain excited for what the future holds — be it artificial intelligence elevating the purchase experience or the proliferation of AI-driven robot nail salons (in San Francisco, of course).

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