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e-commerce Podcast Startups technology

Warby Parker on why technology is the lynchpin to customer service

Technology can enable us to do great things, says Warby Parker co-founder and CEO, Neil Blumenthal, with regards to the brand’s meteoric rise in the direct-to-consumer space, on the latest episode of the Innovators podcast by the Current Global.

Speaking to Liz Bacelar at this year’s NRF Big Show in New York, Blumenthal explains how technology is critical to making customers’ lives easier.

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Warby Parker sees itself sitting at the intersection of three communities – tech, fashion, and social enterprise, he notes. It’s both a tech company and a retailer focused on creating products and services that tangibly impact consumers every day.

Warby Parker is one of Silicon Valley’s first so-called unicorns, a special group of startups that exceed expectations to pioneer within their own category by hitting over $1bn in valuation – including Airbnb, Uber and WeWork.

The nine-year-old company has paved the way to creating a great retail experience that transverses seamlessly between online and offline, and as a result, inspired the business model of many single-product focused startups known to consumers today – from suitcases at Away,  to footwear at Allbirds.

But from its scrappy beginnings hosting a showroom at Blumenthal’s New York apartment, to being one of the first DTC brands to launch a brick-and-mortar retail space, the eyewear company has had a razor sharp focus on treating the whole experience of buying glasses as a single product – from trial to wear.

From its successful at-home trial program to digital eye tests, Warby Parker works with a team of in-house technologists to constantly iterate its approach to better serving the customer. For example, after receiving feedback that it was inconvenient for customers to take time off work to get an eye exam, it developed a prescription app that pairs an iPhone to a second screen to test the user’s vision. Recently, it then deployed Apple’s new AR technology to launch a virtual try-on feature.

During this conversation, Blumenthal also shares how the brand has been built to resonate with multiple consumer segments, the importance of the social aspect of the company, and why he sees Amazon more as inspiration, rather than threat.

Liz Bacelar and Neil Blumenthal Warby Parker
Liz Bacelar and Neil Blumenthal

Catch up with all of our episodes of the Innovators podcast by the Current Global here. The series is a weekly conversation with visionaries, executives and entrepreneurs. It’s backed by the Current Global, a consultancy transforming how consumer retail brands intersect with technology. We deliver innovative integrations and experiences, powered by a network of top technologies and startups. Get in touch to learn more.

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business Editor's pick Podcast Retail technology

Retailers are holding back real innovation, reveals departing leader of Neiman Marcus iLab

The head of the Neiman Marcus iLab, one of most established retail innovation programs in the world, no longer believes internal teams can deliver the results needed to drive the industry forward.

Incubation units dedicated to innovation through technology are held back by the culture of the legacy organizations in which they have been built, and the cumbersome procurement processes that surround them, Scott Emmons highlights.

Emmons is backing his statement by departing the lab he founded in 2012 to take up a new position as Chief Technology Officer at TheCurrent Global, a consultancy transforming how fashion and retail brands intersect with technology.

“Corporate innovation programs seem to start strong and sharp, but over time, they are devoured and diminished by surrounding day-to-day business processes, making it nearly impossible to maintain momentum. It’s one thing to talk to agility and risk, but when you’re not built for either, measured by cost reductions and operating within a silo, results tend only to be incremental. It’s time for that to change. For fashion and retail brands to succeed, they need to shift from an internally driven culture to one focused on open innovation with the world’s top technology and talent,” says Emmons.

The move marks a new era for retail innovation. Traditional businesses introduced internal innovation teams at a time when digital transformation was the primary goal. Increased competition from nimble digital players, or those willing and able to take risk, resulted in a need for experimentation.

The promise of these incubation units was around driving change from an operations, marketing and corporate culture standpoint in the context of toughening market conditions and ever-increasing consumer expectations. But with the majority of retailers focused on solving and building solutions internally – instantly limiting them on resource and breadth of expertise – successful results have been relatively sporadic.

Neiman Marcus has always been a frontrunner in the retail innovation space, largely thanks to the work Emmons has done. This has included a memory mirror, 4K touch table lookbooks, store associate IOT communicators, intelligent mobile phone charging stations and new fitting room technology.

But Emmons now believes corporate culture and processes are counterproductive to recruiting, onboarding and maintaining relationships with startups or innovative solution providers. He joins TheCurrent Global to focus on that aim alongside founders Liz Bacelar, Chief Executive Officer, and Rachel Arthur, Chief Innovation Officer. Founded in 2017, TheCurrent Global has worked with clients including Gucci, Burberry, Tiffany & Co, Mulberry, Shiseido, Swarovski, LVMH and the British Fashion Council to bring open innovation and actionable insights to fashion and retail brands.

“I am honored to join the team at TheCurrent Global to integrate top technology solutions from around the world into a multitude of retail and brand partners. This methodology is what the industry needs – an agile workforce that can act as an extension of your team,” says Emmons.

Liz Bacelar, CEO, TheCurrent Global, comments: “Real innovation can only happen today by tackling problems in a new way. We all know it is insanity to expect different results using the same approaches. With the help of outside experts, businesses can achieve growth in a new way, with both speed and efficiency. What TheCurrent Global brings is the ability to take the incredible work Scott has done at Neiman Marcus and take it to CEOs who want to lead the innovation conversation. We do that by relying on our industry expertise and access to an ecosystem of thousands of curated startups, technologies and entrepreneurs from around the world.”

UPDATE: Emmons’ story has hit headlines this week, including in WWD, The Business of Fashion, Glossy, Fashion United and more. Before this amazing press coverage, we sat down with him for our Innovators podcast to discuss his reasons for leaving Neiman Marcus, and exactly what he’s going to bring to TheCurrent Global. You can listen to it here or via the links below.

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business Editor's pick Podcast

LVMH’s Ian Rogers on the death of the chief digital officer

Ian Rogers at the New York Times International Luxury Conference
Ian Rogers at the New York Times International Luxury Conference

The role of the chief digital officer shouldn’t exist, says Ian Rogers, who is himself the chief digital officer at LVMH, on the latest episode of the Innovators podcast by TheCurrent.

Speaking to Liz Bacelar in Hong Kong during The New York Times International Luxury Conference, he argues that for any large company, the role should be merely transitional as brands become accustomed to a future where digital is simply embedded within everything that they do.

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“The word digital and the insinuation that this transformation is about technology is really misleading and it makes people make the wrong decisions. So what I really want to convince people of is that this is not a technological change, it’s a cultural change,” he explains. Instead, the role should evolve into a chief technical officer who sits at the executive table alongside more established players like the CFO and the CEO itself, he notes.

Rogers joined LVMH in 2015 at a pivotal time for the group, which like many luxury players was navigating a new consumer demand for more digital experiences and introducing e-commerce to its more traditional brands.

Since taking on the role, he has helped LVMH launch multi-designer e-commerce platform, 24 Sèvres, invest in affiliate shopping platform Lyst, and scale LVMH’s presence on China’s TMall platform from zero to 12 portfolio names.

Ian Rogers and Liz Bacelar
Ian Rogers and Liz Bacelar

Rogers big focus is on the customer, he explains. He brings that learning from his previous career in the music industry, where he led the launch of Apple Music after it acquired Beats Music and Beats Electronics for $3bn. Understanding every customer touchpoint, which now begins with digital, is key for a successful experience that navigates seamlessly across all channels, he explains.

During the conversation, Rogers also talks about how it makes sense that luxury took so long to jump into e-commerce; why CEOs don’t need to know technology intrinsically; and what he’s driving at LVMH to keep up with the level of experience the customer expects online.

Catch up with all of our episodes of TheCurrent Innovators here. The series is a weekly conversation with visionaries, executives and entrepreneurs. It’s backed by TheCurrent, a consultancy transforming how consumer retail brands intersect with technology. We deliver innovative integrations and experiences, powered by a network of top technologies and startups. Get in touch to learn more.

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business Campaigns Podcast social media technology

TheCurrent Debate: Is there real value in CGI models?

Balmain CGI Models
Balmain CGI Models

CGI models are having a moment in luxury fashion right now, but it’s up for debate as to whether they hold true value for the brands embracing them, according to the latest episode of the Innovators podcast by TheCurrent.

Co-hosts Liz Bacelar and Rachel Arthur, who discuss various technologies pertinent to the industry every month on this show, bring opposing viewpoints to the table.

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CGI or virtual models have been used in fashion advertising campaigns to an increasing degree over the past few years, with big name brands including Louis VuittonPrada and Balmain all employing them. Some of those involved, including one called Lil Miquela, and another named Shudu, have generated enormous buzz and impressively large social media followings as a result, as though they were indeed influencers in their own right.

Lil Miquela for UGG
Lil Miquela for UGG

Most recently, Lil Miquela featured in UGG’s 40th anniversary campaign, blending in seamlessly alongside two real-life influencers as though she were a natural part of the cast. For the unsuspecting onlooker, it’s not immediately clear she’s not.

One of the questions raised during the episode is whether such a move is merely about gaining from some of the hype such models currently present, or if they can in fact drive ROI for the brands making use of them long term. Rachel presents some interesting statistics that show how engagement of for CGI remains significantly lower than any example of a ‘human’ influencer, but Liz counters that view with the argument that what we’re looking at here is a form of artistic expression.

The duo also dive into what such flawless representations of women mean for beauty ideals in the era of fake news we currently live in, as well as the notion that we may all have a CGI or avatar version of ourselves in the future, not least the real life influencers who could ultimately gain increased revenue opportunities for themselves, even posthumously.

Catch up with all of our episodes of the Innovators podcast by TheCurrent here. The series is a weekly conversation with visionaries, executives and entrepreneurs. It’s backed by TheCurrent, a consultancy transforming how consumer retail brands intersect with technology. We deliver innovative integrations and experiences, powered by a network of top technologies and startups. Get in touch to learn more.

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data Editor's pick Podcast technology

How Google Zoo is thinking about machine learning

Tomas Roope and Rachel Arthur

There’s a very simple filter that comes with working at Google, and it’s about putting the user first, says Tomas Roope, creative lead at Google Zoo, the tech giant’s think tank focused on pushing the limits of creativity through technology.

Talking to Rachel Arthur in a live recording of TheCurrent Innovators podcast from the FashMash Pioneers event in London, he said: “The way we think is always user-first. Are we really solving something for somebody here? …At Google we’re about solving problems at scale.”

That attitude should be applied to every business, including those in the fashion and retail vertical, he explains. The Zoo is a small team that is designed to be a conduit between creative agencies and Google’s own products, its engineering teams and its data. The result is all manner of both creative and technology-driven projects for different industries, from a coded couture dress for H&M’s Ivy Revel brand, to an advertising campaign redefining what masculinity really looks like today from Axe.

While Roope admits some are more PR or headline-driven than others, his process, whether the result incorporates buzzworthy terms like augmented reality, artificial intelligence or beyond, always comes back to whether the solution is something that answers a consumer need. “What shifts the bottom line is making things more relevant, and making them simpler. [It’s about answering] what do people really want?” he asks.

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Anchoring much of that work these days however, comes data. “[At Google], we have seven to eight products that have over one billion users monthly, and so we have a really great understanding of what people are doing… and what they’re thinking,” he explains.

That insight is what informs the work his team does as a result, while machine learning (ML) then takes it to the next level, Roope notes. He refers to ML as an area that’s not yet being explored to its full potential.

“We’re in the middle of two massive revolutions – one of which is still the smartphone coming from 10 years ago, and now the rise of machine learning.” He refers to this as not only a powerful and extraordinarily interesting tool that allows you to fix problems in a way you couldn’t have done before, but as the most exciting underpinning to the future we’re currently building.

It’s completely reshaping what our world looks like, and what opportunities there are for brands in it as a result, he explains.

To get there, he says experimentation for all industries – including fashion and retail – is key. “For me, you’re not going to sit and discover the future by dwelling on it… it’s all about test and learn,” he explains.

As to where it will take us, he adds: “There’s a great quote by Bill Gates that says we tend to overestimate what’s going to happen in two years, but underestimate what will happen in the next 10. If you look back 10 years, we didn’t have smartphones, but in two years nothing’s happened. Only when we look over a good chunk of time do we see how much it’s changed.”

Catch up with all of our episodes of TheCurrent Innovators here. The series is a weekly conversation with visionaries, executives and entrepreneurs. It’s backed by TheCurrent, a consultancy transforming how consumer retail brands intersect with technology. We deliver innovative integrations and experiences, powered by a network of top technologies and startups. Get in touch to learn more.

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e-commerce Editor's pick mobile Podcast

Alipay on educating US consumers with a unified payment experience

TheCurrent Innovators: Souheil Badran with Liz Bacelar
TheCurrent Innovators: Souheil Badran with Liz Bacelar

Chinese payments company Alipay is on a mission to wean US consumers off traditional payment behaviours. Creating an integrated experience is at the center of making that happen, Alipay’s president of the Americas, Souheil Badran, explained to Liz Bacelar on the latest episode of TheCurrent Innovators podcast.

“So far the whole US market has been so used to credit cards. And when you look at it from a tech perspective all the apps we use are in their own silos. They’re not connected at all,” says Badran, explaining that the Starbucks app is one of the few examples of an integrated experience based around the consumer’s lifestyle.

In order to achieve seamlessness, Badran hopes to see better collaboration with retail in what he calls the Uber experience – when getting from point A to B, the user no longer has to think about the payment aspect of it.

This everyday ease of use is already being achieved in China, where Alipay’s 520 million users have access to over 60 sub-applications integrated under the payment umbrella, creating a lifestyle ecosystem within the digital wallet that includes the ability to do things like pay peers and order a taxi.

But going beyond payments to create a larger sense of loyalty in this way in the US, means educating the consumers out of their comfort zone of just payments, Badran adds. “[Starting with the consumer], what are they looking for? What would make you go from just using your credit card, and what would attract you back to the app on a regular basis?”

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Badran wants to see Alipay reach the same level of interaction in the US, as it has achieved in Asia. Current users check their digital wallets 15-20 times a day, for instance. He hopes US consumers can get to that point, in the same way they already do with their social media channels. This would include creating experience-led features and promotions based on purchase history and other aggregated data, he notes.

Chinese Alipay consumers are also a big market for US retailers, which Badran has been working hard to evangelize on their value. “Back in 2013 when you talked about China in general, people understood the size, but couldn’t quite grasp the value of it. I have seen a tremendous shift over the last 12 months and hopefully it will continue to grow.” To target these users, Alipay is working with retailers in the US and Europe to ensure payment capabilities and promotions that intensify around peak travel seasons, such as Chinese New Year.

For millennial consumers, Alipay helps quickly build user credibility by leveraging data from previous purchases. This means a merchant that accepts the payment service can have visibility of the user’s track record, says Badran. He uses the example of purchasing at a luxury store, where Alipay can potentially extend the shopper’s credit on the fly – unlike a static credit card limit – depending on data such as previous repayments.

At present, over 150,000 merchants in North America accept Alipay as a form of payment. The future looks bright for the mammoth Asian company as it taps into the digital need for always-on convenience, as well as a demand for platforms that enable personalization and experience.

Catch up with all of our episodes of TheCurrent Innovators here. The series is a weekly conversation with visionaries, executives and entrepreneurs. It’s backed by TheCurrent, a consultancy transforming how consumer retail brands intersect with technology. We deliver innovative integrations and experiences, powered by a network of top technologies and startups. Get in touch to learn more.

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data e-commerce Editor's pick Podcast Retail

Yoox Net-a-Porter on nailing the basics of e-commerce

TheCurrent's Rachel Arthur and Yoox Net-a-Porter's Paolo Mascio recording TheCurrent Innovators podcast - e-commerce
TheCurrent Innovators: Paolo Mascio with Rachel Arthur

There’s little point in looking at all of the innovation surrounding e-commerce today, if you don’t first have the basics in place, Paolo Mascio president of online flagships at Yoox Net-a-Porter Group, explains on the most recent episode of TheCurrent Innovators podcast.

“If you can’t get the fundamentals right, forget about artificial intelligence,” he says. “Really, execution is the key word. It’s very easy to mess up with your customers… A bad customer experience is even worse than not giving [them] an experience at all. It’s better not to open Russia or China if you can’t serve them in the proper way. Discontent spreads… which is setting the base for a failure in the future as well.”

Both Yoox and Net-a-Porter are businesses known for their innovative approaches to e-commerce – the former for supporting brands on running their own operations, and the latter for its first-rate customer experience. While together they’re focused on maintaining their market leading position, many of their partners and clients by comparison represent an industry still getting to grips with how to handle multichannel commerce.

Mascio references the shift to convenience, or of frictionless customer experiences in an omnichannel world, as the foundation of e-commerce expectations today. But it’s service, he says, that can be the key point of differentiation for brands – especially those in the luxury space – comparative to multi brand retailers.

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Underneath that, what’s driving brand growth and loyalty today, is data, he notes. “Data is one of the fundamental things around which, not only our company, but the brands themselves are going to build their future.”

This is the big shift still taking place in luxury, he adds. “Most brands up to a few years ago thought they were all unique, now they’re all struggling to distinguish themselves in the digital space.”

“For decades the brands have built their success around their collections, around the designers’ names, and the designers’ abilities, around advertising, but they haven’t tracked down what the customer’s behavior was,” he explains, noting that today, it’s the customer that has the biggest voice.

Those who can understand their customer and use analytics to better serve them, are the ones who will win. On top of that, and only then, comes the next step forward, he explains. Personalization, for instance, is something Mascio is watching closely. Artificial intelligence (Yoox Net-a-Porter is working with IBM Watson), is going to be the facilitator that transforms how people shops for the very reason it enables the brand to manage customers on a one-to-one basis at scale, he says.

In terms of the user interface, another area he’s keeping an eye on, is that of voice technology. “I believe voice controlled systems [will] play quite a fundamental role in the future,” he says. “It will take time… but then there will be a need for a brand to evolve their interfaces, so that customers can use voice to search for products in a much easier way.”

Catch up with all of our episodes of TheCurrent Innovators here. The series is a weekly conversation with visionaries, executives and entrepreneurs. It’s backed by TheCurrent, a consultancy transforming how consumer retail brands intersect with technology. We deliver innovative integrations and experiences, powered by a network of top technologies and startups. Get in touch to learn more.

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data Editor's pick Podcast product technology

How Levi’s is thinking about data to combat obsolescence with Google Jacquard

The Levi’s Commuter x Google Jacquard jacket
The Levi’s Commuter x Google Jacquard jacket

The Levi’s Commuter x Google Jacquard jacket is the first of its kind – a commercially ready piece of wearable tech that’s both fashionable and washable.

But more than that, it’s one of the only “devices” out there aiming to tackle the idea of obsolescence, Paul Dillinger, VP of global product innovation at Levi’s, told us on our latest episode of TheCurrent Innovators podcast.

The jacket itself is designed for urban cyclists, or as Dillinger refers to it, “for people who live in the city and need to get around”. It’s based on the existing Levi’s Commuter Trucker jacket, but embedded with technology in the sleeve in order for it to operate a number of useful functionalities for wearers. It launched to the public in September 2017 for $350 in stores and online.

“It’s a classical denim trucker jacket that is designed to make an urban cyclist’s life a little safer, a little lighter, a little better. To that we’ve then added about 15 rows of capacitive yarn in the left cuff, that forms an area that is capable to be touched.”

Users can tap or swipe in that spot to then control various utilities including playing music, getting GPS directions, answering or rejecting calls and more. It is connected via Bluetooth to your phone to do so.

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The key, according to Dillinger, was about making it still feel like a fashion item. “(The jacket) had to feel like a Levi’s product not a piece of Google technology,” he says. But it had to function to the same level of a Google technology too. We had to take a lot of time to weave it in so that it was working but not visible, trying to make it look and feel right.”

The aim now is to constantly improve on that functionality to make it increasingly more useful to the user too. “The spring [update] of this product won’t be a new object, it will be new abilities. We built digital platforms so that the jacket never gets obsolete,” Dillinger explains.

In partnership with Google, the team studies user behaviour data to gain indications of how they should be improving.

That approach is a marked difference for the two industries involved. Tech is usually designed to be replaced. It’s the reason we all upgrade our iPhones. By comparison, in fashion – despite the shift towards disposable clothing at the cheaper end of the market – the ideal is for longevity. Denim from Levi’s frequently falls into that latter category.

Liz Bacelar of TheCurrent and Paul Dillinger of Levi's recording TheCurrent Innovators podcast
Liz Bacelar of TheCurrent and Paul Dillinger of Levi’s recording TheCurrent Innovators podcast

“The challenge is to make it something that people will want to wear, and something that is more like a platform, that can improve itself,” Dillinger notes.

This is a jacket that’s essentially a piece of software more than hardware then, with upgrades that install automatically. “We started selling in September. By the holidays the users got a notification on their app saying, your jacket just got better, we have capabilities that are improved,” he adds.

“We’re giving people a reason to keep a garment longer, not less, and we’re giving them an improved version of something they already know. So rather then giving you the bad feeling of something going out of fashion, we’re giving you the opposite feeling by improving over time what you already bought.”

TheCurrent Innovators is a podcast about the leaders pushing the boundaries of fashion, beauty, and retail. Hosted by Liz Bacelar and Rachel Arthur, and distributed by MouthMedia Network, each episode is a frank conversation about the challenges and opportunities faced by top brands and retailers around the world today, through the lens of technology. Check out some of the other highlights, including an interview with Stefano Rosso, CEO of Diesel, and William Tunstall-Pedoe, founder of the tech behind Amazon Alexa.

Catch up with all of our episodes of TheCurrent Innovators here. The series is a weekly conversation with visionaries, executives and entrepreneurs. It’s backed by TheCurrent, a consultancy transforming how consumer retail brands intersect with technology. We deliver innovative integrations and experiences, powered by a network of top technologies and startups. Get in touch to learn more.