"Fashion is the armour to survive the reality of everyday life."
Uniqlo and Google are transforming fashion retail into no-man’s-land. And they're not the only ones...
“I’m looking for a pink wool dress for a dinner party.”
You would assume that this conversation takes place over the phone with a friend or in a store with a salesperson. But now you could be wrong. This might also be a text sent to Uniqlo IQ, the new artificial intelligence (AI) customer service feature added to the Japanese fashion retailer’s smartphone app.
The message can also look like this: 👩🏻🍑🐑👗Because, yes, this voice-activated digital assistant using Google’s Dialogflow conversational interface is also more fluent in Emoji than most of your family members.
After a trial run in the US and a beta programme targeting 2,000 Japanese users, Uniqlo IQ went live in the brand’s home country this summer and is looking to expand this highly-personalised service to the global market.
Rather than aimlessly scrolling through pages and pages of product catalogues that are usually over-simply categorised, the official updated version of Uniqlo IQ encourages customers to text the chatbot about their desires—the more specific the better—from style, colour, material to any other features that’ll help narrow down the results. Instantly a list of recommendations comes up for you to swipe through.
It can show you the bestsellers from the past 48 hours, items featured in the latest issues of Japanese fashion glossies, or even outfits suggested based on your horoscope. You’re also able to check the real-time inventory of that Alexander Wang collaboration heat-tech underwear that you know is going to sell out any minute at the closest store from your current location.
Uniqlo has always been known for its simple, practical and comfortable designs. But now with their ambition to score the AI-integrated e-commerce game, the ever-innovative fashion retailer promises an online shopping experience that is a lot more immersive and personalised.
Jessica Hsu is a loyal Uniqlo customer who has recently moved to Japan. She always looks up products on the brand’s website before visiting the store, and after trying them on in store, sometimes she places the order on her phone for it to be delivered. But regardless of her shopping habits, her friend’s opinions are always needed.
She gave Uniqlo IQ a try: “You don’t really need instructions for how to use it because it’s actually quite instinctive. But I do need time to get used to this way of online shopping—they demand customers to have a pretty clear idea of what they want to get in order to get the most out of this service.”
Meanwhile, Parisian premium fashion brand Sandro just welcomed its first iPad instore in the past week. However, instead of providing the devices for the customers to use, the company invested in these additional tools just to help sales associates deliver better customer service.
Richard Simmons, the store manager at Sandro Covent Garden, agrees with the brand’s continuous focus on human-based customer service by saying: “I think people are more integral with premium brands because the designs and cuts are more unique than the normally generic high street and the perception is that they can’t figure that out alone and need the help.”
Simmons also believes that high street brands are safer in terms of fit and style, and this makes them easier to shop for, while premium fashion is more complex and needs interpretation. It seems that the lower the brand’s price point is, the more relevant AI is to the offered shopping experience, and the more feasible it is for high-tech e-commerce to really shine through the market.
And across the Atlantic Ocean, there is Stitch Fix, an online fashion subscription service available in the US and soon in the UK as well. Founded in 2011 by Harvard Business School graduate Katrina Lake, Stitch Fix blends the science of algorithms with the art of personal styling by delivering a box of outfits that consists of five pieces of apparel and accessories to your doorstep.
Items are selected by one of the trained stylists based on a combination of your AI style profile (completed upon registration), sales data, and perhaps just a hint of his or her personal taste.
After trying on the pieces in the comfort of your own home, you get to pick and choose what stays and what goes back to the company at no additional cost. And Stitch Fix, in turn, records the subscribers’ feedbacks in order to optimize their database for future suggestions.
The concept sounds like music to the ears of people who find shopping and finding the perfect outfit a chore. But in reality, some feedback on review platforms such as Trust Pilot and personal blogs has been average, if not disappointing. The precision of suggestions made with the aid of AI backfired and many users end up returning most of the items from the subscription box.
Wilfred, who has had years of experience working in Louis Vuitton’s VVIP Private Client Relations team, is not surprised by the let-down. He says: “No AI can replace the human touch, the honest and constructive advice a salesperson can give to the customer.”
TBut mind you, the luxury shopping environment is fundamentally different from any other. When customers shop luxury, they want the whole experience, in real life. Wilfred adds: “They expect the best of services from the moment they step into the store—plush sofas ready, refreshments and champagne served, exclusives and alternatives suggested…everything!”
It may sound superfluous and old-fashioned, but at the same time, that’s what makes it organic—or let’s be honest—luxurious. So will AI be replacing salespeople any time soon? The indications are giving us mixed signals. Perhaps we can withdraw from the constant decision-making about how to shop till we drop and look to literature for insights.
Courtney Maum’s much-raved social-commentary-style fiction novel Touch, which came out last year, investigates into what it means to be an individual human in a highly globalised and digitalised world. She writes: “You think the future belongs to the type of people who are going to sync their fridges with their smartphones, but people are ready—not tomorrow, but now—to be vulnerable and undirected and intimate again.” And the verdict is in your hands.
*This article is originally published on _shiftlondon
Meg is a full-time fashion journalism student at London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London. She moved to London at the age of 18 to pursue her dreams of becoming a writer.