Fashion brands need to embrace Amazon’s technologies to survive

darwinHistory is a complicated thing. We all like to think we learn from history. It’s often said that history repeats itself. We should be able to learn from our mistakes, and if we understand what happened in the past, we can make the future better. Unfortunately it’s not that simple. History doesn’t exist to offer us any clues into the future. Just because one thing happened, and another did not, that doesn’t mean we are better off because of what did happen. This is a good thing to contemplate, because all of us use history to try find comfort or reason in what we’re doing or thinking about today. Our failsafe is our experience–when in doubt, just look to the past. And if we want further validation about what we’re doing, we typically look to history over a longer period of time even though there is great risk in assuming that what happened previously may happen ever again. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “no man ever steps into the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” As humans we adapt and change constantly in an environment that does likewise. The only thing we know about history is that it has little bearing on what will happen in the future.

Yet if we do look at the advancement of humans, one thing is apparent, its the creation and implementation of technology that propels us forward. I’m not talking about technology in terms of wires and electronics necessarily, but rather technology in the sense of finding ways to do things more efficiently and for the “betterment” of ourselves and hopefully the planet. The wheel was a technology. Fire was a technology. Tools were technologies. Railroads and steam engines were technologies, as was electricity and now genetics. Humans that didn’t embrace fire or implement tools didn’t likely advance and survive as those who did embrace those tools. Countries that embraced railroads and steam engines during the Industrial Age when they were relatively new are more advanced today than those that did not. Likewise we all understand the gap between those who have embraced digital technologies and those who have not. It’s hard to imagine having to call a friend on “telephone” thats not in our pocket. It wasn’t too long ago that we would get phone calls and have no idea who was calling! Today we text, Instagram, Snap, and Tweet.

The point is that we advance when we embrace technology in whatever form that technology may be. It is with this understanding and knowledge that I say to the fashion industry in particular, since it is my focus, that it is struggling desperately because it is not embracing technology. The fashion industry cannot apply methods and ideas in today’s consumer marketplace with outdated technologies. The Soviet Union was one of the first countries to adopt railroads and steam engines because the founding fathers of communism saw that having the ability to move massive amounts of food, fuel, and other resources throughout the nation would be vital in its ability to advance its cause and provide for all people regardless of means. For many years the Soviet Union thrived because it implemented those technologies and was able to provide resources throughout a vast network that satisfied massive amounts of people. Yet many scholars today will tell you that the key reason the Soviet Union failed was because later stage leaders, Khrushchev and Brezhnev, failed to adopt new technologies and tried to lead the country with the same railroads and steam engines adopted decades earlier. It didn’t work. People couldn’t get food and resources. The system broke and the Soviet Union failed because it didn’t embrace new technologies that could have advanced its efforts further and met the needs of its people.

Perhaps one of the chief reasons for the success we have in the U.S. and other countries like Israel and the U.K. is our investment in technologies. Investment means that one makes available resources to enable something that we think will have the potential to make future lives better. Those resources include many things, but particularly time, money, people, and thought. There’s been several articles in Forbes and elsewhere from “futurists” in the fashion industry that talk about how e-commerce really isn’t working because it continues to lose money. While many startups don’t make money and often fail, it is a highly flawed argument to say that we should not go forward because the trail is too dark. Investment in technology propels us forward. Without investment and the advancement of technology, growth stalls and economies collapse. Saying that e-commerce isn’t working and stores are still the future is an argument not grounded in much foresight, and certainly not formed from a base of knowledge in what technology is or investment means.

Amazon is not the future because it is here, and it works extremely well. Saying something is coming in the future means it either does not yet exist or it has much refinement to be had. We could say that 3D printing is the future because a lot of kinks have to be worked out. Biogenetics is the future because we’ve only just begun to understand its potential. Travel to Mars and hyperloop transportation might be in the future because, well those concepts are just artistic renderings at this point. Amazon exists and works great. It’s pretty flawless. We can click a few button and like magic whatever we want, we can have delivered to us in almost no time at all.

I recently purchased a few items from Amazon Prime on a Sunday morning that was delivered to me that evening. I had assumed the items were in a local distribution center someplace here in or around New York City where I live. How else would Amazon get a purchase to me on a Sunday? Yet when the package arrived, I looked and saw that it was shipped from Lexington, KY. I placed my order around 10:00 in the morning; it was picked, packed, and shipped from Lexington, KY (which is 587 miles away from my apartment); then put on a plane and delivered to me by courier before I ate dinner with my family at 7:30 that evening. Want to know what I bought? Two bottles of Windex and a book! I could have walked 250 feet up the street to my local pharmacy for the windex and a comfortable mile to the book store nearby. But why? First of all my local pharmacy, like many around the country, always has 5 people in the store and 10 people in line. I don’t like that. There’s nothing worse than wasting our time standing in a line for something that should be pretty simple to do. Instead I spent my day by doing the things I enjoy. I worked out, enjoyed the day, and most importantly spent quality time with my wife and daughter. Amazon probably didn’t make much or any money. That’s irrelevant. They invested in technology and innovation that made my life better. Over time they will change millions and millions of more people’s lives and do that for products well beyond windex.

Isn’t this what technology and investment is all about? Shouldn’t a company, it’s CEO and Board of Directors, have the foresight to see what is happening around them and make sure investments are made in the right technologies? It’s a poor argument for out-of-touch brands and retailers to say that we should waste our time so they can try to earn money with inefficient and ineffective business models. If my local pharmacy had had a better process in place so that I could effortlessly get what I wanted, at a fair value and without having to stand in line, then I may have just gone there and made my purchase. Instead the process was pay more money, stand in line, and waste your day. We live in a humanist decade. It’s not up to companies to decide how we should spend our time or consume its products. It’s up to companies to figure out, through technologies, how to make our lives better and more engaging. The fashion industry needs to consider that what many are trying to impose upon modern consumers today is the opposite. Consumers have moved on from touch and feel, to want and have.

Amazon doesn’t throw off profits to shareholders because its CEO, Jeff Bezos, understands that in order to advance, the company absolutely must invest in and continue to develop technologies. Almost every brand and retailer in the fashion industry today is looking to find itself with the same fate as the Soviet Union because few are embracing technology. Many fashion industry CEO’s fail to see that the technology they need is staring them in the face. It’s called Amazon. Don’t try to create it, combat it, or prevent it. Use it. A lot of CEO’s continue to “strategically” review options to protect themselves from Amazon and consumers who want to just click. Good luck with that. Without a doubt, brands that embrace technology will advance while those that do not will falter and fail. Let’s also be clear about what technology means here as well. Gimmicks are not technologies. Fun little marketing tools are often short lived and poor investments. The truth is there’s little more reason for us to go into a department store today than there is to take a train from New York to Ohio. If it’s the only choice we have, then great. But there are so many other better choices to get from New York to Cleveland than by train. If it were a bullet train, then that might be another good option. The reality is that taking an often run-down train for a 14 hour ride to save a very little bit of money really makes no sense. The concept of “stores” in the fashion industry is the equivalent. If you want to have a store, great. But don’t use technological gimmicks to entice sophisticated humans. Make your store experience comparable to a bullet train. It’s the investment in technology that gets you someplace with ease and satisfaction.

Let me be clear, I don’t work for Amazon, and I’m not plugging its platform for any reason other than I see its impact on an industry I enjoy. I have always been advanced and entrenched in technologies. When I was a child I had the newest fishing rods and reels. I didn’t catch any damn fish, but that’s besides the point. I was an early adopter of the palm pilot. I’ve been on a Mac forever, and we have an Echo Dot in our apartment. I research and embrace advanced workout techniques and nutritional programs. I also use new shampoos that magically make my hair less grey (they work!). Suffice it to say I appreciate technologies that make my life better. Why not? Life is to be enjoyed. Technologies, whether they be fire, wheel, or Google, allow me to grow, do things faster, learn more deeply, and enjoy the people around me deeply and more frequently.

We have to see the forest for the trees, and Amazon is likely but a tree–its not the forest. There are new technologies well on their way that go well beyond Amazon. The brilliant thing about this is that Amazon is likely nurturing a big part of this new forest with it’s AI called Alexa. With artificial intelligence like Alexa, or Siri and Ok Google, we don’t have to keyword search for what we want, we only have to ask. Having the ability to ask an AI to obtain whatever product or information we want is a vast forest quickly growing. So while the fashion industry continues to ponder over products and massively overproducing and distributing its wares, there’s a new forest growing that will completely overwhelm all of the industry’s old technology–including its people, products, and stores. If the fashion industry doesn’t begin to embrace technology like Amazon and its potential now, much of it, including most of its designers and retailers, will become the equivalent of a steam train. This isn’t because of Amazon. It’s not because e-commerce companies don’t make money. It’s not because consumers are fickle. And it’s certainly is not because the weather hasn’t been cooperating with retailers. It’s because fashion industry CEO’s, boards of directors, and other stakeholders charged with growth and innovation are not recognizing the appropriate technologies that are critically needed to advance their businesses.

So ok great, should we expect the entire industry to jump on this and get on the wagon towards advancement? Absolutely not. In addition to knowing that those who have embraced the wheel and fire likely lived better, survived and advanced quicker than those who did not, we also know that it has always been the findings or work of a very few that has advanced the masses. The question is are you working for or part of the few? If you look to your left, and then to your right, you won’t see the person who will likely lead an advancement. It’s probably not your CEO. Most CEO’s work to inspire and encourage, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Yet that does not by default enable or motivate an action to find and implement technologies that will advance a business. The question really becomes, are you and the people around you thinking forward, stuck in the past, or just enjoying the present? Hopefully there’s a good balance.

So where do we hope to find this agent of change, this person to guide us or product to prepare us? Where do we find these people that have a sensitivity to things happening all around us so we can embrace tools that might help us advance? That’s a difficult question to answer and likely a more difficult person to find. Old farmers used to say that the more brilliant the goat, the more disruptive it is. Hence most farmers over the many centuries have looked to rid their pastures of the brilliant goats so the rest complied. Be brilliant. We all have the profound capacity to think and do. That’s what makes us human. Perhaps therefore, it starts with all of us from a abundance of listening, a curiosity for learning, and a respect for disruptiveness. If we listen, we learn. If we’re curious, we gain. If we’re disruptive, we advance.

The fashion industry has tremendous opportunity to advance with modern technologies. Start by asking if your product is a recognized and searchable item. Does your brand have searchable clout? Until recently, the algorithm for a fashion consumer purchase started with the brand or designer followed by marketing, promotion, item, then store. The point is you created a product to make a brand that people sought out and went to stores to purchase. It has quickly shifted to item or need first, followed by ease of consumption second, and brand or designer third. That’s a much different path to purchase. Think about it for a moment. Algorithms are essentially recipes. Start with this, add that, stir together, bake till done. What used to be done in a physical world, can now be done in a digital world. To succeed, we need to think in digital terms. The industry is no longer as simple as build stores, promote a lifestyle, dress the windows, then ring the cash register. The recipes are different and much more non linear. There’s a different path towards consumption and fighting against something that has become essentially a new humanist path is not a plausible endeavor. Understanding how that consumer path has evolved is a much better way towards happiness and success for all stakeholders.

A key to understanding this path is recognizing that consumers no longer wish to be viewed as consumers, but rather as humans. We don’t want to be sold to. As humans we recognized that we have minds and we live in a world today that is largely free from famine, plague, and war. We have evolved to think more about experiences and wants than fears and needs. Push marketing doesn’t work today. The idea that a few people can design and develop a product then tell you though marketing that you have to have it and that you need to come to their stores to get it, is quickly becoming an extremely foreign concept recognizable only by those who remember the rotary phone or prefer travel by train as opposed to plane. Google has made keyword search a humanist path. From it and because of it, we can get whatever we want, whenever we want it, from Amazon. That puts a tremendous amount of power and potential on pull marketing. Brands need to have searchable clout. Businesses like Levi Strauss should be using its power of searchable recognition to let consumer find and obtain what they want–on Amazon. Jeans = Levi’s. Yoga = Lulu. Running = Nike and so on. Keep in mind that search technology has advanced tremendously. Google is seeing its keyword search expand from one or two words into complete sentences at this point. That means people aren’t searching “jeans”. They’re doing keyword search using complex terminology and the technology understands it. I just did a keyword search for “what’s the proper way to use perhaps therefore” and got a direct source to set me straight (let’s see if you find its use herein). Brands ought to be thinking in terms of searchable recognition. It’s what we do and how we source what we seek. Very soon, and almost certainly within the next decade, consumers will ask artificial intelligence sources for the vast majority of their purchases. Don’t fight it, be there. Invest in it and embrace it.

Here’s how brands need to think about embracing Amazon since it’s a technology they should all be embracing. Start with keyword search. Is your brand or product recognizable enough to be a keyword search. You have to have search clout. In the best case scenario you’re a brand like Levi Strauss. Want a new pair of jeans? Keyword search jeans or levis or 501, and you’re going to get awfully close to what you want very quickly without leaving your home or office. Levi’s has a decent presence on Amazon and if they were to keep the assortments focused around what are likely high frequency searches for its core products, they’d likely being doing very well and managing their inventories really well.

Fashion industry CEO’s, boards of directors, employees, and other stakeholders have to ask themselves how they can become successful with Amazon, not how to prevent it. Amazon is not the future, it’s the present.