The apparel retail world has been altered profoundly by technology over the last few years, and the fashion industry knows that in order to succeed, marketing and sales must be undertaken though the many new channels that are now available.

This brave new world is made up of ubiquitous wi-fi internet, apps, mobile phones, tablets, 3D body scanners, Facebook, Twitter, and a host of other social media sites that have revolutionalised shopping.

Indeed, multi-channel has mutated into omni-channel, where devices, communities and transaction options have blended to such an extent that the customer no longer makes a distinction between them.

Susan Olivier, vice president of consumer goods and retail industry for French systems software provider Dassault Systèmes, told just-style that the evolution of omni-channel retailing had been driven by the equally rapid evolution of the "connected customer".

"The customer is incredibly more powerful than she was 20 years ago. She is both 'instrumented' and 'informed'. She can research a product before, or even during an in-store experience, or after having visited a store, and retailers are understanding that they have to be more nimble in responding to that," said Olivier.

The volume of business associated with this shift is not easy to quantify, but according to statistics collated by New York-based digital marketing analysts eMarketer, online apparel sales in the United States (as opposed to in-store sales) are set to almost double over the next four years, and could reach as much as US$73bn by 2016, with Europe and other developed areas not far behind.

Connectivity tools
The range of tools available to the connected consumer is also undergoing an important period of change. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), mobile phone subscription has reached over 100% penetration in four of the world's six regions. This means that there are more mobile phone subscriptions than people in these areas, and more than half of all subscriptions are in Asia.

This could lead to a flattening of mobile phone uptake (although not perhaps of conversion to bigger screen smart phones), and, as broadband access continues to expand worldwide, an increase in tablet penetration.

The UK's communications authority, Ofcom, estimated in a 2012 report that tablet ownership had increased to 19% of people in the UK (jumping from 2% to 11% in just one 12-month period). Globally, it said tablet ownership ranged between 12-24% in developed countries such as Australia, Japan and the US, a percentage that is destined to rise as more lower-priced models enter the market.

While e-commerce has reached a kind of maturity through shopping marketplaces such as Amazon and retailers' own websites, mobile and tablet applications are seeing explosive growth, particularly those that are feeding or driving social media and those offering real-time services through technology such as QR or traditional bar code scanning.

ShopSavvy, for example, is an app available for both iPhone and Android phones that allows shoppers to scan a product barcode in UPC, EAN or QR formats and search a database of 20m products from 40,000 retailers to find the lowest price for that item.

The app can also link to an e-commerce site if it exists, effectively meaning that a shopper could be standing in store A looking at a pair of shoes, having tried them on to ascertain the right size, while purchasing the same items online from store B on the next block. The app also allows users to post reviews and flag incorrect prices in the database.

Social aspects of shopping
ShopSavvy is just one of many apps designed to save consumers money and provide them with more information. Others work on the more social aspects of shopping.

Fashism, for example, allows users to upload photos of themselves in an outfit, or even in a store changing room and to ask the opinion of users who happen to be online about whether or not their look is working. Love it or hate it, users can also comment on it, and their public conversations candidly express their opinions about a store, a collection or a brand.

Other hugely popular apps available for fashion consumers include Trendstop and FaceHunter. Users can not only browse cool photography, but they can also ‘shop the look' within the app by linking to sponsored advertising that shows them where to buy what they are looking at, or even links to an e-commerce site where they can make a direct purchase.

Gone are the days of magazine fashion spreads with a directory of retail outlets carrying the items at the back of the publication; today's consumer can browse, shop and purchase from the one device.

The point is not that these applications exist but that consumers see them as a completely natural way of interacting with fashion commerce and the retail world. This is also a crucial consideration in omni-channel retailing: social media, mobile phones, internet and other forms of advanced technology are as natural to a great majority of today's consumers as eating and sleeping, and they expect shopping to be a seamless activity across multiple devices and environments.

Successful retailers have realised this for some time now. According to Nikki Baird, managing partner of Retail Systems Research and co-author of a benchmark report, ‘Omni-Channel 2012: Cross-Channel Comes of Age', retailers are no longer making the distinction between ‘omni-channel shoppers' and others. "Today they are just shoppers," she said.

"We have been doing this study for six years and around 2009-2010 there was a definite shift. We stopped asking what it is and why people were doing it, and we started asking how they were doing it".

Click on the links below to read other chapters in this management briefing:
Omni-channel retail: Integrating and evolving online strategies
Omni-channel retail: Technology and logistics
Omni-channel retail: Online shopping platforms