VOWS Mag Article
Technologically speaking, the Bridal Industry Needs Help
"Technology...the knack of so arranging the world that we need not experience it." Max Frisch, from his book, Homo Faber (1957)
This quote sums up what many retailers in the bridal industry fear about technology. Of course, there is a certain amount of truth to it; many advances in technology do remove the necessity of personal relationships that are common in the day to day activity of a Full Service Bridal store. The most important of these personal relationships is the ‘one on one’ interaction between retailers and consumers. The essence of the distinction between an impersonal ‘box store’ experience and the experience a consumer should have when she shops in your store is much more than the quality of the selection. The main difference is the level of knowledge, experience, and concern that is expressed in every transaction. This is what defines the word “service” in your designation as a Full Service Bridal store. This must never be weakened by the introduction of new technology. If it ever is, our industry is doomed to the homogenization that has overtaken nearly every other service industry. A consumer must feel something totally different in your store than what she would feel in a David’s Bridals, or even Macy’s, Bloomingdales, Saks, Nordstrom, or Neiman Marcus. All of which are intensely seeking to capture your customers’ attention.
In his book “Fast Food Nation, The Dark Side of the All-American Meal” Eric Schlosser makes this profound observation:
“America’s main streets and malls now boast the same Pizza Huts and Taco Bells, Gaps and Banana Republics, Starbucks and Jiffy Lubes, Footlockers, Snip N’ Clips, Sunglass Huts and Hobbytown USAs. Almost every facet of American life has now been franchised or chained. From the maternity ward at a Columbia/HCA hospital to an embalming room owned by Service Corporation International – “the worlds largest provider of death care services,” which since 1968 has grown to include 3823 funeral homes, 523 cemeteries, and 198 crematoriums, and which today handles the final remains of one out of every nine Americans – a person can now go from the cradle to the grave without spending a nickel at an independently owned business.”
Here is the irony; while it is technology that has produced the problem of an impersonal corporate structure in nearly all aspects of the service industry, it is also technology that has caused the astounding success of these retailers! This is the question; can our industry embrace the technology that has resulted in the success of large impersonal corporations without loosing the level of personal contact and intimacy that defines who we are? I believe the answer is, “Yes”, but it will not happen overnight.
The bottom line is that large vertical operations, while lacking in the ‘one on one’ aspect of retail, more than compensate by implementing cutting edge technologies that result in a more efficiently run business. There are many full service retailers that still see even the most rudimentary aspects of technology as a detriment to our industry. For example, I have spoken with retailers who have told me that they would never implement a POS system in their stores. When I ask them why, their answer ultimately is, “technology in our industry is a bad thing”, then I will usually hear how their mother ran the business for thirty years without a POS system “and she did just fine!” Unfortunately, for those who are self-admitted technophobes, it is only a matter of time before they will realize that a business in 2012 cannot be run the same way a business was run in 1985.
It is not all bad news however; there have been tremendous strides in technology in our industry and some manufacturers and retailers are advancing with the times. Many retailers have adopted POS systems and many manufacturers have implemented accurate inventory programs that retailers can use 24/7 to check availability and even place orders. These technologies are helpful; however, since they are all independent and disconnected, they are far from a full utilization of the technology that is available to take our industry successfully into the future.
Unfortunately there is still a larger segment of our industry that has yet to embrace even these technologies. I spend a lot of time in the Putnam Enterprises showroom at the Atlanta Mart during and after the markets. It is mindboggling to me how many calls they receive every day from retailers that are asking if a particular style in a size and color is available by a particular date. The sales rep then goes online and logs into Mon Cheri’s InfoShare inventory program to get the answer for the retailer! Anyone that has tried calling a prom vendor during peak prom season knows how backed up their customer service departments are with hold times that can sometimes exceed thirty minutes! With the technology that is available today the need for telephone communication can be virtually eliminated. The amount of time that will be saved in acquiring style availability information is astounding. Not only can retailers have style availability for all of their vendors at their fingertips, but orders can be placed and processed immediately. Reports can be run each morning with information about each manufacturer’s availability; websites can even automatically be updated with this information so the best and most available styles can be highlighted on retailers’ websites.
In this day and age there is no reason why style availability information cannot be made available to retailers on their own computers in ‘real time’. Of course, this will take a lot of cooperation as well as an industry-wide decision to embrace the latest technologies; but it certainly can and should happen.
The only way this can be accomplished is with a centralized program where all manufacturers and retailers share information through one universal system. In essence we would utilize the same technologies that vertical operations use, but retailers and manufacturers would remain independent. Access to information would be controlled so that only authorized retailers can access information from their authorized manufacturers and visa-versa. Manufacturers can update their production and inventory information on this centralized system which will automatically update information to their authorized retailers. Authorized retailers can access information and place orders in ‘real time’ that automatically updates the information to the manufacturers. Orders can also be entered by retailers on laptops, I-Pads, or even Smart Phones at regional markets directly into the centralized system. Manufacturers and retailers would have all of this information available to them immediately in ‘real time’. No more need for manufacturers to enter orders after the shows or for retailers to enter their orders into their POS systems; it will all be done automatically.
The technology is available. It is not a question of if we will embrace it; it is simply a question of when.