Episode 21 – Automation as the Problem Solver for the Fashion Industry
Dec 16 9:00:00 am
Today, Jon Knisley, the host of hello, Human and a long-time technologist helping companies adopt and utilize emerging digital solutions, talks with Tara Robinson, the founder and product marketing manager for TrackRacks, an all-in-one management service for fashion companies, which uses product recognition to revolutionize sample trafficking.
Fashion is one of the biggest global industries. Revenues in the apparel market are expected to reach two trillion dollars by the year 2025. While you might not think of fashion first when you think of artificial intelligence, people like Tara are changing that every day. Like any other business, the fashion industry is quickly turning to AI to make their companies more efficient, predict the future of the industry, and can replace marketing aspects like photoshoots.
As an industry leader, Tara shares her insight and knowledge of the fashion industry as well as AI development in order to give us a unique take on what AI can and will do for the fashion industry.
A big thanks to FortressIQ for sponsoring the program and be sure to hit the subscribe button whenever you listen to podcasts.
- Tara’s journey into the fashion industry
- How Tara used automation to fix a problem in the fashion industry
- The changes that the fashion industry had to make because of the pandemic
- Technological trends to look out for in the future of fashion
- Building a tech-based company without the technological background
- How TrackRacks will expand in the future
- What Tara finds exciting about AI and the fashion industry
- How AI and tech can help eliminate the waste from apparel and fashion
If you enjoyed this episode, subscribe and check out our series at fortressiq.com/podcast. Thanks for joining us today on hello, Human.
Full Episode Transcript:
Jon: Tara Robinson, the Founder and Product Marketing Manager at TrackRacks, an emerging leader in the fashion tech space, joins us today on the hello, Human podcast where we discuss the latest topics in artificial intelligence and how it’s being applied in the real world. I’m Jon Knisley, the host of hello, Human and a long-time technologist helping companies adopt and utilize emerging digital solutions.
A big thanks to FortressIQ for sponsoring the program. Be sure to hit the subscribe button wherever you listen to podcasts.
Fashion is one of the biggest industries globally. Revenues in the apparel market are expected to reach $2 trillion by 2025, but it’s not the first industry that pops into your mind when you think about artificial intelligence. Fashion retailers have turned to AI to make their businesses more efficient, replace photoshoots, and predict what people will buy and where in the future.
AI is able to map clothes onto people’s bodies. These can either be models or potential customers who upload their own photos to an app. We’ve certainly come a long way since Warby Parker won the Webby in 2016 for their virtual try-on feature. Designers and brands that embrace the latest technology to push the limits of design, manufacturing, and production will come out on top in the fast-changing world of fashion.
We are fortunate to have an industry leader give us her perspective and insight on the exciting uses and future of AI in the fashion business.
Welcome to the program, Tara. Thanks for joining us on hello, Human and bringing your knowledge and expertise to the program. To get started, it would be great if you could share a little bit about your background, where you got started and how you ended up where you are now as the founder of TracksRacks.
Tara: Thank you for having me, Jon. My story’s pretty interesting. I ran all over the place until I landed in doing what I do now. I was a late adopter to getting into the fashion industry because I thought to be in the fashion industry, you had to be a designer. I didn’t know there were other roles. But luckily, I did my MBA in Fashion Management and Entrepreneurship and really got a full-eye view of all the roles within the industry.
I always wanted to be behind the scenes and looked at doing fashion PR by the roles that I was looking at. In terms of style, I realized that that was not my strong point, but it definitely gave me great insight and that internship is what really let me come up with the idea to make TracksRacks. I ended up working as a marketing manager for Canadian shoe retailers that have over 120 stores in Canada and in the US. They had a really booming ecommerce department.
I graduated in late 2012. Back then, they didn’t really teach ecommerce too much in fashion schools. It’s really traditional retail merchandising and that type of stuff. This was my first experience with ecommerce. I learned so much because I would manage all the landing pages, the homepage, email lists, and all of our social media ad strategies.
Also, what it really gave me was the language to talk to tech people. I would go in the cave with the web developers and had to tell them what I needed them to make me for landing pages or emails. That’s what […] my mind of, hey, I think I can create this idea that I had back when I was interning in my MBA.
I was doing an internship. If anybody watched The Devil Wears Prada, that was definitely my experience. I was running around New York, grabbing samples from all over the place. Samples are the prototype before you mass-produce merchandise. That’s the version that you will use for photoshoots and fashion shows. We would get these samples, bring them back to the showroom, and manually count them. For one photoshoot, you could have hundreds of samples.
I was in the studio counting these samples, emailing them to the computer, printing them out, and putting them in a physical book. Obviously, my first thing was like, is there no digital solution that does this? This is taking hours. Also, things are getting lost all the time. I just was like, we have to have a better way of doing it.
I probably quit the next day because they were like, go back to work. That’s not what we hired you for. But luckily, I had a launching new venture for us that semester. I just used it for a pitch idea. What was really great is that everyone else works for big fashion companies like Michael Kors and Calvin Klein. What I thought was just one experience, everyone told me, wow, I have this problem with Michael Kors too. I interned at Calvin Klein and it’s the same way. No one has these systems.
Now that I had that experience underneath my belt, I reached out to some developers, told them about my idea, and helped them to make that platform for me. I quit my job at the end of 2018 after I was taking client calls in the car and started working on it full-time.
Jon: I love that you talk about coming late to the industry. You started the company (I think) when you were 23 years old, really remarkable. It is remarkable that early in your career, you were able to identify this industry-wide problem that was looking for a solution, ultimately leading you to start a company.
We’ve seen this interest in automation as a driver for change over and over again. Can you share a little bit more about the problem that you noticed in the fashion merchandising space and how TracksRacks is able to transform and automate that problem? What are some of the benefits to using automation tools like the one you developed in the fashion industry?
Tara: The way they were doing it back when I was interning, like I said, the samples would come in, they would take a picture of it, they would email it to the computer, they’ll then print out that picture, and they would then take that picture and put in a physical book or they would use Excel. Obviously, that was doing a terrible job.
Samples are really interesting because you can’t use a typical inventory system because inventory goes in and then it goes out. A sample has a very circular nature. It can go to marketing. It can go to the buying team. It can go out for a photoshoot. But then it has to come back in. They were just really tracking that with the systems that they have or Excel or physical books, that took hours.
Sometimes, samples don’t even have tags in them so they don’t have identifying factors. You could have five black shirts that look all the same. You’re trying to guess where it’s coming from. Obviously, that just made a lot of loss.
What our system does is it digitizes that whole system. You get your sample, you take a picture of it, and it’s uploaded into our system. It stores all the important information like the designer. Each employee has a unique QR code so it creates accountability. You know which employee checked it in, who checked it out, which data needs to be returned, and then we generate a unique QR code that you can then scan at any point and identify that sample.
We also have messengers on the platform that will deliver the samples for you. People have wild stories of just throwing $10,000 dresses in the back of an Uber, waiting for it to get there, and having someone there to pick it up. One of the problems with loss and being stolen was having reliable service providers that will help you with every single process of the sample management system.
Jon: Totally cool. AI and technology are making this massive impact across the entire value chain of the apparel industry from design and production all the way through the supply chain as well as merchandising. At the same time, we heard a lot about how the pandemic really forced many industries to dramatically accelerate their transformation programs. I’ve got to assume that you saw this in fashion as well. Can you share any interesting industry stories from the past year or two that companies have unexpectedly had to jump into this technology world?
Tara: Yeah, definitely. The pandemic was an interesting time to be selling tech, especially in the fashion industry because they definitely were hit pretty hard and that had to really change their processes. Which was a good and bad thing for me because there was so much change going on. It was hard for people to think of creating a different and new expense, but the way I would sell it this is not an expense. This is a cost-saving product.
You can lose samples that can cause you to lose millions. Not even just lost inventory, but also, if it takes you three days to get that product on the website because you can’t find that sample, that’s a loss of sales. Really pivoting how I speak to people about it.
Then, what our platform does is create a virtual showroom. Now, you can’t be in this physical office anymore. Now, you don’t have physical access to these samples because most of the people are working from home. If you had set up that digital solution and created that central database before the pandemic, you would have been in a much better position because then all the team could be looking at the same thing. The systems are really […] when you have this distributed workforce.
That was a really interesting thing. Also, what was really interesting generally in the fashion industry is the way people started shopping. People wanted this vehicle to jump in and jump out of ecommerce and then brick-and-mortars as well. You have to make that process very easy for customers to transfer offline and online. That’s a big way that people were using AI as well, like chat assistance. People also really like salespeople within stores to help them make purchasing decisions, so a lot of retailers were looking at, how can we use AI to step in where we don’t have that physical person but still give that customized experience?
Jon: That makes perfect sense. Obviously, buying clothes and things like that is such a personal experience. Oftentimes, you do want that one-to-one contact, and we just haven’t (in many cases) been able to provide that for people, whether it’s a restaurant, fashion, or wherever it may be.
If you look into your crystal ball, how does the apparel industry leverage technology over the next 4–8 years? What are the emerging trends that we should keep an eye on from a technology perspective?
Tara: In the B2B space to me is simplifying work automation forces. I think a lot of people are going to be in that remote workplace or that dual thing where you’re going to work but you’re also working remotely.
Systems like mine are going to become really important. That allowed people to jump in offline and online so they can have access to the same information. I think being more efficient and simplifying processes is going to be a big part of the back-end.
But in the B2C space, definitely a big thing for retailers right now are things like the AI chat. How can I make processes that are really simple where people can have experience online because a lot of people are shopping online way more during the pandemic?
There are things that they like about it, but they still like to go with […] stuff, so that AI assistance. The VR trying-on process, I think we’re going to adopt that in a much more efficient way. We’re really going to see it popping on the ecommerce side. Avatars and creating more realistic avatars—not like the things of the past—where it fits into your body. The biggest problem in fashion are still returns because people aren’t finding the right sizing.
The virtual try-on, the way we thought it would be implemented is not the way it actually is going to be implemented. I think it’s really going to live on ecommerce. You see Walmart and Amazon really investing in that to slow down some of their returns. That is through VR and try-on avatars so you can really see what things are going to look like on your body before you make that purchase decision and hopefully make you more happy with that purchase decision.
Also, social commerce is going to be huge. We’re going to see Instagram and TikTok investing heavily in social commerce. How do we create that creator economy and influencers who help people make purchase decisions? How do we implement that into your business? How do I put that into your Shopify? How do I get that into other platforms people use to sell products?
Jon: I will confess that there are two members of my family—my wife and my daughter—who are notorious for going and ordering four different sizes of something. I say, why do we have eight boxes of this stuff? Then, it sits around the house and goes back home. If we can solve that problem, that will be a tremendous benefit to everybody, I think.
Tara: It’s so expensive. When you do that, that causes the retailers so much money when they have to restock, put things back on shelves, the shipping costs, and all that type of stuff.
Jon: Yeah. We’re not talking about high fashion there. We’re talking about the Amazons and the Dick’s Sporting Goods at this point. But no, I get it.
During our last season of hello, Human, we highlighted diverse female executives in the technology industry. We had a Great Women in AI series. You don’t have that classical technology background. Has that created major challenges in your work? How were you able to build such a revolutionary and technologically advanced platform without that background and training?
Tara: It’s tough being a non-tech founder. It does bring some challenges. What I think I did well was I thought of an existing product. At the end of the day, this is an inventory management system. How do I then need to customize it to the needs of my clients?
You don’t have to be well tech-versed to understand the problem and understand the solution. If you’re really tapped into your customers, you got to really get a solution. Think about solutions and think about how does my product solve their solution?
Where the real struggle really comes back is when you go to fundraising and talking to VCs, they really love someone with a tech background. They’re like, so where’s your co-founder technical head type of person? That’s where the problem really comes. I think you as a founder can do it, especially if you know how to manage your team.
I have a good product management background, so I know how to manage tech people and I know enough that I can be efficient. But I think it scares people like VCs and traditional investors when you don’t have that background. Then, you have to just use your skills to find the right people so they feel that they trust your team even if you don’t have that background.
Jon: That’s a great insight. It does take a village to build these things. This season on hello, Human, we’re really focusing on the applied uses of AI across different industries and business units as much as we can. I think we’ve got a good sense of how TracksRacks work currently. Maybe you could spend a couple of minutes talking about where you see the platform expanding in the next few years, both technically and from a business perspective.
Tara: Yeah, definitely. The big part for us—especially as the pandemic shined a light on that—is our virtual showroom and how we’re going to eventually infuse AI into that. We have a virtual showroom. Basically, you upload all the samples, all the items that you’ll have for your season, and then you can share this showroom to your buyers, to your PR people, and to your stylists so that they can see that and then loan out those samples.
Right now, you upload the image and you tag that information, but we think about the future. What if when you upload that sample using AI, our system will be able to automatically identify who that sample is from because of styling and stuff like that? Putting AI so that the customers are doing less work was really important to us.
Also, we get so much great information from our clients and we’re thinking about how we can take that information because usually, they’re uploading all these things a […] ahead. Using all that insight, generating information back to our customers saying, well, skirts in this style are really in right now, using some predictive analytics, giving trend reports, and really providing more value to our customers is important.
The influencer market is also really big right now. A lot of times, people lend samples out to influencers. A big category of influence right now are micro-influencers. People who don’t have a huge following, but could they have a credibility issue? You’re free to lend from your $10,000 sample to some girl in IG with 2000 followers. Even though her conversion was really good, her engagement is really authentic, and people really follow her, what type of credibility can we create?
We do this with our messengers. They get user-generated ratings. What if we can put that rating system on influencers depending on the other tasks that they were able to do? Did they return the samples on time? Did they do the instructions that you gave them for that shoot? How has everyone else’s experience been dealing with them?
Putting that information and generating the back so you feel comfortable lending out your samples to them is important to us. And then eventually spreading onto the marketplace area. I really believe in dealing with the sample process from beginning to end. What happens after that sample is done being used? What do we do with it?
There’s a sustainability aspect to that, but there’s also a second life that we can give that sample. That can go into the marketplace because sample sales are popular in New York and LA, but what about a person who lives in Idaho? Are they having access to Chanel sample sales? I doubt that. How do I make that accessible to them?
Jon: This has been great, Tara. To wrap up, one final question. You can take this one anywhere you want. What excites you about the future of AI in your industry and beyond?
Tara: For me, what’s really exciting about AI and how it’s been implemented in the fashion industry is improving the customers’ experience. The solution I create is very much like solving a problem. I had a problem, I experienced it, and I wanted to create a solution for it.
In the fashion industry, we have a lot of this great tech that’s popping up. Some of it has gone further than what the customer wants right now. Think of 3D printing where we thought we would be printing out entire fashion lines on 3D printers. That’s not the use case. I think there are just way more practical use cases of how we’re going to experience things like AI just to make the shopping experience more seamless.
There are a lot of things that are getting bunched up and it is not as seamless as possible. Anything that helps with automation and makes the customer experience better is where we’re actually going to see a big impact. There’s a gap between how customers see themselves using AI and VR and the way retailers see it.
I think there’s going to be a lot of customer experience in social commerce. What places like TikTok really do well with recommending you win videos to use, what videos you want to watch, and which creators to follow? What if we can do that great product recommendation in ecommerce? I think that’s going to be where we see it.
There’s going to be a real blend of social media and commerce in the future. You may be going to Instagram to purchase more than you’re going to individual sites. That’s where an AI is going to be a big pusher of that. The algorithms that suggest different videos to you are not going to be suggesting a product to you.
Jon: Really interesting. You touched on the influencers and the micro-influencers. I think that all blend together. Ultimately, the big leaders in the industry probably have a little less power than they did a couple of years ago.
The other thing that I came across—I usually don’t add to this part of the conversation, but I thought it was interesting. When I was researching this episode, there was a fair amount of talk about the potential ability of technology and AI to help eliminate some of the waste that is created in the fashion industry or in production and manufacturing. I had no idea of the amount of extra resources that go into producing clothes, shipping obviously, and all this other stuff. I think that may be the other area, I don’t know if you have any thoughts on that piece you mentioned.
Tara: Yeah. That’s a big part of it. We over-create clothes and we don’t consume as much. Fast fashion has created that problem to be even bigger because people will wear things for a short period of time because it’s so cheap and they can just throw it away. The monetary costs but also the impact on the environment to create those things is so high.
Hopefully, we’ll be able to see how great demand really is so we’re not over-creating clothes and then just throwing them into landfills. The sustainability aspect is important. That’s a push with my company too. We say, if you’re not losing samples, if that’s not happening, and we’re helping you with the full live stream, you don’t have to order a new sample because you’re making too much waste and you’re making too much product.
Thinking about that and your sustainability market. Thinking of how the resale market is really booming with places like The RealReal and StockX is a part of that sustainability play as well.
Jon: That’s really great insight and a great point to end on. To recap today’s conversation with Tara Robinson, the Founder and Product Marketing Manager at TracksRacks, fashion is not the first industry you would associate with artificial intelligence. The leaders in the apparel space have turned to AI to make their businesses more efficient, replace photoshoots, and predict what people will buy and where in the future. Designers and brands that embrace the latest technology to push the limits of design, manufacturing, and production will come out on top in this fast-changing world of fashion.
This episode has been part of our second season of hello, Human. A big thanks to Elizabeth Mitelman for spearheading the season. That’s a wrap on today’s show.
Thank you, Tara, for joining us, and Fortress IQ for sponsoring. If you enjoyed it, be sure to give us that like or five-star review on whatever platform you’re listening to. I’m Jon Knisley, and this has been hello, Human.