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Fashion & Digitalization: Marleen Vogelaar

blog - 7 min.

In occasion of this year's coincidence of Fashion Revolution Week and Girls in ICT Day (April 22), we have interviewed some of our members working in fashion and asked about their view on the digitalization of their business. More specifically, we talked about the role of e-commerce in today's fashion world. Here, Marleen Vogelaar, CEO of Ziel, shares her perspective.

1) How big of a role does technology – and more specifically e-commerce – play in your business?

“Technology is the backbone of everything we do at my company, Ziel. We have three lines of business: a sustainable on-demand manufacturing platform for suppliers, manufacturers, retailers and brands; an on-demand apparel manufacturing facility (in Newburgh, NY) for influencer brands looking to drive more sustainable outcomes; and, during the times of COVID, launched a PPE line of business, selling the highest quality masks to front line works and consumers alike. We believe that the advent of technology innovation – much of which we are in the process of developing – has the potential to disrupt what has historically been a fairly traditional and staid industry. We believe we can significantly improve delivery times, reduce waste across the supply chain, and improve margins – while we meet the growing consumer demand to be better stewards of the planet and deliver truly sustainable outcomes. And technology is the backbone for how we will deliver on this mandate.

Specific to eCommerce, we enable our customers to sell through their own eCommerce solutions with integrations to our on-demand apparel manufacturing platform, and we sell our own brand of PPE products (under the Hudson Valley Mask Co. name) leveraging our own e-commerce platform. We are constantly learning and adapting to the marketplace environment and use this knowledge to not only improve our own processes, but share these best practices with our clients throughout our engagements.”

2) What do you think about the evolution of e-commerce, especially since the pandemic started?

“Certainly the pandemic has created seismic shifts that no one could have ever predicted, across all industries – and fashion and retail is no exception. Frankly, the pandemic shed a strong spotlight on the inefficiencies of our industry: piles of unused inventory (that I’m sure will end up in landfills), massive write-downs, waves of retail bankruptcies, historic job losses not just here but in the Asian factories making our apparel and a tremendous sense of uncertainty. We can do better, we must do better, – the tools are in our grasp right now. We want to be the change agents for our industry – imagine a world where we only produce what is needed? A predictable supply – and demand curve. A business formulated with sustainability and purpose from the very first step. We believe this wholeheartedly – and the advances of e-commerce and changes from the pandemic have forced many in our industry to rethink the fundamentals of how we deliver our products to the marketplace. We have been building toward this vision for the past five years, and due to the pandemic change is accelerating at a pace no one could have ever predicted.”

3) What difficulties did you encounter while using e-commerce in your business and what advantages did it bring you?

“In some ways, eCommerce brings all the known elements that a brand or company needs to align and manage within their business, from inventory management to pricing to promotion to customer service management. But in other important ways, the world of eCommerce has fundamental differences. First, of course, there are the dominant online marketplaces for which one has to understand the role it plays in a brand or company’s delivery channel. Second, managing the balance of supply and demand when surges (or slowdowns) in orders can wreak havoc on manufacturing flows and processes. FInally, many face large hurdles on the marketing side – getting the “megaphone” working to get the word out about the brand, company and product – optimizing for the right message to the right audience at the right time. We help across these disciplines, whether it’s creating a better, more sustainable business model or delivering on a promise to meet marketplace demand by manufacturing on-demand.”

4) In your opinion, what are the necessary elements for any e-commerce to be successful?

“For any brand to successfully engage with eCommerce, I would mention four core elements of success:

Define and deliver on your brand promise:

This is the critical first stage – what do you stand for, what is your unique selling proposition – and how do you stand out from the competition. This needs to emerge throughout all levels of your eCommerce communications and marketing efforts.

Exceed customer expectations:

Next, understand what it takes to be successful with respect to delivering – and exceeding – your customer expectations, whether that involves quality of the product or service, pricing, service or support – or any other tangible and intangible elements that combine to form your brand promise.

Optimize your [eCommerce] business model:

Delivering a profitable outcome in eCommerce can be demanding – traditionally known as a high growth channel but also potentially very low (or even negative) margin if not managed correctly. Know your business model and your unit economics well before diving in. Plan and test all elements of your digital advertising, customer acquisition costs and logistics fulfilment to know your “full system costs” for eCommerce.

Finally, don’t forget the nuts and bolts:

Deliver on the details – a great website, easy to find information, a good customer experience – and a way for customers to interact, whether that’s writing reviews or referring your brand to their friends!”

5) What do you think of the future of e-commerce?

“It’s hard not to overemphasize the growing importance of eCommerce as a critical element for most (fashion/retail/manufacturing) businesses. As McKinsey recently noted in their research report, we have witnessed 10 YEARS of growth in eCommerce in just the past three months alone because of the pandemic – with over three-quarters of US consumers trying new and different brands over the past few months. The ever expanding number of smaller brands dedicated to niche categories has been clear for a few years, but the crises has fueled this even stronger.  This signifies an era of tremendous disruption – and, excitingly and opportunity for Ziel to help these brands come to life in a more sustainable way without massive investments.”

6) What tips would you give to women entrepreneurs who are trying to include/amplify an e-commerce section in their business?

“We must stand proud and tall! Women entrepreneurs have faced decades of hurdles – from difficulty in finding traditional financing opportunities to breaking through closed social networks of decision makers and influencers. But we are starting to see some focused efforts of change. We need to support each other – create learning networks, funding opportunities, and shared experiences – and even support each other by buying from each other’s companies and brands. We must be active agents of change. I would suggest we do not cower from the message of being women entrepreneurs, but instead celebrate it and promote it at every point of interaction we have.”

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