Ex-American Apparel executive’s ‘Amazon surprise’

Thoryn StephensThe former chief digital officer of salvaged fashion retailer, American Apparel, has admitted his surprise at local retailers’ bullish statements that “they’re not worried about Amazon in Australia”.

“I heard the same sentiment six years ago in the US – and that hasn’t worked out too well for the US retailers,” Thoryn Stephens, the ex-American Apparel and Fox Networks executive told IRW, while in the country to present at last week’s ADMA Global Forum.

According to Fung Global Retail and Technology, which tracks the store openings and closures of US retail chains, the first four months of 2017 have brought 3,658 store closures, an increase of 119 per cent over the figure for the comparable period last year. Of the total number of closures, 3,191 involve specialty stores.

American Apparel filed for bankruptcy last November with $177 million in debts, following a drawn-out legal battle with its ousted founder Dov Charney amid allegations of sexual harassment and declining sales since 2010. It was the company’s second bankruptcy in as many years, following a similar move in October 2015.

The Australian arm of the fashion retailer went into voluntary administration in November last year, with the company closing its Australian stores and shutting down its online presence. American Apparel’s UK and Irish businesses also went into voluntary administration. Canadian firm, Gildan Activewear, bought the brand earlier this year, reviving the fashion brand online.

When asked how fast the pace of change within retail is, Stephens said, “to put it bluntly, it’s not nearly fast enough”.

“If you compare a retail store picture from a hundred years ago to today – then compare Amazon 30 years ago to now – the differences are startling,” he continued. “We have spent the last 30 years optimising user experience online through data – we now need to digress and do the same with offline.”

Stephens pointed to concepts including in-store analytics, multivariate testing of product placement and clienteling as becoming more prevalent within progressive retailer organisations.

“The digital environment is dynamic and continually evolving, as have customers and their expectations,” he said. “While most organisations have the data to know their customers, it’s generally siloed and inaccessible. Universal identity management for organisations should be paramount.”

One of the more obvious changes implemented by retailers, said Stephens, has been through intersection of digital and mobile through the omnichannel experience.

Commenting on what the greatest technological challenges for major retail organisations were, Stephens said backend legacy retail systems are “often outdated versions ERP/POS” and “cannot integrate with contemporary platforms like order management, CRM, loyalty or e-commerce”.

“We should be empowering our sales associates to become customer services reps with interconnected iPads like in Apple stores, but it’s a slow road due to the legacy systems, if not, in some cases, impossible,” he said.

After spending the last week in Sydney on both sides of the table – with major Aussie retailers as well as vendors – Stephens said a general theme that emerged was brands being oversold in technology they’re not fully utilising.

“Another [theme] was Adobe’s dominance of the Australian market and dissatisfied customers looking to jump to either Oracle or Salesforce. Having implemented Adobe tech for nearly a decade and every product they have, I can empathise, as I felt their product development seriously slowed as they acquired more companies.”



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