The picture Bob Kupbens is showing is of a young woman in dark sunglasses, posing with effortless nonchalance at the bottom of some steps in front of a public building. She’s wearing what appear to be Gucci sneakers with a long, pleated orange skirt and a white T-shirt, along with a black jacket which has some bright accents delicately embroidered near the top.
What the chief product and technology officer at Nieman Marcus really wants you to notice, however, is the sea of hashtags surrounding her outfit. These include #fall2021, #stylemaverick, #daytimelook, #yogi — and they represent the future of how the retailer hopes to redefine the customer experience in the luxury sector.
Speaking during a session at the Retail Touchpoints virtual conference this week, Kupbens explained how the tags could be associated with the product metadata of its clothes and analyzed by Stylyze, a Seattle-based artificial intelligence (AI) startup it acquired this past June.
The technology will allow Nieman Marcus’s associates to then make recommendations based on visually similar items — perhaps something with the same colour but from a different brand, for example — and dynamically generate new looks.
“This is where some of these machine learning/AI things go wrong,” he admitted. “But Stylyze has built the technology over time to make excellent looks. We felt like, in making the decision to acquire the company, that a none of its competitors had these capabilities.”
Investing For Retail Transformation
The Stylyze acquisition is just one example of the half a billion dollars Nieman Marcus has committed to spending over the next three years to advance its luxury strategy.
While many retailers are focusing on touch points such as social media and video as new ways to engage with customers, Kupbens said Nieman Marcus places a particularly high value on the role of its associates. This harkens back to the company’s origins, when Stanley Marcus helped bring European-flavoured style to North America.
“It was individual personal relationships — making style recommendations to help people feel better about themselves through engagement with the brand,” he said.
The high-net worth of Nieman Marcus’ clientele means that its associates tend to see sales concentrated in a smaller number of customers, where developing trust and credibility is critical to selling at full price and growing revenue.
The associates, which Nieman Marcus calls style advisors, use tools like Stylyze through an app called Connect, which was deployed just before the outbreak of COVID-19 last year. The app has allowed the team to continue operating even during lockdowns, with features that range from product lookup to full POS. New features to be added will turn Connect into even more of a communications hub, Kupbens explained, by helping to ensure it’s the only tool associates need throughout their day.
From Connect to ‘Stanley’
On the customer side, an app called Stanley allows shoppers to collaborate with associates who might give them some initial ideas for a new outfit.
“It’s not a static look but more on the lines of, ‘I like what you did with the shoes, but I want to change the pants,’” he said. Some of the items in an ensemble might include pieces a customer already owns, which means the experience will be more intimate and self-directed than in a traditional retail shopping trip.
Associates will also soon be able to use AI and machine learning to proactively reach out to new customers, Kupbens said.
Beyond acquisitions, Kupbens said Nieman Marcus will be using its war chest to hire new talent to accelerate its transformation, as well as upgrade some of its physical stores. There is also considerable technology integration to be done — he estimated the company has been working with more than 30 different software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers.
Niemen Marcus has also created a new role, digital style advisors, and will be appointing or hiring about 150 of them to run train-the-trainer coaching kinds of programs across its team of about 3,000 associates.
“If we want to grow, we have to scale their expertise, their knowledge, to help them have an outsized impact — and not just when a customers walks through the store,” he said.
Shane Schick tells stories that help people innovate, and to manage the change innovation brings. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine and has also been Vice-President, Content & Community (Editor-in-Chief), at IT World Canada, a technology columnist with the Globe and Mail and Yahoo Canada and is the founding editor of ITBusiness.ca. Shane has been recognized for journalistic excellence by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance and the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.