A New Retail Superpower: How Platform Tech Can Transform the Asos of Tomorrow

By Leon Gauhman, Chief Strategy Officer, Elsewhen

With a shock plunge in UK retail sales fuelling the worst-ever fall on record and US consumer spending also in freefall, online brands around the globe need a fresh kind of playbook. To thrive in an age of inflation and a cost of living crunch, retailers must dig deep, reworking the potential of their online assets to withstand the crosswinds ahead.

The good news is there’s no shortage of innovations to choose from. From tapping into the $236 billion games industry to the burgeoning retail media landscape and catching Gen Z on Snapchat (where daily active users recently rose to 375 million), today’s digital marketing sphere is all to play for. But retailers wanting a piece of the action must begin with a dramatic shift in mindset.

In an environment where even giants such as Asos and Boohoo are struggling (the online fashion stalwart saw revenue fall 11% over Christmas), the onus is on retailers to rework their brands from the inside out – becoming highly versatile, distributable platforms.

This key change, known as “platformization,” moves retail infrastructure beyond the boundaries of a static vertical stack. It extends to digital media, with companies including Deliveroo and Boots, among several UK retailers, following America’s lead by opening their online retail space to third-party advertisers.

Platformization is a one-stop route to creative monetization. Using multiple building blocks that third parties can integrate with, retailers can reinvent themselves across new markets and revenue streams. Here’s how:

1. Open Up Digital Assets

Consumer behavior is changing fast, with shoppers interacting across numerous platforms and devices at once –  focusing on social commerce and gaming experiences. In order to deliver crucial new collaborations in this space, supersizing audience reach with ease, retailers need to follow the example of the banking sector and open up their digital assets.

Goldman Sachs’ financial cloud, for example, allows strategic partners to embed its developer solutions, opening its architecture to industry-leading concepts such as Coin Metrics’ blockchain network data.

A mirrored approach in retail would allow brands to roll out their delivery networks and/or embed their inventory with influential third-party operators, including Snapchat, TikTok or Twitch. It’s a framework that could build upon and help commercialize creative collaborations such as Louis Vuitton’s AR partnership with Snapchat.

The luxury fashion house recently allowed traveling Snapchat users to see landmarks in front of them – including the Eiffel Tower, London Bridge and the Statue of Liberty – adorned in colorful polka dots, the hallmark of its artist-in-residence, Yayoi Kusama. Louis Vuitton said the activation enabled its teams to “extend our creativity through a new technology playground” in a Snapchat audience where three-quarters are aged 13 to 34. An embedded inventory approach would allow Snapchat customers to tap and instantly buy leather goods merchandise tailored to the collaboration without ever leaving Snapchat.

2. Engage with Gamers

 Platformization is also a tool that enables retailers to unbundle a fashion item from its physical location, making it available within the hugely diverse gaming community. Almost 80% of the world’s online population participates in games, a booming sector that is larger than movies and music combined.

To reach audiences in this golden land of engagement – also the gateway to the metaverse – retailers might follow in the footsteps of Ralph Lauren, which last year reinvented its iconic Polo Pony logo for a new digital collaboration with Fortnite. The launch featured two outfits and in-game cosmetics alongside “The Polo Stadium Cup”; a tournament where players of the Epic Games franchise could earn limited edition rewards, including first-in-line access to the new collection.

Charlotte Tilbury’s exclusive masterclasses on Girl Gamer’s Twitch channel are another example of gaming crossover success, as is H&M Loooptopia, a virtual fashion haven where Roblox players can design virtual outfits and interact with fellow designers.

Gen Zs and Alphas increasingly consider real and virtual worlds equally important.

Retailers can create and own the framework that allows them to launch goods in virtual and real-world space effortlessly. (Louis Vuitton pioneered this approach when it partnered  League of Legends (LoL) to create custom skins for LoL characters and Legend-themed items IRL). Going forward, retailers should look to create interoperable cross-platform formats that allow players to move their digital fashion items between games while also wearing them IRL.

3. Deliver real-time performance metrics.

Lastly, versatile platform architecture will give retailers the edge in the UK’s emerging retail media network. Morrisons is one of the latest supermarket chains to join the retail media movement, which includes Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda, in enabling brand campaigns across supermarket-owned channels.

The grocer promised insight-led campaigns and performance measurement as part of its offer, tackling one of retail media’s major bugbears upfront. Because while the idea of retailers becoming self-contained media companies is attractive, it’s also fraught with teething issues.

This includes brands having to negotiate a somewhat fragmented space where data visibility – including tying media investment back to sales – is frustratingly hard to come by.

To iron out this uncertainty, retailers must provide advertisers with real-time performance metrics. Tesco’s Media & Insight platform, which boasts a new self-serve capability and closed-loop measurement, is a case in point.

These are tough times for retail. To rise to the challenge of a post-Covid era, retailers need to build a reciprocal framework around their assets – so they can be deployed by third-party brands and within third-party settings.

This degree of circularity puts profitable activations across gaming, retail media and social networks in easy reach. It’s a retail shift of inestimable value – and a change that begins and ends with platformization at its heart.