Generation athleisure – what’s next for retail’s fastest growing categories?

 Athleisure is one of the fastest growing categories in inventory and e-commerce, but can this trend last?

As we survey the retail ecosystem, we, like the rest of women in America, are thrilled by the boom in athleisure. Vogue published an article earlier this year highlighting the many ways that one can wear and style athletic wear, even giving us permission to wear athletic clothes all day. If Anna Wintour says it’s OK, who are we to argue?

What caused the athleisure boom?

Out of a combination of curiosity, a passion for retail and of course, self-interest, we asked ourselves, “Is athleisure here to stay?” But before we look to the future, let’s first attempt to diagnose where the trend started. We credit Lululemon (which was started almost 20 years ago) with driving the trend forward by showing us not only how comfortable we can be, but also how good we can look in their yoga pants. The Juicy Couture tracksuit took the trend to a new level over a decade ago by demonstrating how athletic wear can not only be comfortable, but that it can also be a symbol of style and status. As the clothing got more stylish - think cool wrap sweaters and criss-crossed tops - it became even more acceptable to wear athletic wear outside of the yoga studio and a proliferation of brands (like Alo Yoga, Rhone and others) flourished. 

Athleisure will evolve as a category

But can this really last forever? Our answer is yes and no. On the one hand, we don’t think that Athleisure in the way it’s known today - primarily intended as athletic wear but loosely interpreted as work and casual wear - will continue. Instead, as fabric technology improves, we think that athletic wear will slowly make its way back into the gym while new brands rise to take its place. 

We’re talking about brands that take the best of athleisure - comfort, ease of care, durability, functionality - and translate it into more stylish ensembles that are actually intended to be worn to work. Two great examples are Pivotte and Aella. Aella’s clothes are stylishly tailored, machine washable and the fabric makes the clothes feel like something you could wear to the gym with an important difference - it looks like something you should distinctly be wearing to the office. 

Comfort isn't just for the gym anymore

We sat down with Eunice Cho, the CEO of Aella, to ask her what inspired her to start the brand. When she first started working on Aella, “...there weren’t brands like ADAY, or other athleisure concepts that bridged the gap between activewear and ready-to-wear. Fashionable activewear started pushing the envelope, but everything still very much had a gym aesthetic. However, brands were popping up in menswear that were focused on comfort and versatility. Finally, the activewear sector was just growing and growing. I knew it was just a matter of time that this trend would bleed into other categories. We see Aella as the workhorse of the modern woman’s wardrobe: it’s the trusty essential that you can go back to, again and again.”

We’ve also seen this desire for comfort seep into other areas of women’s fashion, namely, lingerie. Several up and coming brands like AdoreMe and True & Co strive to disrupt Victoria’s Secret by providing a comfortable alternative that allows women to look and feel great. 

All in all, we think there is a lot to look forward to. While we might miss wearing our Lululemon pants everywhere, we’re excited to have a more stylish and equally functional alternative. Most importantly, we’re here to support all types of businesses, whether you’re an athleisure brand or not. At Fuse, we want to help you focus on your business, not your inventory. 

Inventory - tackling your biggest investment

 Companies with the best supply chain management practices thing about inventory as an investment, not a cost.

After conducting almost 200 customer interviews, we’ve gained some insight into what separates the great from the good when it comes to inventory.

We started by asking our advisor, Oseyi Ikuenobe, the Senior Product Manager of @WalmartLabs’ Smart Forecasting product for his thoughts. At @WalmartLabs, Oseyi and a team of data scientists and engineers plans the inventory for Walmart’s $13 bn e-commerce business. 

Inventory management should have ROI benchmarks

According to Oseyi, "The best inventory strategy is one that allows you to buy the 'right amounts of the right inventory' to maximize revenue, profitability and growth. Instead of trying to simply control costs, it is better to think of inventory decisions the way we think of marketing spend - in terms of ROI. Once you have that mindset, you quickly realize that the ultimate smart inventory solution is one that can synthesize the collective wisdom of the organization and deploy it to drive decision making."

We’ve gleaned two insights from Oseyi’s thoughts:

  1. Best-in-class retailers think about inventory as an investment, not a cost center
  2. Collaboration between key functional areas is key to successful inventory planning

Reframing inventory as an investment

We work mostly with start-ups and all too often we see them allocating a fixed budget to inventory. But, inventory is an investment, much like marketing. The investment that a company makes in its inventory supports the company’s sales target. We’d propose that companies go through a series of questions to set their inventory budget:

  1. What is our marketing budget?
  2. Based on our marketing spend and our organic reach, what is our revenue target?
  3. How much product do we need to sell to support our revenue target?

This third question is the start of the planning process. Once the revenue target is established, a planner can go through and make a determination regarding the product mix and volume of product needed. 

Collaboration improves inventory planning

The process described above only works if there is tight collaboration between all of the functional areas that impact sales like finance, marketing, merchandising and operations. 

Unfortunately, we have seen a lot of avoidable crises caused because one functional area forgot to tell operations about planned changes. Things like changing the discount amount on a promo or A/B tests planned on the site. While these lapses might seem small, they can have a big impact if there isn’t enough product in stock to support these initiatives.

So What?

We want to encourage our customers to reframe the way you think about inventory: it’s not your biggest cost center, it’s your biggest investment. At Fuse, we’re designing a tool to help automate the grunt work of planning so that you can focus on important, strategic decisions. 

We’re here to help you focus on your business, not your inventory.

Why we believe in the success of online first brands

 We believe that digitally native online first brands will be the future of all commerce, not just e-commerce.

At Fuse, we are excited about the wave of online first brands that we’ve seen succeed over the past decade. In a recent post by Andy Dunn, he called these brands “digitally native vertical brands” and later, “v-commerce”.

Will digitally native e-commerce brands succeed?

We asked Matt Heiman, a consumer investor at Greylock to share his perspective: “My view is that vertically focused direct to consumer online brands are better positioned than pure 3rd party e-commerce concepts over the next few years. Particularly as Amazon approaches 40% of US e-commerce, competing with them is extremely difficult, so the idea of creating a new brand and owning your own customer experience is a better position. Some examples of brands I think have done this well are Casper, Dollar Shave Club and Warby Parker.”

We agree with Matt, and we think that the sale of Dollar Shave Club to Unilever earlier this year for $1 bn has convinced others that it’s possible to build a valuable brand that caters to a different kind of consumer online. Dollar Shave Club’s true value is in the company’s fantastic brand and it’s ability to appeal to and engage with Millennial consumers in an authentic way over social media and other digital marketing channels (1).

E-commerce platforms make it easy to build a brand

We’re seeing this trend first hand at Fuse. Our target customers are fast growing companies with at least 25 employees and anywhere from $10 - $100 million of revenue who are excelling at building their own online first brands. One company, Ipsy, knows all about brand building. Ipsy was started by Michelle Phan, who built her own personal brand as a make-up guru on YouTube. As the company has evolved, the brand which originally appealed to Michelle’s followers and the make-up obsessed, has started to reach more casual consumers looking to expand their horizons.

The good news for many of our customers is that it’s much easier to build a strong brand online today than it was five years ago. Due to the proliferation of front-end e-commerce platforms like Shopify, BigCommerce and Squarespace, it’s much easier to build a great brand with minimal upfront investment. With the emergence of Shopify Plus as an enterprise e-commerce platform for companies looking to scale, we expect this trend to continue.

Inventory management systems haven't kept up (until now)

Although this is good news for many aspiring brand builders, the unfortunate reality is that back-end tools and platforms haven’t necessarily kept up with the front-end. Shopify has done a great job building an ecosystem around its API, but there are still a lot of gaps on the back-end. That’s where we at Fuse come in. Our goal is to help simplify the inventory planning process to help companies answer the key question related to their biggest investment: “How much should I order?” We’re really excited about the growth of online first brands in the market, and are just as excited to be able to help those brands focus on their business, not their inventory.

Struggling to forecast your inventory in Excel? Don't worry, you're not alone.

 What are the current systems that customers are using to manage their inventory? The vast majority are using Excel, Google Sheets or have built a custom system.

At Fuse, we have the privilege of helping our customers enjoy their work more by providing an easy to use, beautifully designed inventory planning tool. As we’ve gotten to know our customers, we’ve been deeply impressed by how thoughtful, sharp and hard-working you are. 

We’ve compiled data from over 150 customer interviews to send you one message: you’re not alone. In every single interview, our customers inevitably ask, “Are we the only ones using Excel and Google sheets?” 

The answer is no, you are absolutely not. You’re not alone. That’s exactly why we at Fuse decided to tackle the challenge of inventory planning and management head-on.

90% of customers manage inventory in Excel

Almost 90% of our customers manage their inventory in a combination of Excel and Google Sheets, while just under 10% have moved on to build a custom system -- a costly and lengthy process. Typically, companies start thinking about a custom system at the 100 SKU mark when they’ve pushed their existing Excel models to a breaking point. Excel is crashing on a daily basis and procurement is nearly impossible to track in Google Sheets. 

We asked Karan, Director of Ops at Boxed, a company bringing bulk wholesale shopping to mobile, why they built a custom system: “At Boxed, we needed backend inventory forecasting systems that were customized for our business model and flexible. We searched for a solution on the market and didn’t find anything that met our needs. This is why we chose to design something in-house.”

Custom inventory management systems have drawbacks

Of the companies we spoke to that have built a custom system, the top three reasons for building something in-house were not being able to find a system that meets their needs, not being able to afford existing systems and not wanting to spend a long time implementing an external solution.

Unfortunately, custom systems come with their own challenges. Most require at least one full-time engineer to maintain them, taking away valuable engineering talent from important product initiatives that could grow the business. This is exactly why most companies don’t devote a full-time engineer to maintaining their system. Inevitably, it fails to keep up with the growing organization’s needs and ultimately needs to be overhauled. 

Building a custom system is expensive. The companies we’ve spoken to have spent anywhere from $200,000 to over $1,000,000 just to build it, excluding the cost of ongoing maintenance. 

Fuse's mission is to change the frustrating status quo. Our favorite part of our job is talking to customers and improving your quality of life. Working at a fast-growing company is exciting and fun. We want to help you spend more time focusing on your business, not your inventory.