Range Planning in the Face of Disruption

Anna-Louise McDougall
Last Updated:
August 31, 2023
5 min

Making range review meetings great again. We share key takeaways from Style Arcade's Co-Founder and Co-CTO, Tristan Hoy's do-or-die blueprint for digital range planning.

Change, we hate it! But we can't avoid it. Yes, Covid forced fashion retail to change for good. Yes, Covid pushed Australian brands into a corner demanding a ransom most could not afford. So, what do you do? Give up the ghost, or start evolving?

If there’s one thing my background in fashion retail, deep engineering, predictive analytics and cryptography open my eyes to, it wasn't just the future state of tech, but the future state of business. Style Arcade was born from the requisite to evolve. With the right information, we can turn strategies for survival into strategies for growth, not just reactively - but proactively.

A time for change

Cast your mind back to January 2020 for a second, and take those rose-coloured glasses off while you’re at it. Many retailers look back on this time as they would an ex they’re still in love with. Remember, it wasn’t all roses and sunset drives. Fashion retail in 2020 was hanging us out to dry.

High-end labels continued to overbuy evening wear, ignoring the onset of rental boutiques offering attractive one-night stands of their product. Fast fashion manufacturers were doing backflips to emulate the outfit Bella Hadid wore last week, only to deliver too slow for competitors x, y, and z. Activewear had reached fever pitch, with more legging options than days of the year.

And while Australia was up in smoke, that early delivery of cashmere suddenly wasn’t looking too hot...

But the most common issue? The range review was chaos. Range review PTSD may be triggered by reams of paper, fabric swatches, samples, coffee cups, red whiteboard markers, and change upon change upon change.

Sugar-high and caffeine-wired, full calendars and botched trade data. Not fun.

The OH SHIT moment

Then the pandemic hit and we lived it. Retail store closures were commonplace and confusing. eCommerce became central to every business, and no longer a “nice to have” but a, “F***, this is the only channel we have”.

Huge dips in revenue battled with high headcount pressure, and remote work was incompatible with existing processes. Impossible even, for the days of manual range reviews.

Survival became King

Add a bit of fashion Darwinism to the mix, and you’ll find the natural weeding out of the weak and flourishing of the strong. The brands that become stronger during this period undertook this ideology:

When faced with danger, human instinct is to heighten the sense, drop anything that will slow them down, and make every step count.

The brands that were making every step count, were making the right observations and asking the right questions.

  • “We’re guessing too often, we need to be backing every decision with data.”
  • “We don’t know when things will be locked down or how the market will change, and we need to be able to rework the range in days, not weeks.”
  • “These manual processes are slowing us down, we need software to do the grunt work.”
  • “We’re not in the office anymore and we cant schedule 10 person meetings, we need to work asynchronously and online.”

The brands that really nailed it during the pandemic crisis? They were already asking these questions. You must set yourself up for success no matter what the environment is. This leads us to the new blueprint for range planning.

You must set yourself up for success no matter what the environment is.

The Blueprint

1. Automate

Boring, but essential. I’ve done countless process improvement projects, and it all starts in one place: how do you improve a process? Your start by fixing your information. A successful range planning automation strategy should target:

  • One source of truth
  • Easy access to information: History, imagery and attribution.
  • Visualising impacts of decisions on the range: Giving staff line of sight on how their actions are impacting the business.
  • Rapid scenario modelling: Range planning is data science done well.

2. Empower

Rapid scenario modeling and automated processes let you empower your staff by focusing on culture and enablement.

Easy answers to enable better questions.

If it takes you a week to answer a range planning question, consider that your question might actually suck. You’re clearly missing an important dimension, and even worse, you don’t have time to ask it again.

If you can quickly ask the same question, that means you can quickly ask different iterations, up to version 10 of that question. That 10.0 version of your first question will become your benchmark. Automation and scenario modeling makes you constantly uplevel your thinking.

Automation and scenario modeling makes you constantly uplevel your thinking.

Easy visualisation of impacts enables thinking like a business owner

If your staff can see how they’re impacting the KPIs and business objectives that are ever-present in their workflow, then they're going to start thinking more about those business objectives and ways to reach business goals more efficiently.

Easy collaboration enables better teamwork

Your role as a CEO can look less like herding cats, and more like knocking down barriers. If you can enable your team to self-organise through automated processes, you’ll spend less time delegating and more time being proactive.

Easy modelling enables experimentation

When you get great staff to do repetitive, manual, complex work in order to succeed accurately, they're grinding away particular neural pathways for that particular task - and that’s great from a learning perspective. But what is actually happening is, your team is becoming less flexible and more resistant to change.

For example, if you’ve just hired the best buyer in Sydney. From the looks of your current processes, what are they going to be thinking about as they head to work every morning? Is it, “I think we’re missing something in our range, there’s an opportunity in the market we’re not taking!”, OR are they thinking, “I think all my vlooksups are broken in this Excel spreadsheet.”

If you’re forcing your buyer to build the software you’re missing - in Excel! - that’s going to be their focus. They won’t be using their best-buyer-in-Sydney abilities to plan your way out of your crisis rut.

So, once you get your automated process nailed and empower enablement, you can start to (yay) experiment.

3. Experiment

Why guess when you can measure?

The Strategy

Buy small batches, test the market and back the winners. You’d never drop $20k on an untested digital marketing campaign right? Of course not, because you’ve set up 4-5 variations, and once you figure out what’s performing you roll the cash in. So, why would your product decisions be any different?

The Gold Standard

In order to enable this strategy, you need 6-week repeats of it, a timeframe that has become commonplace across the industry, particularly in fast fashion. And while you won’t be able to get to this gold standard overnight, you can start to build towards it.

The Tradeoff

1, a lower margin on smaller initial orders. Or 2, a higher overall margin from fewer markdowns. In 2’s case, if you are leaning into what’s performing, you get to take advantage of bigger orders and experience fewer products on markdown. But you have way more decisions to make in far less time.

The Alternative

If you're a smaller business or beginning your journey as a new brand, you’ll need to focus on rapid testing a variety of ideas before you start buying. Ideally, you want to execute the best plan out of 20, not the best out of 2, just because it took you 4 weeks to build it out.

Many fashion retailers in Australia are on the journey of implementing this blueprint, and some have already gone beyond it. Get ahead, and stay ahead in times of crisis, and times of “normal”. Whatever that is.

What‘s your next move?

Watch Co-Founder and Co-CTO, Tristan Hoy's full talk below:

Assortment Planning
Subscribe to Style Arcade
Arrow pointing north-east