Pretail - a modern online concept that is taking early adopters by storm. We review what it is and who is doing it well. Retail Strategy by Dalziel & Pow.

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By Dalziel & Pow
Posted 14. 09. 2014
OPINION pretail 01

What is it?

Pretail takes the premise of crowdfunding websites and adapts it to straight-forward retail. So what are crowdfunding websites? Kickstarter lived up to its name and was one of the first. Creative individuals or small collectives could create an online account in a bid to find monetary backing for an idea. Here they could discuss their project through text, imagery and film. Put simply, Kickstarter is a platform for allowing creatives to reach a larger audience, with the hope of finding financial support, and offers a secure transfer of funds from donors to designers. Pretail works on a similar basis. Online retailers upload designs and ideas of unrealised products, and consumers bid to see them into manufacture.

Why now?

Particularly in the West, traditional retail consumption is almost at saturation point; people are more and more aware of their role as passive consumers and are becoming jaded. Bombarded with advertising campaigns of the next must-have item, consumers increasingly want to have their own say in what they buy, what it looks like and how it works. They now not only want to have a desired item, they want to be the first person to have it and, in acquiring it, they want an experience and a story to tell.

Pretail allows consumers to buy something unusual and original that perhaps would never have been produced using a traditional manufacturing system; demand would have been too low or the costs involved too high. Products can be displayed online as sketches and imagery allowing the customer to offer their thoughts and feedback and become involved in the design process. The customer is no longer passive but has a very real part to play in the production of a desired item. Allowing the consumer this ability to influence design starts an engaging relationship between manufacturer and consumer that is rewarding to all. Items are only manufactured when the required quota of buyers is accounted for. The retailer is never at risk of creating ‘that tartan cardigan’ which is still in the stockroom 10 years on, nor do they require a great deal of capital to start operations. Retailers can be more experimental and more original in the products they offer, safe in the knowledge that, if little interest is sparked, said item need never be manufactured. On a very immediate level the phenomenon gives the retailer clear evidence of what’s hot and what’s not, ensuring that products currently in development can be adapted and tweaked before even being put in front of the customer. Rather than having to wait until next season to make any changes, feedback is instant.

Pretail inspires brand loyalty in a retail landscape where this is increasingly hard to win. Shoppers are technologically savvy; shopping around to get the best deal or find exactly what they’re after, rather than simply heading to their favourite store and picking up the best of what’s there. With this in mind, retailers need to offer something original and unique to secure sales. Allowing shoppers to ‘bid’ on an item to see it realised creates a connection – consumers feel engaged and proactive, involved in the design process rather than simply buying a finished article. They are being offered an experience not just a T-shirt.

Who’s doing it well?

Chinese e-tailer ZAOZAO provides a good pretail service. The name is a play on the Mandarin for ‘early’, ‘discover’ and ‘make’ which is the basis of its offer. Selling bags, accessories and jewellery, the online retailer gives a platform to a selection of emerging designers. Consumers browsing the site get to see the work of new designers, hoping to discover the next big thing. By bidding money on an item, consumers hope to secure the production of the piece, at which point it will be manufactured for them.

The aptly named platform website Quirky takes a slightly different approach. Whilst not an individual e-tailer, it offers small companies the opportunity to promote their product whilst still maintaining a strong sense of identity. The easy-to-navigate website contains three sections; Invent, Influence and Shop. ‘Invent’ allows subscribers to upload their own idea or vote for one they are interested in. The ‘Influence’ section offers members the chance to affect a product’s design. Manufacturers can select from a list of elements that they require help with – from product name generation, to suggestions on colour, style and even price point – thus giving the potential customer a fun and original interactive experience offering advice or voting on pre-selected choices. Contributions from subscribers are research- and opinion-based only – no funding is involved – so should widen the website’s appeal. When all research has been collated the product is manufactured and goes on general sale on the website.

Both pretail offers have their place in the market; the ZAOZAO model works best for start-up brands with minimal capital, whilst the Quirky approach may be more appropriate for established brands who want to reconnect with their market.

Within ZAOZAO, designers and customers can set up their own profile with sections including ‘Your Style’ and ‘Favourite Designers’ allowing consumers to create an online personality and adding a social dimension to the site. The website also contains articles on latest trends, celebrity fashion and interviews with models, along with a blog created by ZAOZAO’s two founding members, detailing the ups and downs of setting up an online business. The website becomes more than just a shopping destination, it’s somewhere to socialise and to network.

Quirky allows consumers to see the advice given by users, and on items such as name generation, for example, consumers can see how their suggestion rated against others, adding interest and theatre.

It might seem exposing, but offering your customer this degree of engagement and discussion at a human level will create a lasting impact on them. ZAOZAO and Quirky are encouraging a bond with their brand and repeat sales will be increased.

So how do I do it?

Set up an online pretail site as an extension to your current online offer. Allow your in-house design team to upload drawings and image boards of next season’s designs. Include background information and a story on each of the designers – even original sketches – and you’ve truly engaged your customer, offering them something unique and personal.

Allow your customers to pre-order products to get them into manufacture and take it further by introducing a comments section for each item, then collate the feedback and tailor the designs accordingly. Do this and you’ve created a loyal online community whose members have bought into the brand itself, not just the product it offers.

What’s the future?

Put simply; transfer the online offline. By showcasing in store the 10 items that successfully reached their online targets that month, you’ve created a space that becomes a constantly updated, edited collection of products chosen by your own customer. Include information on the product’s story from inception to manufacture, how many people bidded on an item, and in what timescale, to link your online and offline offer. Engage your customer further and ask them to submit new product ideas in store and display these online and offline. By opening up to your customer and showing them the design process rather than just the finished article you will inspire life-long brand loyalty.

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