At a recent retail conference, Simon Finch, the distribution director from Harrods, gave an interview under the headline “Collaborate or Die”. Describing his three essentials for collaboration, Simon spoke actively about the key role collaboration has played in the success of Harrods.

A pointed audience question appeared on the slido app which was gracefully overlooked by the interviewer: “Collaboration has been a theme at various retail events over the last few years but few retailers are truly adopting it – why are we not there yet?”

Retailers do collaborate – although to date it’s been quite limited in scope. Design collaborations in the apparel sector are commonplace and grocers consistently work with individual suppliers to provide special offers or promotions for their customers. But these are typically one-off arrangements negotiated for commercial purposes with little long-term value.

What Simon was referring to, and what we’re beginning to see in the industry, is a different approach to collaboration. One that focuses on building strategic relationships across a sector and looks beyond the realm of product, price and promotion to consider process. By considering the how rather than the what, retailers and brands – or even an industry – can work together to drive real change for mutual benefit.

Similar retailers, like department stores for example, don’t tend to collaborate. This is for obvious reasons. But, a company with a comparable business model to yours is likely to have the same basic challenges in non-competitive areas and could be an ally in solving them. And, while industry collaboration may seem an idealistic and arduous task, it has happened. And when it does the impact is significant.

Back in the 1970s the retail sector first collaborated on auto-identification and labelling. CEOs from retailers and manufacturers all over the world came together to agree a universal standard for labelling and identifying products. The result was the EAN/UPC barcode – something that appears on almost every tradeable item sold today. While it is now largely taken for granted, a standardised label means that as a brand you can have one format of labelling and identifying your products to trade globally. For retailers, this means they can uniquely identify all products coming into their supply chain from external or internal suppliers allowing them to accurately and efficiently manage a wide portfolio of inventory.

Some decades later, the industry is turning its focus to collaborate on master product data. Managing and sharing master product data is something all retailers and brands do but they do it in their own way. Each retailer has their own line sheet format, system or portal for entering master product data from their suppliers. But regardless of format, retailers are all requesting essentially the same things: style code, description, colour, size, retail price or country of origin among others. This is not information that gives any business a competitive advantage, these are the basic attributes that are required to sell and report on a product but as an industry we’re struggling to deliver this accurately and efficiently.

GS1 UK has recently completed a discovery pilot with Harrods, John Lewis and one of their common brands to identify the shared challenges in the apparel supply chain. Through our investigation we’ve discovered that a lot of the bottle necks that stop product moving through their supply chain or being made available to sell stem from challenges with product data. These challenges relate to the quality of the data, when it’s provided and the increased number of attributes that are now required to trade online.

But this problem isn’t simply the fault of suppliers and brands. Simon Finch acknowledges “we’re all asking brands for different bits of data in different ways and at different times. There’s a group of retailers complaining about brands’ ability to give us data, but actually we’re not helping because we’re not coordinated”.

Working together to standardise the set up and communication of master product data is the next frontier for collaboration in the apparel sector. Our neighbours in grocery are already on this journey. Through the Digital DNA programme facilitated by GS1 UK, grocery retailers and brands are working together to build an industry data model with common attributes and an industry governed platform to easily share product data. Having a standard format and platform will remove a lot of the non-value add work spent requesting, keying in and querying product data – saving the grocery sector at least £200m per year. Considering the higher SKU count in apparel what potential impact could this have on fashion retail?

For more information on the Digital DNA project visit www.gs1uk.org/digitaldna