Target Explains Why the Retail Apparel Business Needs to Undergo a Digital Transformation

Retailers have formed a coalition to modernize the industry

4 min read
An image from a 3-D body scanner, which can take detailed measurements of a body in seconds. Computer programs like this one can determine which clothes fit customers best, and even lets them see how they’ll look on them.
Photo: Market Key

THE INSTITUTEIt’s a pivotal time for retailers and clothing brands as they face unprecedented pressures such as intensifying competition, an increasing need for speed to market, and a shifting consumer base with changing brand preferences. Customers want retailers to use new technologies while at the same time providing more visibility in the supply chain.

Balancing those demands is not only a challenge but also an opportunity—to change legacy systems and antiquated supply chains while updating to new technologies.

A digital transformation requires retailers and brands to embrace new ways of creating, thinking, and working. One strategy is to collaborate across a variety of groups and industries. This idea was the main reason behind the 3D.RC (3D Retail Coalition), an industry group formed two years ago. The collaborative group of global retailers and brands works together to advance 3D technology for apparel, accessories, and footwear designers; retailers; manufacturers; and supply chains.

The idea was born from the global awareness of climate change and the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement by 190 nations in 2016. The Paris agreement brought together groups to solve a big, complex issue. That inspired the notion that a similar large-scale collaboration could occur in retail. Could joint efforts drive innovation in an industry that typically is guarded in what it shares? The 3D.RC says yes. Its mission statement is “to provide direction, resources, and networking opportunities to help members unlock and accelerate the potential value of 3D digital transformation, while maximizing positive impact within their organizations and the industry.”


To fully capture innovation via collaboration, the group partners with a variety of other organizations including IEEE, Product Innovation Apparel (PI Apparel), key retailers, academia, startups, and software suppliers. Retailers and brands form the steering committee that sets strategy and direction, and through three subcommittees the other partners are pulled in to address the defined challenges. Bringing all the parties together four times a year as part of the PI Apparel show allows face-to-face interaction and continued discussion on emerging topics.

The key focus for the group is how technologies such as 3D virtual modeling can drive the industry forward in the areas of sustainability, speed to market and, ultimately, transparency around product development.

There is precedence for each of those themes from other industries that have already converted to a digital platform, such as aerospace, automotive, and entertainment. After transforming themselves, those businesses now create products that use a digital methodology, which has spawned new ways of working and improved quality. Outcomes are faster because the wait time for physical samples has been removed. And smarter decisions based on visual models mean less time spent reworking a product later.

For retailers, the same benefits can be realized by leveraging 3D virtual modeling. In doing so, brands are able to reduce the amount of garment samples created—which drives sustainability by reducing water and energy usage. Retailers can drive speed to market by shortening their lead-time calendars because there is reduced wait time for physical samples and for decisions to be made. Lastly, because retailers are able to predict challenges earlier in the manufacturing process, they can make better decisions and provide improved transparency for those decisions.


As with any industry transformation, there are foundational items that need to occur in order to deliver a high level of innovation, including prioritized objectives, defined standards, and strong communication. To address the demand, the 3D.RC realized that working committees were needed to focus on the key components of technology, innovation, and education. Each of the committees is made up of brand managers, technology partners, education leaders, and nonprofits to create cross-functional partnerships and discussions.

Each committee has a particular focus.

Technology Committee: Its focus is on standardization, which is needed to deliver the benefits of 3D modeling at scale. The current lack of standards is slowing the digital transformation of the retail and apparel industry, with file formats and compression methods being highly variable and requiring trade-offs. Due to the inability to easily transfer models, design, development, manufacturing, and selling are more complicated. Standards also are needed in the areas of fabric, avatars, colors, and data exchange. The committee also is looking for solutions for metadata and file types for interoperability in 3D modeling and imagery.

Innovation Committee: It focuses on digital materials as a key component in building the 3D model. Current 3D software simulations use digital materials differently—which can result in inconsistencies in imagery. At the same time, the testing methods for converting physical fabrics into digital files are still quite new and, at times, repetitive, as a fabric might need to be tested several times in order to have data that can be imported into different software systems. The committee is working to find solutions related to establishing a clear understanding of digital fabric materials, ultimately with the recommendation for a global digital fabric standard. The committee envisions transferrable material libraries, a standardized open-materials data platform, and efficient, high-quality, and cost-effective testing methods.

Education Committee: A technically savvy workforce is needed to advance the adoption of 3D technology. Therefore, collaboration between educational institutions and software developers is needed, as well as clearly established objectives from the apparel industry. Increasing competency will require training, development, and certification programs for the current workforce as well as the next generation of employees. The committee is focused on developing a standardized certification for 3D users to demonstrate their proficiency.


The 3D.RC group realizes that those who are engaged in improving the retail industry need to receive recognition. To that end, the group holds the annual Retail Digital Transformation Grand Challenge, a competition that rewards people who are working on 3D virtual technological development, new collaboration, and social-impact programs. Entries are submitted by startups and young companies, established organizations, and educational institutions. Last year Shimmy Technologies won for its vision in training garment workers in Bangladesh to create 3D apparel models.

Looking ahead

There is much more work to be done around retail digital transformation, but by looking to see how other industries have successfully made the change, developed standards, and worked together, the hope is that the entire industry will be able to move forward.

Digital transformation is not easy, but it can be enacted more efficiently when partners with similar goals and diverse perspectives collaborate to solve big industry challenges. This is the ongoing work of the 3D.RC.

Sign up here to become a 3D.RC member.

Sandra Gagnon is director of 3D Virtual/Transformation for Target, in Minneapolis.

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