Answering the Creator Economy Demands a Digital Supply Chain

Ronen Samuel
March 2, 2023

“The analog supply chain was built to meet a certain need at a certain time, but that world has been disrupted by a cultural shift. When you account for all the associated costs, I think we’re nearing a tipping point where an on-demand t-shirt can be produced cheaper than one produced using a traditional printing press.”


Those were the words of Aaron Day, CEO of Amaze Software, at a recent fashion and textile sourcing event in New York. Integrating with countless platforms that service online communities, Amaze enables creators, marketers, and brands to test and bring new products to market, catering to micro-communities on demand. A rapidly growing stable of creators—currently about 10 million—create roughly 100,000 custom designs on the Amaze platform daily, with 30 million resulting pieces shipped monthly.


At that rate, if each of those pieces were being sent to a different American, literally every man, woman, and child in the United States would have their own custom product shipped to them in about a year.


Amaze is far from the only online business seeking to productize the burgeoning creator economy, which now includes 50 million semi-professional content creators in North America (an increase from 20 million one year ago). One of our most successful customers, a custom-designed fabrics provider called Spoonflower—now a subsidiary of Shutterfly—once spoke of an “Etsy army” that had populated their design library with 1.8 million digital creations, each of them ready to print on demand, to be fashioned into any number of do-it-yourself garments, accessories, home goods, or other textile products. That was in the early days of COVID lockdowns, and those lockdowns drove an acceleration in the creator economy like none of us could’ve imagined. The digital-native generation has come of age, and their revolutionary mindset is making its presence felt. According to Statista, TikTok grew nearly twofold among those aged 15-25 after COVID hit, and brands are challenged to effectively engage these new creators (and consumers).


Speaking at the same textile sourcing event in New York, Barry McGeough, Global VP of Product/Digital Innovation with footwear manufacturer Wolverine Worldwide, appeared to recognize the implications of a digital-minded consumer redefining the marketplace.


“COVID scrambled the footwear industry,” says McGeough. “They couldn’t sell anything in physical stores, so they had to ask, how do we sell digitally? Can you make a virtual showroom? You have to engage with the Metaverse. It’s not going away, and if you don’t engage, the tech innovators are going to eat your lunch, every single day.”


In addition to Amaze Software, another such tech innovator McGeough cited was Core3D, which among other things enables fashion designers to design apparel with a 3D/Metaverse approach.


According to Core3D CEO and Co-Founder Gwan Yip, these technologies empower emerging creatives in multiple ways. “Web3 technology—which others often refer to as ‘phygital’ technology, bridging the gap between digitally-created imagery and physical fulfillment of those concepts—allows authentication of digital assets for the first time,” he says. “That’s where we get blockchain, NFTs, and so on.”


McGeough points to major legacy brands that recognize this sea change in the way creators engage technology in new and fundamentally game-changing ways. “Companies like Nike and Gucci have gone all-in on NFTs, and artificial intelligence is filling in the gaps faster than you know,” he says. “We see this change, and we’re working with legacy companies that want to understand it, but don’t want to waste time on things that won’t work. Artificial intelligence is filling in the gaps faster than you know, we see the rise of AR, we and are working to use such things to solve the problems brands face right now.”


While these exciting new technologies are a natural partner for brands with a considerable e-commerce footprint, the challenge is far greater for retailers whose sales model remains largely tethered to the fortunes of the physical, brick-and-mortar store.


Consider European-based retail powerhouse C&A. Founded more than 180 years ago, with more than 1,200 physical locations worldwide, C&A embodies every attribute of the so-called retail “dinosaur” vulnerable to extinction in the age of a web-driven “retail apocalypse.” Perhaps counterintuitively, such a business sees considerable upside in Web3 technologies that lean into digital transformation, which tap into both emerging consumer trends and individualized content creation.


“Every brand is looking at 3D design and digitization across the value chain,” says William Brenninkmeyer, Global Sourcing Manager and Lead of Innovation at C&A. “Chasing trends is impossible with an analog supply chain, where the lead time is 6-8 months. But digital production technologies like those developed by Kornit Digital now enable on-demand fulfillment, so you can bring concepts to production to consumer in two days. It’s incredible.”


Digital on-demand production—which empowers producers to channel digital creator and consumer data encompassing purchasing behaviors, social media listening, and more into a fulfillment strategy that answers demand with greater agility and efficacy than the traditional 18-month forecast cycle, in addition to unleashing customization and personalization possibilities for micro-communities and even the individual—means both capitalizing on the cultural zeitgeist and creating serious benefits for retailers like C&A.


“In terms of addressing both the needs of a creator economy and the challenges—logistical, time to market, sustainability, overproduction, vulnerability to disruption and instability, you name it—associated with complex offshore supply chains bringing diminishing returns, we always discuss nearshoring or onshoring operations,” says Brenninkmeyer. “Digitization enables what I’d call ‘rightshoring,’ tailoring fulfillment strategy based on the most effective means of serving different customers and brands. At C&A, we’ve tested an on-demand production model that enabled us to replenish the bestselling styles in less than a week.”


“Blend your market structures,” adds McGeough, echoing the sentiment. “Onshore, nearshore, offshore, do it all. The biggest contributor to waste in the apparel world is from poor demand planning. If you get 80% sell-through, you did good, but what happens to the other 20%? The data around demand planning is going to be a huge topic, especially in light of what COVID did, where all those orders were cancelled.”


The growing ecosystem of available digital technologies provides brands—from the designer who came of age in a digital world and dreams of establishing her own fashion label, to the legacy retailer established before the advent of street lights—with the capabilities to join and profit from the creator economy; deliver brilliant, uncompromising, high-quality physical goods; and better align demand with supply, eliminating overproduction waste, making the products people want, getting it into their hands faster, and minimizing the risks associated with today’s globalized marketplace.


Or as Aaron Day says, “We can tell you within minutes what people are creating and buying around the world, and the digital supply chain can respond immediately. What is your strategy for data collecting, managing, and acting on that data? Capturing that data means customers are telling you what they want.”