Ready, set, uh-oh? The retail world is undergoing a seismic shift these days and in fashion it seems as though some of my favorite stores are getting left behind. A recent spate of business articles outlines the shifts taking place and highlights the ever-growing gap between so-called ‘fast fashion’ and traditional retailers. The picture is looking kind of grim.
Let’s begin with the class of the field these days: Zara. Although I find Zara to be hit and miss myself there is no denying that their brilliant production strategy based on rapid turnaround via feedback from local stores is paying off for them in spades. They are one of the most successful retailers out there right now and their stock is likely the most valuable fashion stock out there. The Wall Street Journal has thoughtfully outlined why Zara is outperforming while other fashion retailers find their stocks, sales and profits tumbling. Zara is able to produce medium to great quality items at a fraction of the cost of traditional retailers, and get new designs into stores fast. Fast seems to be sells what right now.
Another angle of the pie finds discounters like TJ Maxx and Burlington Coat Factory doing similarly well with another slice of consumers — those that don’t care about the latest trends but are price-conscious. This fascinating article takes a look at why and also sheds a bit of light on TJ Maxx’s secret sauce of what to buy for its stores and what to leave alone. Bottom line? Right now it takes TJ Maxx stores on average 25 days to sell their merchandise, compared to 4-5 months for department stores like Macy’s or Kohl’s.
That is to say nothing about the stores I mainly cover on this blog. Poor J. Crew has had a really rough few months, first with President Jenna Lyons leaving, followed CEO emeritus Mickey Drexler admitting he miscalculated the digital world’s effect on fashion (eep!) and quickly after that it was announced he would step down. The alarms are surely going off for midrange and starter luxury tiers.
And then there is this: last week, Amazon announced an amazing new service called Prime Wardrobe, which basically allows you to try on your items for up to 7 days before you buy them. Amazon Fashion is one of this blog’s newest partners and I’m delighted to be one of their Ambassadors, especially with great services like this! A separate post on this service is coming up; for now I will say that although their selection can be overwhelming, when I know what I’m looking for Prime Wardrobe is just what this fashionista ordered — and other retailers and subscription services should be quaking in their boots. You can read a great business-side article on the service here from the Wall Street Journal.
What’s a traditional retailer to do? They are being attacked from all angles: younger retailers are matching their quality and getting new items to the racks faster; discounters are eating up the price-conscious consumers and agile digital companies are taking the friction away from the sales process via loss-leading consumer-friendly products and services. (A loss leader is a program that loses money for its company but allows it to gain other valuable leverage such as consumer share, volume or supplier advantages for example.)
If you’re Anthropologie, you go big — literally. I had an amazing time attending the opening of its first ever large-format store in Portland, Ore. last year, and since then Anthro has opened several new so-called Anthropologie & Cos around the USA. Unfortunately these big store openings coincided with a tremendous dip in quality, appeal and identity branding. At least one business expert thinks these new huge Anthro stores are a swing and a miss, but I’m not so sure. Anthropologie used to have a unique appeal based on how fun it was to wander around the store and discover new clothing items (CLOTHING ITEMS, Anthro, not home or beauty but yes fine accessories too) which made it fun to linger and retrace steps already taken for sometimes an hour or more.
That fun is part of what I believe traditional retailers need to recapture to compete. Over the last several weeks I’ve been on a whirlwind tour with my job, pitching several traditional fashion retailers strategies meant to catch them up to the digital age without sacrificing the in-store experience, and aiming to increase traffic to stores while also making their online experience smooth and reducing friction. The pitches went even better than I’d ever imagined and I am convinced that C-level execs are finally starting to listen that yeah, this whole InstagetitFacebookySnapwidgety thing (an actual term I head from an, ahem, old school exec) is really catching on!
So, moving away from my job briefly and putting my blogger cap back on, what are some of the things that retailers need to do to get customers into their stores more? Here are a few quick ideas, and then I’d love to hear yours….
1 – Mannequins need to show one item in 4-5 outfits.
I’m shocked that no other retailers have caught onto the Forever 21 and Zara standard of clumping 6-8 mannequins together and showing a single item styled several ways in their stores. In Zara’s case the item tends to be together in one clump several ways while in Forever 21 you have the clumps, but the item itself is spread out around the store in many clumps so that one item is seen repeatedly around the store, leading customers to hunt for that one item they see and find other things along the way.
2 – Leverage your digital goldmine of fans wearing your clothing.
Although my job and this blog require me to be digitally savvy, I’m shocked by how many of my friends don’t use Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat (I don’t even use Snapchat) and the like. So while brands are already in the habit of regramming, sharing FB posts and such, they are missing a tremendous swath of customers by not taking the digital offline in stores. My non-digital group by the way includes tons of Millennial friends which always seems to shock the executive suites I pitch to. Yes, Millennials are more connected than any previous generation but you still have a significant number who don’t care about tech. Same goes across an generation really.
For fashion retailers, what this means is that their stores present a huge opportunity to help customers style items by presenting all the way fans are showing off their clothing digitally. Whether it’s a kiosk, a big old screen by a rack of items or something in the fitting rooms, there is no reason why stores shouldn’t be sharing their fans’ Instagrams, Facebook posts, and so on in their stores to help customers out.
3 – Go to Trunk Show fulfillment.
Ever been to a trunk show? A designer will bring one of every size of a particular item, which you can try on, and when you find an item and the size you like it’s drop-shipped to your home.
Why oh why are stores not doing this? Bonobos does it for men — they carry all their items in-store (none of this online only crap) which guys can try on, and when they find a style they like in the correct size rather than selling the one in-store, a new pair of pants is shipped to the customer directly. For women you have to go to Europe to shop this fulfillment model.
Does this cut off instant gratification? Sure. But these days it’s possible to get overnight delivery (same day in many large cities) and most retailers have upped their logistics to having warehouses within a day of any destination in the USA and metro Canada. What’s more frustrating than having to wait a day to get the item you tried on? Oh I don’t know, how about going to a store and finding out the item you want is either online only (UGH) or not available in your size in the store to try on? (Double UGH).
Retailers have to start evolving, or they will join the ranks of the picked off retailers like Bebe, The Limited and more that have recently shut their doors entirely. What are your suggestions for helping the in-store experience? What stores do you think nail the digital and store experience?
If you’re interested in reading fashion business articles on the regular like me, I highly recommend a Wall Street Journal subscription! Their articles tend to be very well-researched with a good balance of business-focus and consumer-focus.