Taking a look into the abyss with Anthropologie.
After years of threats, it’s finally happened: Anthropologie has updated its return policy as of July 9, 2018. Goodbye to an unlimited return window and hello to 60 day return windows. What does this policy shift mean for Anthropologie, and why are Anthro lovers upset by this change? It’s complicated.
Anthropologie is not alone in making changes to its return policy. L. L. Bean dropped its unlimited item guarantee in February because of a changing retail environment (here’s the official company statement on the change); Nordstrom is now limiting returns for some customers; Amazon has been accused of blacklisting customers who return too much…for consumer-facing companies, these policies don’t exactly feel consumer-friendly.
What exactly is going on to make retailers feel suddenly stingy? So many factors. Let’s look at the larger picture first.
THE BIG PICTURE
Firstly, we’re in an age of rapid transition in the apparel/accessories world. There are the old school retailers who design collections, send the designs out for production which takes a few to several months, and then have the items on their retail floors/website for a season. Meanwhile, newer companies are cutting down the timeline of this cycle. Zara for example can take an idea from design to store/website in about 4-6 weeks, less than 1/2 the time of the traditional retail production cycle.
Secondly, there are more apparel and accessories retailers than ever. It’s an increasingly competitive market fueled by an ever-lower cost of entry. Brands can now launch as online-only ideas, reach the world from the comfort of their laptops and wait to lease brick and mortar stores until their concept is proven.
Thirdly, not only are there more stores than ever, it’s also a race to either the bottom or the top of the pricing structure. The vast majority of consumers are offered clothing at lower and lower prices, with the most frequent product refreshes we’ve ever seen. Meanwhile at the luxury end brands inflate prices seemingly without reason, leading to a polarization of the retail realm. Stores in the middle are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Raising their prices too much alienates customers; cutting their prices to meet low-end stores hurts profits and creates a race to the bottom.
The fashion world has created its own monster. In the early 1990s, fueled by dropping production and sourcing costs as the global supply chain geared up, retailers realized they could make their clothing, shoes, jewelry, whatever, for cheaper than ever. Some marketing geniuses came up with the great idea to make fashion an everyday necessity rather than a seasonal investment. Clothing catalogues went from being a semi-annual tradition to a quarterly proposition, and then a monthly tease. Over a short period of time clothing went from being something you bought twice a year to once a season to something you could buy every week or every day if you liked.
Like Atlas struggling to hold up the world or the snake eating its tail, the retail world is now collapsing upon itself. When clothing prices began dropping to make buying something new every week seem almost reasonable to consumers, shoppers celebrated by buying, buying, buying. But as science has shown us, what at first is novel quickly becomes habitual, and eventually, boring. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, fueled by the USA’s strongest economy since WWII and purchasing power not seen in generations, the fashion world thrived under comfortable discretionary spending by consumers flush with cash, opportunity, and desire. A generation ago people on average bought about 250 pieces of clothing in their adult lifetime. Today? The average adult buys 50 pieces of new clothing each year.
However, like any strong growth market, at some point consolidation has to happen. Making clothing became cheaper in the 1990s because USA-based stores began moving the sourcing of products like cotton, wool, polyester and such out of the USA and into cheaper countries like Vietnam, China, Australia and India. Production and manufacturing was moved to Canada, Mexico, China and the Philippines.
At first these cost savings were huge for retailers. With time though, once most of the sourcing (farms or clothing-based poly producers) and production (factories) were closed here in the USA, this allowed the foreign markets to begin raising their prices. By about 2009 the foreign producers were charging the same, if not more, than their former USA counterparts had been. This ate into retailer profits. Retailers, in turn, began seeking out new and less expensive materials (helllooooo, rayon) to protect as much of their profit margins as they could.
And thus began our descent into crappy clothing quality, a paradigm that’s become so normal to us that America disposes of over 14 million tons of clothing each year, more than double the rate of 20 years ago. Yikes. We simply wear clothing for a year or less and then get rid of it, knowing there will be plenty more to choose from.
You’d think customers getting rid of clothing faster and faster would help retailer profits, but it actually hurt profits. Why? Because over time customers have become so frustrated with crappy product quality that they’ve either 1- started saving up for more expensive, better-quality clothing, buying fewer items overall or 2 – reduced their purchases because they’re so turned off and making due with the overstuffed closets they already have.
And so the cycle of growth is ending and retailers are suffering. It’s partly because of the slight contraction of the USA economy (a contraction which has now ended and returned to growth) but more so because at the end of the day, people can only buy so much clothing. Consumers are tired. Each new generation brings a new zeitgeist and clothing is not as interesting to Millennials as experiences are. In addition, while Millennials are a large generation comparable to the size of the Baby Boomer generation, the generations following Millennials are much smaller overall. Since clothing and accessory retailers seem to inexplicably focus on customers in their teens and twenties, this shrinking market presents a real problem to future growth.
In the face of shrinking margins and profits, existing retailers, instead of coming up with new ideas or following growth patterns that served them well in previous contractions, are becoming more homogeneous. They are all becoming the same! Let’s be honest, can we really distinguish a J. Crew from an Anthropologie from a Nordstrom these days? Aside from small differences, these brands mostly all look the same. And that’s awful.
New brands and stores are bringing in better quality materials, unique points of view, and addressing pieces of the market (plus size, petites, maternity, etc.) better than existing retailers. All of these factors are combining at a large scale to terrorize existing clothing and accessories retailers.
THE SMALL PICTURE
If that’s the larger picture, how do we tie this all back into Anthropologie and its new return policy? I’ll summarize.
1. Anthropologie was once known for its high quality products with a unique point of view.
2. The highly stylized, class of the field customer experience was one of the keys to Anthropologie’s success.
3. In a high-growth period from 2006-2009, Anthropologie decided to pivot its strategy to continue growing its customer base.
4. Anthropologie turned away from its vintage, handmade-like, Victorian-inspired, city girl chic, classic pieces with a twist combination to become more ‘hip’ in a play to attract younger customers.
5. Anthropologie began sourcing its in-house design materials from lower-quality production houses while simultaneously raising prices.
6. Increasingly, Anthropologie’s offerings became trendy and homogeneous with other retailers rather than unique and trend-bucking. The average product price rose by over $10 between 2012-2017.
7. Quality became a real issue for Anthropologie. It becomes ever more common to find sizing inconsistencies, buttons not sewn on well, garments not assembled correctly, and other quality issues.
8. The customer experience slipped greatly at Anthropologie.
9. Returns go way up.
10. Anthropologie changes its return policy, citing greater market forces. (Uh-huh. ?)
Basically, those ‘greater market forces’ of cheap quality, homogeneity, and disposable fast fashion collided with Anthropologie’s trendy takes, quality issues and declining customer service. Like an asteroid smashing into a planet, a huge chunk of what makes Anthropologie so special has been taken away: its unlimited product guarantee, aka its once-generous return policy.
Is 60 days a long enough return window? I don’t believe it is, especially considering how far ahead of the weather traditional clothing and shoe retail tends to be. Ninety days seems more appropriate.
WHY UNLIMITED RETURNS OR AN UNCONDITIONAL GUARANTEE MATTER
1. It inspires customer confidence in the product.
2. Consumers are more likely to have a positive view and recommend retailers that unconditionally stand behind products.
3. Customer satisfaction is higher.
THE ROLE OF SOCIAL MEDIA AND THE CUSTOMER
No change exists in a vacuum. Tough as Anthropologie’s new return policy is to digest, they don’t deserve the entire blame for making a change. Here’s another piece of how retailers got themselves into a pickle.
In 2009, I was helping a friend of mine who worked as a costume designer on a well-known TV show. One of her favorite stores to source from was Anthropologie, naturally. I was very surprised when we headed up to the cash wrap, the manager logged everything we were taking, and then my friend paid exactly $0 for over $5,000 worth of product.
She explained to me later that certain shows or networks, as well as certain actors or actresses, would often borrow items for a one-time use, and then return the loaned items, tags still attached back to the stores for sale after a few days or a few weeks. The exposure, she explained, could help an item sell out entirely.
It sounds so naive now but at the time this was mind-blowing to me. I truly had no idea that famous people were often being gifted clothing or other items for free in the hopes that they’d wear it and cause the item to become more popular. I had no idea that fashion magazines, bloggers and such would borrow clothing and then return it after events.
Now the practice is so commonplace but something strange has happened. While once only a very small fraction of famous (or ‘famous’) people wore entirely new clothing each and every day, now the advent of Instagram, Snapchat and the like has made the practice commonplace. This is why I take such long breaks from my Instagram account — I see no need to buy new clothing every single day. However, I still probably buy much more than the average person. Long breaks are the best way I’ve found so far to balance it out. The prevailing theory in social media, fashionwise, seems to be that you need to show something new each day. Remixing items on rare occasions is acceptable but it’s expected that each season your closet will get a total refresh.
Even if my personal wealth allowed this kind of maximalism spending, at some point it just feels ridiculous. No one needs to have that much! I can’t think of a single reason why you’d need to own a new outfit for each day of the year. Even Princess Kate recycles outfits!
WEAR IT, THEN RETURN IT
I am sure most consumers realize this too, but the drive to show off a pretty new outfit for every occasion is strong. And so a growing practice among consumers is to buy something, wear it once with the tags on, and then return it.
This practice happens across all walks of life, from the extremely rich to the barely scraping by. I won’t argue the ethics of it here but suffice it to say that retailers have become wise to the practice and are fighting back against it by limiting their return policies.
From this angle, Anthropologie’s changes kind of make sense. No retailer wants to be responsible for selling gently used clothing as new. Is it kind of hypocritical to continue lending out clothing to actresses or bloggers while the consumer has to pay? Completely. I don’t even have a conclusion sentence to reconcile the hypocrisy!
All I can say is that we have a massive storm that is one part crappy quality, one part poor customer service/experience, one part ethically questionable consumers, one part fed up consumers and it all adds up to the death of unconditional guarantees.
On the other hand, I’ve had a Céline Nano purse for about 5 years now. One side of the strap has worn down over the years. All I had to do was take the bag to a Céline store in Manhattan and they sent it off to be repaired, gratis. No charge. Not because I’m an influencer or anything like that. (I’m sure they had no clue that I blog.) Because Céline wants their products looking good out in the world to inspire the lust to buy among others. And so its customers feel proud to wear their pieces. I do — I love that Nano so, so much!! It’s still a favorite bag of mine years after buying it with a work bonus.
This is a factor Anthropologie has completely lost the plot on. Some of my oldest Anthropologie pieces still inspire this pride and happiness in me. My Ferrous Flower Sheath? You know I love it!! But it’s hard for me to think of an item after 2013 or 2014 that inspires that kind of love and devotion. Anthropologie has really lost its magic.
- They don’t make curve-friendly items anymore.
- Most of their dresses are too small in the bust now and lack the overall adjustability that made them universally flattering.
- Their tops are often too short.
- There’s generally wayyyyyyyy too much product and not nearly enough outfits.
- Their clothing is too trendy and ‘out there.’
- The seasonal collections lack any cohesion, color palette or unifying element.
- Prices are trending upwards while quality has fallen into a chasm.
- Anthropologie is trying to be too much to too many different types of customers.
I don’t think I spent $1,000 at Anthropologie last year — I used to spend over $10,000 a year there! I’ve probably barely cleared $500 there between price adjustments, returns and meh. I went to BHLDN to look for my wedding dress and was majorly disappointed by the lack of bust-friendly options. (Fodder for another post.)
All of this adds up to me generally feeling ambivalent about Anthropologie these days. I tried to hold out. I waited about 2 or 3 years to see if they’d turn it around! And now? I’m still looking because I love discussing the store here, but I’m hardly buying. So go ahead Anthro, change your return policy. It’s one more nail in the coffin for me.
Et tu, communitie?