Understanding the Fashion Retail Landscape
Many department stores and big brands have announced hundreds of closures happening in 2017.
If we’re going to be honest, most of the closures were not terribly surprising. Some companies include inexpensive, fast-fashion brands (rue21 and Wet Seal); classic shopping mall retailers that were once popular in the 1990s-early 2000s (GUESS, American Apparel); and department stores (Macy’s, Sears, Kmart).
When you see headlines like this, it’s not exactly encouraging:
For example, The Limited made the decision to move entirely online. Unless they undergo a serious brand makeover and successfully streamline their digital strategy across the board, the decision is problematic, considering that their target audience is mostly older, professional women who are accustomed to shopping in brick-and-mortar stores. But that’s neither here nor there.
I did get slightly worried when I read that BCBG Max Azria filed for bankruptcy in late February, but I was able to shake the “uh-oh” feeling off because I couldn’t remember the last time I heard anyone mention BCBG Max Azria since I bought my prom gown in Spring 2010.
Then, in early April, I came across a Women’s Wear Daily article with a crazy headline. Ralph Lauren Closing Fifth Avenue Polo Store, Cutting Staff.
I freaked out when I saw it. I freaked the f*ck out.
Yes, Polo product and price-point attracts a different customer than Ralph Lauren, but this was still a wakeup call for everyone in the premium tiers of the fashion industry. For the most part, Ralph Lauren brands adapted well to the changing retail landscape. Ralph Lauren leads the industry in providing elevated engagement by sponsoring exclusive sporting events and running restaurants in Chicago, Paris and, most recently, the Polo Bar in New York City.
But if an influential retailer like Ralph Lauren decides cut costs by closing one of its iconic flagships, then what does this mean for contemporary fashion retailers?
After taking a few deep breaths, I decided to understand the issue in the most sensible way possible—I opened my refrigerator, found the bottle of sauvignon blanc chilling patiently in the fridge, poured a glass, retreated to my laptop and researched what others have predicted for the future of the retail industry.
Retail isn’t dying—it’s just changed a lot.
A Portrait of the Shopper’s Identity in 2017
Retailers need to play a long-term game with today’s shopper by understanding one simple fact.
She doesn’t event want to shop. Like, she literally can’t even.
She would rather spend her money on experiences. She wants to travel. She daydreams of her next getaway and sets alerts for the best cheap flight deals. If she’s not traveling, she wants to get bottomless rose brunch with her girlfriends, gossip over their latest Bumble dates and take an excessive number of selfies to post on Instagram, Snapchat or whatever emerging social platform is out there.
As a working professional, especially if she’s younger than 35 years old, her student debt is always in the back of her mind. If she miscalculates her disposable income against necessary expenses, including monthly student loan payments, she’s forced to get even more creative balancing healthy meal choices and her budget. She most likely works on a few projects outside of the office to alleviate financial or emotional stress—a blog, a side-business, a part-time job, volunteering—but then she’s exhausted afterwards and doesn’t feeling like leaving her apartment.
Meanwhile, she’s subjected to older generations at work or at home badmouthing her age group, because Millennials supposedly don’t work hard enough, but that’s a discussion for another time…
Put simply, today’s shopper wants to live a Whole Foods life on a Trader Joe’s budget.
When she does need to shop, the process should be as painless as possible. She is brand conscious, but she’s not going to throw out her paycheck for a new, designer bag. Today’s shopper wants to buy from brands that suit her lifestyle and is willing to invest in a quality, practical product that is fairly priced and responsibly manufactured.
Strategies to Engage the Shopper Who Doesn’t Want to Shop
Providing personalized customer experiences and delivering consistent, authentic brand messaging are the two core components of today’s fashion brand. That’s it.
But since suggesting to “implement specialized, on-brand creative strategy” is a loaded phrase without an explanation, I’ve identified a few examples of brands who successfully demonstrate their marketing strategies.
Educate your customer about the DNA of your brand, product knowledge
Every customer who shops at Everlane knows how the brand works—it prides itself on its urban, minimal clothing and accessories made possible by “radical transparency,” a production and pricing structure that ensures customers receive quality product, but know that factory workers earn a fair wage.
Theory recently introduced a new suiting collection made of Traceable Wool and described its development and its advantages. The Technical Tailoring menswear collection also has brief highlights on what makes the fabric and style unique. Neither of these landing pages boasts thesis-length descriptions, but it’s enough to inform customers of the product online.
It seems like a no-brainer for a business owner or manager to know the background of your brand and understand your products, but it’s essential to prepare how you will explain your brand’s advantages to the customer. Train your team and staff so that they can articulate your brand’s history and product benefits as well.
Be aware of how competitors and other brands in your industry competitors are sharing their brand stories. Learn from their mistakes or adapt strategies that you like for your own brand!
Take personal styling to another level
If the main reason why people go to a store is to see the product in person, brick-and-mortar stores need to provide an elevated customer service experience. This does not mean positioning an overly friendly greeter at the front door or instructing overly eager sales associates to follow shoppers around the store.
When I used to work at Laura Jean Denim in Newport, Rhode Island—a premium denim shop that carried AG Jeans, FRAME, Mother, etc.—we offered wine or beer to customers in the afternoon while they shopped. It was a brilliant strategy, especially when we had couples in the store. The men would eventually become more agreeable and patient (and generous) as the women tried on clothes. If customers wanted recommendations of where to go or what to do in Newport, we provided maps of the city for customers to take and shared our favorite restaurants and activities.
Not everyone wants to speak with sales associates while they shop and that’s okay. Always let the customers know that you’re available to help and know when to gently assert your presence if you notice that they’re clearly struggling to look for something.
Having the right tools to maintain a loyal customer base makes a difference. Use a POS that saves customers’ purchase history and keep client books to take notes of their style preferences—ask these clients if they would like to be notified of upcoming sales or new arrivals and the best way to contact them.
For any promotional discounts, be sure that the terms, conditions, exclusions and expiration dates are clear—customers will try to find loopholes to get the best deal.
E-commerce brands have stepped up their game by providing more value than free shipping and a simplified return processes. True & Co., a San Francisco-based lingerie company* recently acquired by PVH (Calvin Klein), requires customers to take a mini-quiz about their bra cup size and shape. Once customers finish the fit quiz, True & Co. creates a specialized shop based on the preferences selected in the customer’s saved profile. The site architecture makes it possible for a positive personal experience without needing to have an awkward conversation with a sales associate.
Companies that have both e-commerce and store locations need to decide different promotions and product offerings to serve the target audiences for each space. Hosting exclusive events like trunk shows, private shopping nights, pop-up shops or exclusive discussions with industry influencers are great ways to energize the existing customer base and build excitement with new customers.
*The battle in the lingerie category is an entirely different discussion and it’s interesting to follow
Create and curate beautiful content on your social media platforms
It’s 2017. You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but you can definitely judge a brand’s Instagram profile.
Daniel Wellington, a watchmaking brand, and Away, a suitcase brand, do a great job of incorporating their product into lifestyle shots. It helps that they also crowdsource images from other Instagram users who tag the brand or use the right hashtags (#DanielWellington, #travelaway) in their captions.
To stop myself from going on a heated rant about brand aesthetics and preserving its integrity, conduct an audit of your social media platforms by starting with the following questions:
Do your social media platforms have consistent bios with links to your website or online store?
Do you use your social media to help with promoting events or sales? Do you want to create exclusive promotions for your followers?
Which of your social media platforms do you invest the most time in for your business? Which of your social media platforms has higher level of customer engagement? Where are other social media platforms or digital spaces that your customer spends her time on (blogs, email newsletters)?
Look at the social media accounts of brands and influencers you enjoy following. Look at the social media accounts of brands and influencers who are in your industry. How do your social media accounts measure up in comparison?
How often do you prompt your followers to actively engage with your social posts? Do you respond to comments or questions?
If you’re reading these questions and finding out how off-track your Instagram is, Sue B. Zimmerman, “The Instagram Expert,” and blogger Hilary Rushford have great Instagram programs for beginners. There are plenty of other trainings for Facebook, Pinterest, etc., but Instagram’s growth and opportunity for engagement is hard to overlook.
There is no reason for big-box brands or small business owners to doubt the power of a well-executed social media strategy. Businesses must treat social media as a supplement to their overall marketing plan—they can’t expect social media to be the solution to weak sales or nonexistent customer engagement.
Some people—no matter how hard they try—don’t have a design eye. If this happens, it’s important to let go of your pride and find the right talent to delegate this responsibility to.