Clothes re­tail­ers are fash­ion­ing a new way to sell

Loss of ‘golden quar­ter’ threat­ens sec­tor but fresh strate­gies are emerg­ing, writes

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Business - Rhi­an­non Curry

Re­tail’s “golden quar­ter” – the three-month run-up to Christ­mas and new year – is tra­di­tion­ally a time when fash­ion stores cash in. Shop­pers em­brace the new sea­son’s lines, snap­ping up au­tumn and win­ter sta­ples, and are of­ten pre­pared to splash out on a new out­fit for par­ties and events dur­ing the fes­tive sea­son.

But this year, par­ties have been can­celled, meet­ings post­poned and wed­dings called off. In­stead, the UK is fac­ing a win­ter where peo­ple con­tinue to spend more time than ever at home. How has this al­tered de­mand for clothes?

Some pat­terns of spend­ing have re­mained the same, says Kat Farmer, fash­ion stylist, writer and blog­ger.

“Within a week, ev­ery­one ditches their san­dals and sum­mer dresses and it’s about wool and cash­mere and coats and boots,” she says. “That doesn’t seem to have changed this year.”

But, per­haps un­sur­pris­ingly, re­tail­ers in­clud­ing Marks & Spencer and Asos have re­ported a steep drop in de­mand for for­mal wear and in­creased sales of ca­sual cloth­ing and leisure wear in re­cent months.

TM Lewin an­nounced plans to shut all 66 UK stores in June, while Moss Bros is in talks with land­lords to close some of its shops.

Both cited the can­cel­la­tion of ma­jor events such as Royal As­cot, post­poned wed­dings and work­ing from home as rea­sons for their de­cline.

In a world where col­lec­tions are fi­nalised months be­fore they hit the shelves, re­tail­ers are scram­bling to bring out lines that re­main rel­e­vant to con­sumers. “A lot of us aren’t sure whether we’ll even have a job and if we do, whether we’ll be go­ing into the of­fice,” points out Andrew Busby, founder of Re­tail Re­flec­tions, which analy­ses con­sumer habits.

Fash­ion brands have been con­tin­u­ing to en­gage with their au­di­ence in the last few months even when they haven’t been able to trade. “Pri­mark con­tin­ued to con­nect with cus­tomers via so­cial me­dia to en­sure they didn’t desert them while stores were closed,” Busby says. This in­ter­ac­tion could prove vi­tal as the UK be­gins to re­turn to some sort of nor­mal, he sug­gests. At the other end of the price spec­trum, some lux­ury brands have of­fered live streams of their shops, so con­sumers can “browse” vir­tu­ally, giv­ing them some of the same ex­pe­ri­ence as ac­tu­ally vis­it­ing a store in per­son.

“The im­pact of Covid is just ac­cel­er­at­ing trends that were al­ready vis­i­ble in the in­dus­try – the switch to on­line, the po­lar­i­sa­tion across value and lux­ury – th­ese are not new things, but we’ve seen sev­eral years’ worth of change in a few weeks,” says Anita Balchan­dani, part­ner and re­tail ex­pert at McKin­sey.

Changes in work­ing pat­terns have caused shop­pers to seek dif­fer­ent fab­rics and ma­te­ri­als in or­der to be more com­fort­able at home, she points out. The chal­lenge for brands is work­ing out which of th­ese trends are here to stay.

“The fu­ture is def­i­nitely point­ing to how com­fort and fash­ion and style can be com­bined. True un­der­stated lux­ury will trump overt ‘pre­tend’ lux­ury. So it will be less about [lux­ury brands] cre­at­ing more af­ford­able sub-la­bels, be­cause that can have a brand-di­lut­ing ef­fect. Rather, we’ll see a broad­en­ing of the brand of­fer across a wider set of cat­e­gories that are more rel­e­vant to this new life­style.”

In the early weeks of the pan­demic, fash­ion sim­ply wasn’t on con­sumers’ radars – most were more con­cerned with buy­ing food, health or en­ter­tain­ment goods. “Now that we start to see con­sumer ap­petite and in­ter­est in fash­ion come back, our view would be that the value seg­ment would re­main re­silient be­cause we ex­pect a height­ened sen­si­tiv­ity to lev­els of in­come,” says Balchan­dani.

Con­sumers may be keen to buy less, but buy things that last longer, lead­ing to in­creased sales for the lux­ury brands that tap into the right trends.

“Con­sumers are go­ing to be drawn to brands with stronger sto­ries, bet­ter prove­nance and so on. That will prob­a­bly take brands more in the di­rec­tion of do­ing few things re­ally well and be­ing rel­e­vant to con­sumers’ life­styles.”

Alice Marsh, a blog­ger and in­flu­encer who also works as a per­sonal stylist in a de­part­ment store in west Lon­don, thinks there is a place for mid­dle-mar­ket brands as long as they are keep­ing their of­fer fresh. “Some peo­ple I’ve spo­ken to have worked through­out [the lock­down] so they have ac­tu­ally man­aged to save money. I have had peo­ple com­ing in look­ing for a to­tal wardrobe re­fresh for the new sea­son – es­pe­cially if they’ve put on weight.”

She thinks for­mal dress­ing will en­dure as peo­ple be­gin to grow tired of wear­ing jog­gers and a sweat­shirt.

But peo­ple may turn to lo­cal in­de­pen­dent bou­tiques rather than the larger high street names, as a dual de­sire to shop lo­cally for con­ve­nience and to sup­port lo­cal busi­nesses en­dures. Mean­while, Farmer thinks the days of the of­fice dress code are over. “It is go­ing to be about sus­tain­ing the look of be­ing pro­fes­sional while still be­ing re­laxed,” she pre­dicts. She also thinks the mid-mar­ket brands will sur­vive as long as they move quickly to ap­peal to cus­tomers who might have changed their habits, par­tic­u­larly around is­sues of sus­tain­abil­ity.

In­deed, change on this front seems more likely to come from con­sumer pres­sure than from reg­u­la­tion.

Rec­om­men­da­tions made by a par­lia­men­tary se­lect com­mit­tee re­port last year were roundly re­jected by the Gov­ern­ment.

MPs had called for more trans­parency in the sup­ply chain and manda­tory en­vi­ron­men­tal tar­gets for re­tail­ers, af­ter warning that “tex­tile pro­duc­tion con­trib­utes more to

‘Covid is ac­cel­er­at­ing trends. We have seen sev­eral years’ worth of change in a few weeks’

cli­mate change than in­ter­na­tional avi­a­tion and ship­ping com­bined”.

A McKin­sey sur­vey car­ried out in April this year found that of 2,000 Ger­man and Bri­tish shop­pers, 67pc be­lieve the use of sus­tain­able ma­te­ri­als to be an im­por­tant pur­chas­ing fac­tor, and 63pc con­sider a brand’s pro­mo­tion of sus­tain­abil­ity in the same way.

Farmer says: “The cus­tomer [for mid-mar­ket brands] is prob­a­bly be­com­ing a bit more con­sid­ered and think­ing ‘do I ac­tu­ally need five sum­mer dresses or could I spend a lit­tle more and just have three?’. It is a great op­por­tu­nity for re­tail­ers to get in­volved in that move­ment to­wards a more sus­tain­able in­dus­try.”

TK Maxx has launched its Give Up Clothes for Good campaign with TV pre­sen­ter Laura Whit­more, as re­tail­ers fo­cus more on sus­tain­abil­ity

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