Essays, Fashion, Opinion

The Future of Retail

In the past few weeks I have been reading a lot about the ever-evolving retail landscape. I find it very interesting, especially because I plan to enter the apparel industry in a few years time. Our notions of what we want and expect out of a shopping experience have changed dramatically. Now it is not enough for a brand just to have brick-and-mortar locations, an online presence is a necessity. But is online all that brands need to provide, or is there something more? Fashion companies need to change with the times in order to remain in business, essentially. But how do they do that, going forward?

I find it funny that online has taken over, or that we perceive it to. I learned in one of my classes that only 10% of all transactions in the USA occur online and around 30-40% in China. I’d say that my generation would think that more transactions occur online because we have embraced e-tailing in such a full-on way. I have friends who shop almost exclusively at online stores because it’s easier, there’s a bigger selection, it’s cheaper – a myriad of reasons, really. Some shoppers are still reluctant to make the shift to the internet, but a large chunk of people will at least browse.

There are still some brands who have a very small online presence. For example, Chanel sells just sunglasses, skincare, fragrance, and beauty on their e-store. Pieces from collections, such as shoes and bags, are available to view online but not to purchase – that can only be done in stores. For such a high end brand, it is important to keep exclusivity. In a major way, the internet has democratized fashion. For younger brands like Altuzarra, based in New York City, it doesn’t make too much sense having to worry about e-commerce on their own website. Instead you can shop these type of brands online on sites like Net-a-porter and Matches Fashion. Altuzarra’s e-store actually links you through to Matches to complete your transaction. That’s a true partnership.

I do a lot of my browsing online, especially for brands that I wouldn’t normally have access to. I love e-tailers like Net-a-porter where I can see all of the items that I loved going down the runway in an as close to real life situation as I can. I also love online boutiques like FRWD by Elyse Walker. It has a cool, tightly edited selection of merchandise on offer and I can visualize how the store would be in my head without having to leave my bed. Now that I live in New York I can go to the high end department stores and browse in person but before I came here online was my only platform. This is what I mean when I say the internet has democratized fashion. It has made it accessible. Luxury is no longer out of reach. Consumers no longer feel intimidated by the luxury stores because they can pre-pick what they’re going to buy online (and find out the price so there’s none of the awkward “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it” drama) and go in store to have the experience of shopping there. That’s what shopping is about, an experience. If retailers can’t provide that then they will lose out to online stores eventually.

Barneys New York

It has also been speculated that the internet is going to kill the department store. They are not the giants that they once were, both in the UK and the US. Macy’s is known for being constantly on sale. It’s a store where you’d be foolish to pay full price. In fact, this can be damaging for some of the brands that are stocked in store (like Michael Kors, for example, who has been hit by discounts offered by department stores fairly badly in the past few years). Similarly, Debenhams in the UK runs promotions almost weekly. It is just a way to get shoppers into the stores. However, there are some things that can be done by the department stores to draw shoppers back in without having to slash prices.

I was in Macy’s at Herald Square a few months ago. What I learned from my visit was never go too far up in the building because the clothes get dowdier the higher you go. If you start from the basement, the “teen” or “junior” area (which is where the Levi’s are kept), you will experience fitting rooms with adjustable lighting on the mirrors. You can see how the outfit would look in various settings. I found that a very cool feature. I’ve heard of other stores doing a “smart” mirror where you digitally try on clothing instead of actually having to go into the fitting rooms and do it yourself. I’m not sure that I like that idea as I think you can only get a true representation of how things fit once they’re on your body, although I do realize that nobody ever, ever, ever looks good in fitting room lighting. Ever. Experience is key; trial new technology.

I think the area that department stores need to work on is becoming speciality stores, like Barneys or Bergdorfs instead of “department stores” in the traditional sense. I think the two aforementioned are safe, regardless of what happens to normal department stores. Young people aren’t interested in shopping at the same store as their grandparents generally (although my granny shops at Free People…) so I think more needs to be done to modernize the stores and make them more youthful. I found that Macy’s had a stark contrast between what they classed as “juniors” fashion and what they had in the regular womenswear area. It was almost like the kids were too young and the adults were too old. There didn’t seem to be a good spot for women between 18 and 30, and I think that is a key demographic in terms of spending power, disposable income, and actual interest in fashion and keeping up to date with trends. The way to find out about how young people actually dress is through social media. It is an as-true-as-can-be reflection of our times, although what you see on there is often an edited reality. Alternatively, pay attention to what young people on the street actually wear. Chances are you’ll think that the teens are older than their calendar age, mainly because we all dress more maturely than teens did a decade ago. The time of teenage high school movies is over, although sometimes stores reflect these dated ideals in their choices. My main suggestion would be know your customer and ensure your research is current.

If it is more convenient to shop on my phone whilst lying in bed at 2am, I’ll do it. But if I know there’s a great store where the employees are friendly, the visuals are appealing, and the experience is worthwhile, I’ll sure as hell get out of my bed in the morning and march along there instead. We no longer need specific retailers because there are so many options out there for consumers. Retailers now need us.

FURTHER READING

Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren Hit Hard by Stores’ Discounting Binge – Business of Fashion (August 2016)

The Future of Retailing: The Technology Revolution is Now – Forbes (August 2016)

RECOMMENDED RETAILERS (online & in-store)

Forward by Elyse Walker

Matches Fashion

Net-A-Porter & The Outnet

Opening Ceremony

 

& Other Stories, Soho, New York

Barneys New York, Downtown location (Chelsea, New York)

Topshop Oxford Circus, London

Aritzia, Flatiron location, New York

 

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Shows

Fashion Flashback: Michael Kors Collection Fall 2008

Let me start this off by saying I’ve never been the biggest fan of Michael Kors as a brand. The main reason for this is my perception of the brand – slightly cheap with too much obvious branding, bought by often rather tacky people who think they’re buying into great luxury and design innovation – which really reveals my snobbery rather than much else. The reason for this is the low prices of the accessories and the mid-market retailers which stock them – TK Maxx (or TJ Maxx if you’re outside of the UK), for example. I also don’t like seeing his bags in high end stores alongside the originals that he copied them from (Prada, Fendi, Louis Vuitton, and Celine to just name a few) for prices that will obviously appeal to a broader market, hence the oversaturation of some popular styles. In my opinion, if you’re going to buy a designer inspired bag just buy the high street version instead of wasting money on a contemporary designer who blatantly ripped it off for profit. It just makes the customer look foolish.

I feel that I am sometimes a little harsh on Michael Kors. I do wish he had a little bit more originality, especially when it comes to his accessories as I can imagine they are his highest performing category. In fact, I think I’m altogether too dismissive of the brand. The clothes aren’t ugly. Many would fit into my wardrobe well, actually. A few times I’ve been browsing online and have seen things from Michael Kors that I actually like but the items are often spoiled by logos and branding, especially if it is in one of the lower end ranges like Michael Michael Kors: the shoes have unnecessary little silver buttons on the counter (the little bit at the back which holds your heel in place) and the pants – just crepe jogger style pants – have silver MK branding on little tags that are intended to be kept on. This bothers me because I just want things plain.

However, things are changing for MK. Recent reports have revealed that Nordstrom, in the US, have dropped the handbag line from “nearly half of [its] stores” due to quality issues and constant discounting. Perhaps this then spurred the brand to announce that it was scaling back its department store offerings and focusing more on selling in their own retail stores, around 65%  which will allow the brand to control its image. Being on sale all the time isn’t good for a brand’s value as it means customers will no longer be willing to pay full price, ultimately hurting profits. Think about it, how many brands do you refuse to pay full price for because you know it’ll be discounted sometime soon either on a sale website like The Outnet, on the brand’s own website, or on a department store?

In light of the fact that MK will perhaps be re-positioning itself and building up brand value again, I have decided to throw it back to a time before the MK brand was tarnished and became associated with teenage girls, oversized watches, and bargain bucket prices. This is the Fall 2008 collection which is actually one of my favourites of his. The retro vibe and expensive feel make this show worth looking at. I loved the fur, the sexy wiggle skirts and the 50s silhouettes which gave the collection a Hitchcock blonde feel. Parts of the show felt very Max Mara to me, like an American doing Italian. Italian fashion is often my favourite because I think the designers can usually make the woman look feminine and sensual without being overtly sexy or tacky. Also, I feel that these clothes were made for adults instead of teens. That is not to say that his clothes is made for teens nowadays, just that is the main audience who seems interested in him nowadays. Of course, I don’t have the same customer breakdown that department stores have so perhaps I am way off with this assumption.

After viewing this collection and loving it, I can only hope that MK produces more like this in the future and shies away from the lower-end, lower-price point items that I feel are only hurting his brand in the long term. If you want to be thought of as a high-end brand, I think the brand message needs to be consistent and somewhere along the line things have gone slightly off track.

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