Uptown Bourgeois is an art space for the creative works of freelance writer, editor, author, and content creator Jefferey Spivey.

Retail As We Know It Is Dead

It’s a pretty bold statement, right? Well, I firmly believe it’s the truth.  For anyone who’s been paying close attention to the retail industry over the past year or so, the headlines have been alarming.  Gap is closing 175 of the stores amongst its fleet.  J. Crew is being lampooned for overpriced goods.  C. Wonder and Kate Spade Saturday shuttered completely.  Mid-market fashion is having a tough time, and it’s not clear when the tide will turn.

What is clear is that discount, fast fashion companies like H&M, Zara, and Uniqlo are winning.  These brands are leading the business by adopting supply models that get trend right fashion into their stores in record-breaking time.  And with affordable pricing, customers are grabbing up product for now with little concern about quality, service, or longevity.

So what happens next? Will big players like Gap and J. Crew fail completely and disappear from the retail spectrum? I wouldn’t go so far as to predict the end of these industry giants.  But I do have some recommendations about how they could possibly save their businesses.

First, stop chasing millennials with a singular approach.  Unlike generations past, the one thing that sets millennials apart from Gen X and the Baby Boomers is that we’re all so different.  We’re a generation that has collectively decided to lead our own way in the world by creating our own businesses, leading our own initiatives, and circumventing pretty much all establishment.  So treating us as one homogenous group of people will only lead to failure.  As a millennial shopper myself, I’m attracted to companies that are truly doing something innovative whether it’s being super transparent about what it costs to manufacture its product, creating a groundbreaking integration of the online and in-store experience, or taking part in giving back to the community in a fresh and meaningful way.  Look to companies like Warby Parker, Everlane, and Frank & Oak for examples of these key points.

Second, make some damn good product.  At the end of the day, the one thing that drives customers back to your brand is in-demand clothing.  If you’re known for suiting, keep making suiting and make sure it’s the best on the market.  If you’re great at chinos, give me the best chinos in the world.  I’m less likely to give the side eye to a higher pricepoint if I know the quality is there.  Yes, it’s important to observe trend and use trend pieces to attract new customers.  But it’s important to do this without alienating loyal customers.  Take Converse for example.  Converse is a tried and true brand known for one style of shoe that really does not change, save for color or the occasional switch from canvas to leather.  You know what you’re going to get, and customers keep coming back.  In the last year, Converse has sold 70 million pairs of Chucks (35 times its yearly sales a decade ago). The company has listened to consumers and made some updates to the Chuck Taylor to make it more comfortable and give it more support.  But it’s essentially the same shoe that customers have always loved.

And last, don’t make any desperate moves.  On one hand, what H&M, Zara, and Uniqlo are doing is pretty amazing.  If you want to try to do the same thing to save  your business, then by all means go ahead.  But think about your core customer first.  Do you have the same core customer as these brands? Does it make sense for your brand to adopt fast fashion if your core customer is looking for stability and reliable, classic goods?  Is product really what you need to improve on to change, or is it your positioning that could use a facelift to boost sales?  One strategy is not the saving grace for every company. 

The retail industry is full of fashion giants that have relied on decades-old technology and supply models because they’ve always worked.  As the consumer changes, the retail landscape is changing rapidly along with them.  Any business that fails to see this and fails to react immediately will be left behind in the dust.  People are still buying clothes, and we all still want to look good.  We’re just doing it in completely different ways than we used to.  And if our favorite companies can’t adjust their business practices to meet our needs, then we’ll just shop somewhere that has.  That’s all.

So the retail industry in itself is booming in the sense of creativity, strategy, and intellectual property.  But the retail industry of yesterday has absolutely flatlined.  And there’s no coming back from the dead.

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