With many fashion brands (understandably) focused on the here and now, including what to do with huge piles of unsold stock and shuttered brick and mortar stores, it’s sometimes difficult to think optimistically about the future of retail once shops start to re-open, and customers once again start to venture outside.
One thing is for certain, “the new normal” won’t look the same as it used to, and it will take some time for customers and brands alike to establish new types of shopping patterns and new ways of shopping.
Experts are reasonably certain that e-commerce will thrive (or at least do much better than their high-street counterparts) in the immediate period following the relaxation of lockdown rules.
Firstly, shoppers are likely to stay wary of the hustle and bustle of crowded shopping malls, streets and stores for a considerable amount of time after the shops re-open. Already, over the past month, it’s become normal to clutch your basket to your chest in the supermarket, press yourself as close to the onions as you can get and sidle awkwardly past your fellow shoppers as you awkwardly eye each other up. As we rapidly adapt to this type of social distancing, packing into a dark and airless store such as Hollister would feel positively weird.
We’ve also got to consider how many stores will re-open after restrictions are lifted. Some brands, those who weren’t quick enough to adapt, or didn’t have a strong digital presence before the lockdown, may not survive at all. Big department stores such as De Bijenkorf in the Netherlands, or Debenhams and John Lewis in the UK, are already suffering, with prices being slashed by up to 40% online as they try to free up cash.
There’s also the fact that so many shoppers will have become accustomed to making all types of purchases online during the lockdown. Even older, typically technologically-challenged shoppers will have been forced to complete purchases online if they want to shop at all, potentially fuelling a surge in transactions made by a generally well-off and financially stable generation.
So what trends might we see across the retail industry?
With the possible demise of department stores, we’re likely to see a move away from wholesale business models. The brands that thrive are likely to be those that can build or optimise direct-to-consumer models instead.
There’s also going to be a huge increase in future-proofing business models and supply chains. The difficult thing about deciding how to rebuild after a pandemic is that nobody knows what the world will look like in a year, two years, five years. This virus might be the type to return on a seasonal basis, like the common flu. This means we might see a cycle of harsher restrictions such as lockdowns and social-distancing rules, alternated with periods of relative freedom.
Alternatively, scientists might come up with a successful vaccine (and an efficient way of administering it to the global population as a whole, allowing life to return to normal) but the memory of the coronavirus will stay on, as will the need to build business models that are resilient enough to last if another pandemic hits the world in the future.
Either way, no sensible company could ever return to the way it operated before 2020. It simply wouldn’t make sense.
What does future-proofing look like for fashion retailers?
One of the huge issues right now is that brands have a surplus of stock that they simply can’t sell. Companies are running out of places to store it, and it’s costing them a fortune. Whether they sell these items at a slashed price, store them away for re-release next year or burn them (which isn’t going to be a good look for an already sustainability-challenged industry), the question needs to be “how do we prevent this from happening again?”.
One theory is that we’re going to see a huge rise in “on-demand” and “small-batch” clothing collections that will allow brands to scrap the already outdated “two seasons” a year concept and produce more frequent, smaller collections.
There’s a variety of benefits to working this way. Let’s take a look at the LABFRESH model. One of the concepts they’ve already been working with is the idea of crowdfunding clothing based on demand. They design a new product, customers pre-order them (and get a juicy 20% discount as a reward for their patience) and LABFRESH only order what they need.
Sure, it extends the amount of time that customers have to wait for an item, but we’re already seeing huge shifts in buying behaviour towards “slow fashion” and sustainable choices. The benefit for brands is that it takes the guessing game out of placing orders, and future-proof brands against huge, global disruptions to both the supply chain and customer demand — disruptions like a global pandemic.
If a LABFRESH-esque model is combined with a model like that of Spanish chain Zara, which has managed to reduce the design, manufacturing and distribution lifecycle down to just two weeks, then there’s no reason why collections can’t change and adapt to trends as quickly as demand does.
But sustainability is going to be a key driving factor in marketing methods such as these to consumers. For a model like this to be successful, consumers are going to need to be patient, which won’t be easy for those of us used to the days of same-day delivery (I miss Amazon Prime in London).
But there’s another sustainability silver lining. If brands want to shorten the lifecycle of designing, ordering, manufacturing and shipping even further, without returning to the old, vulnerable mass-ordering models, then they’re going to need to turn their attention to local suppliers and manufacturers. If even a portion of stock can be made entirely in the country that it’s sold in or shipped to, that’s another way of protecting against supply chain disruption, plus a reduction in carbon footprints and a boost to local economies — something that may well be essential if we are heading toward a recession, or worse, a depression.
If brands can centralise their processes, produce products based on actual demand and not predicted demand, slash CO2 emissions and embrace limited-edition drops and constantly-evolving collections, they’ll be able to future-proof themselves against disasters like these and come out even stronger.