Here’s the thing: if you make something too readily available, nobody wants it anymore. However, if you restrict availability, it creates the illusion that the object or experience is highly desirable, and people respond by flocking to it in droves. EasyJet uses this psychological trick with their pricing: you can book a flight at an incredible price, but only if you book it early. Wait too long and you’ll miss out on the discount altogether. Glastonbury Festival has also used limited availability for years, resulting in the fact that if you’re not on the phone at the exact time of ticket launch, you’ll have absolutely no chance of securing a ticket. Even brands are on board, with Lamborghini producing extremely low numbers of each new car and “limited edition” products showing up everywhere from Nintendo to Oscar de le Renta.
I think availability is one of the major contributing factors to the difficulties faced by the fashion retail industry today.
When I started my fashion career in a flagship store on London’s Regent Street, there were just four fashion collections a year. One drop in early September (“Autumn”), one collection in November (“Christmas and Cruise”), another drop in March (“Spring”) and another in May (“Summer”). And boy, was that exciting! Both staff and customers had to wait at least a season for each new collection and when they arrived – BANG, we shopped until we dropped.
Over time, things evolved as Head Office realised that every time there was a new collection, sales went up. So in an attempt to capitalise on this, new fashion stories started to come in once a month rather than just a few times a year. Interesting! As a fashion fan I loved this. I still knew when I’d see something new, but since there was a wait between each collection I could spend time thinking about what I fancied, saving up and then buying something from each new collection.
Well, almost every collection. Buying a whole outfit every month at those prices can be a bit of a stretch, and anyway, one month’s orange and brown jungle print collection suited me far less than another month’s black tailoring. The point is that, even though it was more often than once a season, having to wait a month between collections made shopping exciting and meaningful.
So what happened next? More time passed under this same approach, both with ‘my’ brand and other new fashion brands immigrating to London. The internet had long since arrived with no impact on sales whatsoever, but the physical fashion space got more and more crowded, with brands realising they had to evolve or die as rents spiralled to a premium.
Evolving meant more frequent drops of new collections, more competitive pricing, greater discounting with end of season and midseason sales, and a gift with purchase promotions in order to launch new collections. It was workable for most brands, even if margin was squeezed, even if everyone had to keep on their toes and slide closer to becoming a lifestyle brand in order to stay successful.
However, ultimately, being ‘just a retailer’ was no longer an option, and this had to be recognised. Those who did then lead the way into multi-channel retailing: flagships, free standing stores, concessions, franchising, wholesale, outlet – all potential evolutions for those who had the means to keep up. They needed much more stock, more choice, creative pricing, new territories and better service. If they had those, they could keep up with change, but the requirements of an ever-accelerating retail world pushed many to near breaking point.
Then came internet retail, which many have and still see as the death of fashion retailing as we know it. I don’t. An internet sale is still a sale, so long as brands who use it have a successful bricks and mortar channel alongside a viable internet channel, as well as constant investment in their brand, their people and innovation. Internet retail is different, not bad. For many brands, it has been fantastic.
So if the internet isn’t killing fashion retail, what is?
In my view, it’s consumers having too much choice. Their favourite brands are too accessible, they’re constantly flooded with new products and this means that in essence, the excitement of waiting has gone. I doubt I’m alone in checking out my favourite fashion brands online, thinking I quite like something, but moving on to something else in my life without making a purchase. Likewise, when I visit brands on the high street, I think “That’s nice; I quite like that. It will be reduced in four weeks, so rather than pay full price I’ll wait.” Invariably, I’ve moved onto something else by the time the product is discounted so I don’t make that purchase four weeks later.
Anyone who knows me knows I love to shop, but even eager shoppers need to be seduced. Stores need to show me a) a special item, or b) an incredible price, or they need to convince me c) I actually need something, or d) I should treat myself. This used to be achieved by the innate excitement and anticipation of seasonal collections, but now brands have to do more. The constant cycling of products and price changes has changed my shopping habits from buying something every collection to seeking products and experiences that stand out among the flood. No wonder there is such a cry for authenticity and meaningfulness among Millennials and Gen Zers, whose lives have been defined by this inundation of availability. Of course, this is why artisan markets, farm shops and ‘shop local’ initiatives have become so popular: they have brought back the niche and give some point to it all.
It’s time to evolve once more. Fashion retail must prioritise experience and meaningfulness over numbers, or else it will fall under the burden of its own over-saturation. It is the brands who invest in knowing their customers, who make an art out of their shopping experience, and most importantly put some meaning and feeling back in, who will be there at the next stage of retail.
Has your favourite brand evolved yet?
Anna is an outlet and retail specialist, providing recruitment, consulting and leasing services through her company Intense Retail.
With thanks to Antonio Marano for the above photograph.