Who will buy?
By Carmel Fisher, Managing Director
17 February, 2017
We apparel consumers are a tough lot to please. We don't have brand loyalty, we are happy to bypass knowledgeable sales assistants and, if Amazon has read us right, we are even prepared to buy intimate apparel online, if the price is low enough.
The future of apparel retailing has been on my mind recently as several established retail chains have closed their doors.
Under the headline "The retail rot spreads to Australia" an analyst noted the closure announcements of Marcs, David Lawrence, Herringbone and Rhodes & Beckett stores "following closely in the footsteps of Pumpkin Patch and Payless Shoes."
He suggested fashion retail was officially dead; the industry demise due largely to the growing popularity of online shopping and category-killing behemoths like ASOS and Amazon.
Shopping is a pastime for me and I've previously refused to believe online shopping would overtake physical stores so comprehensively.
My thinking was that, when buying clothes, you need to feel the fabric and check the sizing. For some women — not me, admittedly — getting advice and a second opinion from a sales assistant is important.
But online shopping has become the thing.
Return policies have improved, removing the friction of buying apparel. If a pair of jeans doesn't quite fit as expected or a dress isn't the same colour blue as it appeared on the website, they can be returned with little hassle and often at no cost.
Instead of helpful sales assistants, shoppers rely on reviews from other customers who give honest opinions of a garment's fit, the feel of the fabric and whether you should go up or down a size.
One retail analyst suggests it's not just the convenience of buying at a place and time to suit and having your shopping delivered to your door that gives online shops an advantage. It's the fact that malls have made apparel shopping boring.
"The majority of chain stores, malls and shopping centres have become beacons of boredom, monuments to mediocrity and havens of ho hum."
He says typical fashion buyers are driven by sales. If it's not going to sell in droves then it's not worth buying. So a store will buy hundreds of the same item, in different colours and sizes. Other stores do the same and "voila … mass boredom".
E-tailers don't have to stock hundreds of any one item. They can carry multiple items without tying up lots of capital and floor space. So they can afford to stock the next cool, new and unique product, making the shopping experience so much more exciting than trawling through same-old stores.
He probably has a point. But I'm yet to be convinced that Amazon can conquer the final frontier: lingerie.
Amazon this month announced plans to start selling its own line of competitively priced women's intimate apparel, taking industry stalwarts PVH Corp (Calvin Klein) and L Brands (Victoria's Secret) head on.
Lingerie has been one of the last categories to give way to e-commerce because fit, feel, look and lift are hard to assess online.
But Amazon thinks its $US10 bras can compete with Victoria Secret's $US40 lacy numbers, and customers won't mind buying lingerie the same way as they buy books and electronics.
Victoria Secret's stores and models could never be described as boring or ho hum. Hopefully that factor alone might ensure survival in the last bastion of apparel retail.