Continuing our focus on Covid-19 and what it means for our industry, long-serving contributor Elizabeth Shobert shares her vision of the future of retail. Elizabeth is Director of Marketing & Digital Strategy at StyleSage.
We’ve probably all, at some point in our lives. said something along the lines of, “I wouldn’t have tried it if [this person] hadn’t made me.” Something that was undesirable, unusual, or unnatural to us, with the gentle nudge of someone else, becomes something we actually like. I like this analogy for what the retail, and fashion industry specifically, is currently navigating. Let me be clear that I am not making light of the loss that has and is resulting from a global pandemic, but we will face the future. And it’s a future that requires setting aside all preconceived notions of what works and what doesn’t work, and one where hope, humility, and a dash of pragmatism will take us far.
So, what can we expect in fashion retail in the months and years to come?
Working with less, but doing more
Right now, many fashion retailers are working with reduced staffing models to get the business through the short-term, so that there still is a business to manage in the long-term. One of the natural outcomes of this is that with fewer people at the table and urgent, business critical decisions at stake, action is being taken more quickly than it was pre-crisis. Forrester’s principal analyst Sucharita Kodali concurs, “The single biggest change has been how rapidly retailers are moving, how rapidly they are realizing they can move and how much a lot of unnecessary bureaucracy got in the way of decisions.” Not only are things getting done, but major shifts in operations are taking place during this crisis, and organizations need to be thinking about how to harness that agility forward, post-crisis.
Is this a digital issue? Certainly; making sure that broken, stopgap, and archaic systems aren’t slowing down forward momentum is crucial. But I’d argue it’s even more a people issue. Specifically, how can you create an environment where bold ideas aren’t reduced to fragments as they move up the chain of command? Fashion and retail organizations, as they look ahead, ought to be focusing on empowerment, ownership, and accountability in their people and projects. The status quo? Sorry, but it’s got to go.
A supply chain grounded in reality
Turns out that it’s pretty hard to predict what people are going to want to wear in one year’s time. In an industry where a reported 30 percent of merchandise made is never sold, it’s a truth we can no longer afford to ignore as unsold inventory piles up at unprecedented levels. Where fashion retailers have historically planned months, even more than a year, in advance, about what to produce, with lengthy coordination between design, product development, and merchant teams, with production in far-flung places around the globe, all so that it can end up in stores months before it makes any sense to wear, is now a model that is showing its many shortcomings.
What fashion needs is a “see now, buy now” model, where merchandise is in the store at the moment it’s ready to be “consumed,” and where supply equals demand. This is not only going to require the agility we talked about above, but it’s also going to entail a rewiring of the supply chain. Design will have to consider whether merchandise has cross-seasonal appeal, more product development will be digitized, and certain kinds of manufacturing will need to be near-shored for maximum responsiveness.
And let’s not forget, all of this will be taking place in the context of a changing consumer, one who prioritizes both the value of a product and personal values.
Is the road ahead going to be a tough one for retailers? It is, but let’s not forget the good it can, and will, bring. “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”