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How to beat the most challenging womenswear market ever

Villa 1

Pressure on buyers to find newness and conscious consumers make the womenswear market more challenging than ever. 

The womenswear market is a notoriously difficult sector – and brands and retailers must stay one step ahead if they are to thrive. Not only must retailers combat pressures on the high street, they must adapt to a rapidly evolving customer. Purchasing behaviour is shifting in a more conscious direction as customers demand sustainability, as well as newness, versatility and value for money in their shopping experience.

Market research company Mintel forecasts spending on womenswear in the UK will grow by 3.8% in 2019 to £30.7bn. Although this is lower than the 2018 rate of growth – 4.1% – the market is holding steady, despite challenging times across the retail landscape.

The market has been tough because it’s been such a rubbish summer

Joanna Davies, Black White Denim in Cheshire

That said, the start of the summer season has been underwhelming for many womenswear players – as the weather failed to live up to 2018’s heatwave highs.

“The market has been tough because it’s been such a rubbish summer,” says Joanna Davies, founder of Drapers Independents Award-winning independent retailer Black White Denim in Cheshire. “We are still ahead of our target for the year and 5% up [in sales] on last year, but the wet June has been a challenge. I think there’s nervousness all round.”

Cautionary tale

As a result, the new buying season is off to a tentative start.

“Buyers are being more cautious than ever,” notes Alex Lyles, co-founder of contemporary womenswear agency Claret Showroom. “They have had a really rubbish summer so far with the rain, and they are nervous that they will have to go into Sale early. Some department stores went into Sale in May.”

Lyles notes that buyers are playing it safe in terms of silhouettes and colours, and instead are seeking to differentiate their offers by bringing new or small brands on board.

People are more concerned with who has made a product and where it comes from

Bethany Rowntree, founder of womenswear ecommerce site Studio B

“Buyers are still really into newness in terms of taking on new names and not sticking with what they have. They are trying to have a point of difference in their stores. Buyers are pulling a little bit of budget from things they’ve had for a little while to move on with new brand names.”

Davies agrees: “It is becoming more and more important to offer unique brands that are not readily available elsewhere to ensure our business retains its destination status.”

Tough questions

One trend emerging across the market is the rise of a more conscious approach to shopping, as customers take greater consideration of the value and versatility of the products they buy.

Rixo spring 19 (3)

Rixo spring 19

“People are more conscious about what they’re buying – thinking whether they really need to add an item to their wardrobe,” says Henrietta Rix, co-founder of womenswear brand Rixo. “Customers are thinking about how long they can wear things for – and they’re not choosing items because of trends, it is because of quality. We have had a lot of customers that save up to buy one Rixo piece and they are excited to wear it again and again.”

People making more concerted buying decisions on quality and appropriateness

Anna Clarke, head of buying – womenswear at Sainsbury’s Tu

Rather than being confined to premium shoppers, this approach is emerging across the womenswear market.

“We are seeing more conscious purchasing: people making more concerted buying decisions on quality and appropriateness,” explains Anna Clarke, head of design at Sainsbury’s Tu. “Women have been shopping more smartly for a couple of years now, people are more savvy with their selections.”

In response to the changes, retailers are shifting their approach to product merchandising. Versatile styling options or curated product displays (be it aligned to trends or weather) are aiming to make the purchasing journey as easy as possible.

Rix attributes the success of the Rixo’s spring 19 slip and camisole dresses to their versatility, and the brand creates inspirational styling images for social media and its own ecommerce site.

“We’ve been teaching the customer how to style things up,” she explains. “It has allowed customers to think that the dress can also be a skirt or they can put a T-shirt over it or a jumper over it, or wear it with heels to a wedding.”

Clarke explains that Sainsbury’s is responding to demand for easy-to-wear items, and providing more styling and fashion guidance in its stores: “We are trying to get things in front of the customer if she is time poor, putting the product in a convenient and easy-to-shop way.

We’ve been teaching the customer how to style things up

Henrietta Rix, Rixo

“We are also putting more inspiration into shops: dressing mannequins that show her how to wear things. The feature rails are changing every three to four weeks. We are helping her select her outfits based on what is trending, and also by the weather.”

Slow fashion

Alongside increased consideration for quality, product provenance and brand storytelling are also important factors for shoppers.

“People are more concerned with who has made a product and where it comes from,” says Bethany Rowntree, founder of womenswear ecommerce site Studio B. “People like to support the smaller brands and they like the handmade element, particularly with our [womenswear brand] Johanna Sands collection. The dresses take three weeks to make and people have been prepared to wait, perhaps showing a change in customer mindset to a slow-fashion, authentic, approach.”

Customers are picking up on the need to be more environmentally friendly

Bethany Rowntree, founder of womenswear ecommerce site Studio B

Rix agrees: “Customers want to know way more about the brand. They 100% want to know where things are designed, why they are being designed, how they can style them and everything like that. They want to know who we are.”

Sustainability also remains a hot topic across the fashion industry, but the response from the womenswear sector is mixed. Some brands and retailers are embracing the sustainable mantle, talking more about the topic with consumers, but the appetite from the mainstream consumer is yet to universally impact on buying decisions.

“Sustainability is great, but it’s not a dealbreaker for buyers,” explains Claret’s Lyle. “Especially for the big retailers. It’s really hard to articulate that back to their customer – especially when it often means a more expensive product. In a smaller boutique they can talk about it, but in a department store it is more difficult.

“When it comes to purchasing, the buyers like things to be sustainable but trends are still more important to them.”

Sainsbury tu ss19 drury lane collection (5)

Sainsbury’s Drury Lane collection for spring 19 was an opportunity to start conversations about sustainability

In June, Sainsbury’s Tu launched its Drury Lane collection. While the collection was partly a celebration of the retailers 150th anniversary, Clarke explained that it was also the starting point for wider conversations around sustainability – and features BCI (Better Cotton Initiative) cotton, recycled polyester and post-consumer waste. Wider use of these fibres will be rolled out during 2020.

“We’re absolutely on a journey,” she says. “Looking ahead we want to talk to and educate our customers. It is a massive topic. We want to be educating at the right level and communicating sustainability to consumers.”

Studio B’s Rowntree also notes a more sustainable narrative from brands: “They are picking up on the need to be more environmentally friendly and produce sustainably or use recycled fabrics where possible. The Danish brands have always been way ahead on this, but now are making a point of explaining this and adding more sustainable fabrics to the collection.”

Shoppers are becoming more engaged with and have higher expectations of brands and retailers, throughout the retail journey. Those with a close relationship with the consumer will, as ever, be best positioned to respond to trends early on, and provide products and services fit for the demands of the modern womenswear shopper.


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