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Cheap-as-chips fashion is here to stay

Has the cheap clothing bubble finally burst? It has been a hot topic of debate in the media this week and has been driven by a report from research firm Verdict Consulting, which predicts that the downward pricing trend simply cannot continue.

While that seems a perfectly reasonable conclusion to make - at the rate we're going, some shops will soon be paying us to turn up and relieve them of their merchandise - I don't think we've seen the last of the likes of Primark and George at Asda just yet.

Verdict argues, quite rightly, that the downward spiral of pricing has resulted from the movement to source goods from countries offering cheap-as-chips labour, such as China and Bangladesh. This movement was largely driven by supermarkets and other value retailers entering the clothing market and changing the competitive landscape.

But, says Verdict, fashion has pretty much become as cheap as it is possible to get, and when you can spend more at Pret a Manger than you can on pret-a-porter in your lunch break, you have to agree.

What Verdict is not saying, however, is that cheap clothing will cease to exist, which some media reports are jubilantly predicting. What it is saying is that prices may start to creep up and womenswear will take the brunt of this increase. Having fallen by 10% between 2003 and 2007, prices are predicted to increase by 4.7% between 2008 and 2012.

So, basically, we're not even going to recover half of that price decrease. (And some say the increase may not come at all because there are still costs that can be stripped out of the supply chain, if not the actual manufacturing.)

Take the much discussed £3 T-shirt, for instance. At that rate of price inflation we can expect it to cost roughly £3.14 in 2012. That's hardly going to put people off buying them by the handful. One value retailer I spoke to recently said the company had, several months previously, put all its prices up by £1 pretty much overnight and no one noticed. A £6 pair of trousers are still cheap at £7.

However, I do agree that some consumers will get cheap fashion fatigue and the trend for retailers adding value or offering more exclusive lines will gain traction. Even if we are only spending small change on our clothes, we still don't want to see a dozen other people in the same top in the time it takes us to walk to the bus stop.

Then, of course, there are the ethical considerations. Gradually (and it is only gradually), consumers are starting to question the provenance of their clothes and want to know that whoever made them has been treated fairly. Excessive cheapness will make them suspicious, even if some value retailers have actually helped to improve conditions in the factories in which their clothes are made.

Both of these will perhaps help to slow the growth of the cheap clothes movement, but they won't bring it to a halt. Consumers' expectations of what they need to spend on clothes has been lowered, probably for good.

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