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Comment: What do struggling retailers have in common?

Fashion brand consultant Elizabeth Stiles, who formerly worked in fashion buying and supplier account management for brands such as Urban Outfitters, Next, Miss Selfridge, New Look and Asda, reveals the common factors responsible for several retailers’ current troubles.

Just three days before the government implemented the lockdown, as the possible consequences of coronavirus began to become clear, I was in a shopping centre and thought to myself, “Who won’t survive this?”

Some seem more at risk than others. Debenhams has since appointed advisory firm FRP Advisory as its administrator, to protect the UK business from liquidation. The department store has also confirmed that seven stores will not reopen after the Covid-19 lockdown is lifted, leading to 422 redundancies. Oasis and Warehouse Group appointed administrators, and announced on 30 April that it would cease trading, having failed to find a buyer. Many other fashion businesses will struggle to survive the pandemic.

There are many difficult issues facing fashion businesses at the moment, but those that are struggling share certain characteristics.

No clear target audience

The number one question of marketing, with which a lot of brands lose their way, is: who are you talking to? If you’re unclear, then your audience will be, too. If you’re trying to please everyone, then you’ll effectively be speaking to no one. I often wonder how many brands are performing market research with their top customers and actually ask them what they want to see with regards to content and product.

This week I received an email from a jewellery brand, which read “We heard you when you said you still wanted newness” and, because I am one of their email subscribers, automatically entered me into a competition to win 20 necklaces from its new collection.

Obviously, I’m aware there are thousands of other people on that list, but did it make me feel special? Did it make me feel like the brand listens to its audience and takes action? Yes, and yes. Other brands and retailers could take a similar approach to make consumers feel like they are being listened to.

Middle-ground pricing

Marketing expert Seth Godin is founder of direct-marketing company Yoyodyne, which was acquired by Yahoo. He believes you have to be at an extreme axis of either price, quality or desirability to survive a tough retail climate. Some brands do well with the cheap appeal of fast fashion, and others buy into the cultural heritage of a luxury brand. However, if you’re floating somewhere in the middle on pricing, you need to make up for it by having exceptional product, unbelievable value or a compelling story. Without one of those, you will struggle to stand out.

Missing a USP

Customers like to put brands in a box. Businesses that aren’t known for something will find themselves in difficulty. Primark is affordable, for example, Urban Outfitters is cool, and Zara is fast. What are you known for? What incentives are you giving for customers to come back time and time again? Simply offering a collection of products that doesn’t evoke any emotion is not enough. It is emotion that drives purchasing behaviour.

Lack of sustainable messaging

Consumer interest in sustainable and ethical retailing has really escalated during the past year. Take note that this will become a necessity from 2020 onwards, particularly as shoppers see both how the coronavirus lockdown has had a positive impact on the environment, but also become a humanitarian disaster in countries such as Bangladesh. Retailers need to take action to stay ahead.

Blurred brand values

There’s more competition than ever from purpose-driven, independent brands, thanks to the power of Instagram. Their products are new, the content is relevant, and consumers can often meet the person behind the brand. The direct-to-consumer model will continue to grow because they can be so quick to react to what their audience wants.

So, what can we learn from this? Make your audience feel valued, reconnect to what the brand stands for and communicate that effectively to them. Based on those values, pick a niche that you’d like to be known for and offer fantastic product in the most sustainable way you can. Yes, it’s tougher than ever, but there will be opportunities for new designers and new business opportunities going forwards.

Readers' comments (3)

  • Seriously Drapers............Copy and paste comments and answers from a first year fashion business course manual.

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  • Gracious Store

    It will be a real challenge to get customers to the store doors after the lockdown

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  • @SC Thank you for your comment. I agree it is simple advice but unfortunately these brands did have these things in common and they didn't survive. What would your comments be on this situation?

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