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Editor’s Comment: Let pragmatism prevail as we reset fashion retail

Kirsty McGregor

Over the past few weeks, the Drapers team has been speaking to wholesale brands, agents, independent retailers and multiples about how they will tackle the autumn/winter season as we come out of lockdown – including plans to discount unsold stock.

One theme that has emerged from those conversations is a widely held view that this could be an opportunity to shake up the fashion calendar. Most agree that collections are delivered – and subsequently discounted – too early, and industry-wide change is needed to increase the full-price selling window.

Non-essential stores will – hopefully – reopen Covid-safely next month, and there is a lot of spring/summer stock to clear. Meanwhile, autumn product may be delivered later than usual because of production delays, presenting a unique opportunity to do things differently, and shift back the full-price selling window.

We are not the only ones debating this. A group of luxury retailers and brands, including Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and Burberry, have joined forces to urge the wider fashion industry to reconsider its approach to seasonality and discounting after the pandemic.

In an open letter published earlier this week, they called on the industry to sell autumn/winter stock at full price from August to January, and spring/summer stock from February to July. Under their proposal, discounting would be limited to end-of-season Sales and deliveries staggered more evenly.

“About time!” commented one Drapers reader.

Another said: “Sense at last. We have a collective opportunity to re-start our sector, let us not let it slip by.”

The idea of pushing back end-of-season Sales is nothing new – indeed, the Drapers archive shows retailers in the UK were calling for “less frequent Sales” and “seasonable seasons” as far back as 1901.

It has become more of a problem in recent years, as climate change has led to unpredictable weather patterns, the internet and social media have built demand for “see now, buy now”, and more brands are selling direct to consumer, sidestepping the traditional wholesale model of ordering stock months in advance. 

Sustainability in fashion retail is another unstoppable force weighing in favour of a reset: the existing system is undeniably wasteful, and resilient businesses will need to be sustainable businesses that meet customer expectations, and recognise growing public disgust at unethical and polluting operators.

This is a complex question with – like the coronavirus pandemic – many unforeseen and unintended consequences. For many retailers, the pressure to generate cash will dictate decisions in the coming weeks. They may agree with the idea of moving the end-of-season Sales in principle. But principles won’t pay their suppliers or staff.

Yet change is desperately needed if we are halt the slide into a discounting culture that has ruined fashion retail in the US. We are already on the slippery slope, as Black Friday gains prominence on these shores and year-round promotions become the norm.

The industry will have to develop a united approach to discounting. Covid-19 has already forced change: some brands are telling customers that they will delay the winter deliveries to accommodate the later summer selling period. This is partly down to necessity, as the collections will not be ready in time.

The important thing is to hold your nerve, and not sell off everything too cheaply or too quickly. Coronavirus has presented us with a unique opportunity to reset the fashion production and retail cycle.

 

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