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Uncertainty is the only certainty when it comes to 2013

It’s the start of a new year and just about everyone in the trade I’ve spoken to in the last week has asked the same two questions: What are you hearing about trading over Christmas, and how are people feeling about 2013?

The answers vary hugely according to what part of the market you’re operating in and what business model you have, and the outlook is mixed to say the least.

The good news is that Christmas was generally a lot better than 2011, mainly because most in the sector had a solid autumn in 2012 on the back of some welcome cold weather that drove sales. In contrast, many retailers were forced into Sale very early pre-Christmas in 2011 because the warm autumn weather left them with warehouses full of unsold outerwear and boots.

This Christmas, most retailers held out until Boxing Day for their Sale, although some did launch promotions in the days leading up to Christmas Eve, when it became clear that shoppers had got savvy to early Sales and were waiting later than ever to make their Christmas purchases.

Not a disaster all in all, but likewise not the storming festive season of the pre-recession era. So what of 2013?

Most of the contacts I spoke to remain very cautious about this year and are watching their figures like a hawk.

Most believe 2013 will be more of the same, with consumers squeezed by inflationary rises outstripping wages, and reports of a potential triple-dip recession further inclining them to austerity measures.

Most people in fashion are expecting some more high-profile casualties before the year is out, probably in the difficult mid-market, where the hardest stretched are those with a lot of underperforming sites on their bricks-and-mortar estates and those that have failed to differentiate their product and brand in the eyes of the fickle consumer.

Winners will be those who do just that; who excite shoppers with unique clothing product, can capitalise on multichannel shopping behaviour, take advantage of growth in international markets and can turn on a sixpence according to what’s selling. Customer service is likely to be absolutely key to winning footfall, and both in-store and online shopping experiences will be areas most retailers are putting top of their agendas.

In terms of indies, it is interesting to see that the ones who are growing have become really adept at exploiting the real advantage they have in this difficult market - their unique product and experience. More than ever, indies will be able to lead the way on customer experience.

Meanwhile, talk of the demise of the luxury market on the back of a slight plateauing of growth at the end of 2012 for big players such as Burberry was much exaggerated and we are fully expecting the premium sector to continue to perform well.

All to play for then.

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