In fashion retail, no one can afford to stand still, even for a second. Anyone who does will find themselves out of the game and on the sub’s bench before they’ve noticed what’s happened.
The industry often works a year or more ahead of time, making Dr Who look positively sluggish, and even if you’re not at the sharp end with a hotseat in the front rows of Paris, there’s still a continual pressure to predict and anticipate.
Ironically, even though I run a vintage boutique, trends are just as important to our customers. We make our own label, and while it has a vintage twist, it has to reflect what’s going on - last year was all about girly 50s prom dresses and playsuits, this A/W season, it’s down to sharp, 60s tailoring and Jackie O perfection. Thank Carla Bruni for that one.
But even leaving fashion aside, the very nature of running a small, independent shop means there is never, ever, a moment to stand and survey the scene. Instead, it’s a constant barrage of decision-making, fire-fighting and marketingm - particularly at the moment - to ensure survival. A small team means there’s never enough people to take up the slack - everyone works flat out, and the buck stops, generally with just one boss.
The wrong buy, or a disgruntled customer, can mean the often subtle difference between success and sinking. So alongside keeping tabs on all the new trends coming up, working out how they’ll translate to what one’s own customers want (and are prepared to wear - it took the maxi dress three consecutive years of being rolled out to make the smallest dent in the average Manchester girl’s wardrobe); it’s also vital to keep the shop looking good, the suppliers fed and watered, the bills just about paid, and the staff running smoothly, amongst a constant litany of illness, days off, poorly offspring and minor meltdowns.
Trying to find time after that to contemplate the future of the business is like taking your hand out of a hole in a dam, and wandering off while the water comes crashing through. But that’s what needs to happen. Most independents, including us, frequently come close to collapse. Just a few unpaid bills, terrible weather, economic jitters or fickle customers can leave us vulnerable in a way that big chains seldom experience. So to maintain the uniqueness of what we offer, to keep on understanding our customers and anticipating their needs- and to stop ourselves going insane- it’s essential to review the business calmly, look at where improvements need to be made, and come up with a plan.
Over the time we’ve owned Rags to Bitches, we’ve done that properly on only a handful of occasions. Yes, we shout suggestions to each other over the hectic day to day clatter, but they seldom get properly heard. To sit down for a full day - or days, listen to suggestions, and come up with a proper strategy to move forward takes concentrated effort- it’s never going to happen otherwise. But it’s always worth it. The business won’t go under in two days - but the relentless nature of retail means without that serious overview, it could start to fall behind.
None of us can stand still, but I’m learning to snatch a little time out of the race, so we can redouble our efforts when we get back in it. Plenty of retailers never take a holiday. But they should - because when they come home, the inspiration will be back, and so will the energy. That’s when the best plans happen - not when we’re prone with exhaustion from clearing the stockroom, managing the staff, buying the stock, and smiling at the customers for the 365th day in a row.
Fashion wont stand still, but sometimes, fashion retailers truly need to.