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Who's winning in the overcrowded womenswear market?

Own the look spring 18 (3)

In a mature market, Drapers explores what it takes for brands to stand out from the crowd and engage shoppers.

Womenswear, it seems, is not an easy nut to crack. Retailers are struggling to create a clear, defined offer in what is the fashion industry’s most competitive and oversubscribed sector.

Market stalwarts New Look and Topshop both swung to operating losses in 2017 as they battled tough trading conditions and increased competition from nimble, price-conscious online players.

Swedish giant H&M has been left lumbered with unsold stock following weak sales, resulting in a profit knock in the six months to 31 May 2018. Elsewhere amid the general doom and gloom on the high street, struggling department store House of Fraser is understood to be dropping all but two – Biba and Issa – of its womenswear own labels, as revealed by Drapers, and Marks & Spencer’s own brands – including former shining star Per Una – are also under review. Connecting with today’s fickle womenswear shopper is no mean feat.

“We’re finding that the current climate isn’t affecting us too much, because we’re a bridge brand between affordable fashion and the real luxury players, both of which are really crowded,” argues the chief executive of one premium womenswear retailer. “Like for likes are good and full-price sales were doing well, even throughout the sale period.

“However, I do think that landlords need to start working with us when it comes to realistic rents, because otherwise there will be no option but to start closing  stores and focusing on online. We want to have stores, because womenswear shopping is about customer service and making shoppers linger, but unless rents and business rates are sorted out, retailers will start wondering why we’re spending all this money with no benefit.”

Points of difference

Womenswear retailers are focusing on sourcing and speed to market to create a compelling offer and weather tougher trading conditions.

Bonmarche spring 19 (1)

Bonmarché spring 18

“Today’s customer is constantly looking for newness, hence our sourcing strategy to improve our agility and speed to market. To succeed, retailers have to offer a point of difference and have the ambition to deliver this,” explains Geraldine Higgins, product director at value retailer Bonmarché, whose profits jumped 38% to £8m for the full year to March 31 2018.

“We have focused on modernising our products so that they now have a much wider appeal,” she adds. “Recent trading shows and tells us that the casual end use product is more popular than our formal products. Examples include our new denim range, where we’ve focused on higher quality and adding more styles. As a result, we achieved a 50% increase in [denim] sales for the year ended 31 March 2018.”

Growth is not coming from fast fashion, like it is for menswear, but from niche brands that can either cater to a personal need

Anusha Couttigane, Kantar Consulting

Given the maturity of the womenswear market, increasingly it is those retailers and brands that can chime with niche audiences that are experiencing real growth, argues Kantar Consulting senior fashion analyst Anusha Couttigane.

“One of the interesting things we’re seeing in the womenswear market is that the growth is not coming from fast fashion, like it is for menswear, but from niche brands that can either cater to a personal need, like plus-size fashion, or brands that can cater to ethical or community values.

“The womenswear market is so mature that customers’ basic needs are being met, whereas the menswear market isn’t quite there yet. Those who fit with a more targeted need are seeing success.”

Her thoughts are echoed by the premium womenswear chief executive, who argues there has been particular demand from customers under-served by both fast fashion and luxury players when it comes to sizing.

“We are doing very well with products in sizes 18 to 20, because there’s a pent-up demand from customers with money to spend but limited choice. They want high-quality pieces in good fabrics, such as linen and silk, that are made well and not to throw away. However, very few luxury designers offer those sizes, so we’re picking up those customers.”

Extras on top

Womenswear retailers are also adding services to their offer in a bid to build closer relationships with customers and to add a much needed point of difference.

“We’ve had a good summer season but it is tough; you’ve got to work very hard to make that happen and it doesn’t happen by chance,” explains Deryane Tadd, owner of premium St Albans independent The Dressing Room. “We’ve kept up customer interest by offering fresh product and adding styling videos online. You never know what’s around the corner, so for us it has been about giving shoppers the best service, the best product and the best styling tools all in one place.”

Own the look spring 18 (1)

Own the Look spring 18

Olivia Cantillon, founder of multi-brand etailer Own The Look, agrees: “Customers are looking for a lot more from digital pureplay businesses like ours in terms of experience. They are looking for purchasing advice, guides, tips and tricks.

“We have a tool on the website where customers can speak to a stylist to ask advice on how to wear a piece or how it fits. There’s a real boost in conversion rates among customers who use the service. You have to build that trust, especially online, because customers only have your word to go on when it comes to making their decision.”

Customers are looking for a lot more from digital pureplay businesses: purchasing advice, guides, tips and tricks

Olivia Cantillon, founder of Own The Look

Building a close relationship with customers and becoming a part of their everyday lives is crucial for womenswear brands, add Ali Hall and Julie Lavington, founders of womenswear etailer Sosandar.

“Women will shop if there are standout items that offer good design at an affordable price point. We’re finding that they absolutely will spend if the product is right,” says Hall.

Lavington adds: “We use social media to tie into our customers lives and that has been crucial. It might be a Facebook or Instagram post that relates to a TV programme such as the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing when we know our customers are watching it, which inspires our customers to shop. It’s about creating a dialogue with customers.”

Womenswear retailers must focus on exactly what their particular customer is looking for to create a compelling offer and stand out from the rest of the market. Product and price, always key, have never been more important.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Choice is plentiful. The winners are those who consumers think to look at first. Just like Amazon is now the first place for many to find stuff. It’s about adding value and being trusted. Which none are doing well. So there’s plenty to play for.

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