Great article Tara – but it’s not just millennials clothes shops annoy these days

The problem with modern apparel shops is that, when it comes to annoying their customers, they’re such equal-opportunity pains in the rear.

Tara Donaldson wrote a terrific article on Sourcing Journal the other day, listing a millennial’s beefs about apparel stores.

I read her comments about midtown Manhattan while returning home from a shopping trip to London’s West End. That trip left me just as dispirited, though I’m roughly twice Tara’s age.

We’ve all changed: but have the shops?

The problem with clothes shops today isn’t just about one group of apparel buyers: it’s that we’ve all changed and the shops haven’t changed with us.

I’d known precisely the sweater I wanted, but was unsure which of retailer’s sizes was right for me. matched my body. Chaotically laid out stores made the sizes I wanted  impossible to find– and the only available assistant claimed my size didn’t exist. I knew she was wrong – but the in-store kiosk was broken. As for that damn background music…

I’ve given up trying to make sense of most apparel retailers’ pricing policies any more – and in the convenience store  where I tried to buy a quick drink, ALL the self-service checkouts were down, so the queue at the only attended till stretched out the door.

Tara’s and my shopping trips would have been dismal for anyone. I think they’re worse for us oldies: the music’s awfuller, the whippersnappers “serving” us are less understanding and our older bodies keep changing shape in all kinds of unpredictable ways. And at Christmas, most of us have had the best part of half a century to get thoroughly fed up with the Phil Spector Christmas Album. Even if we still know it as My Christmas Gift to You, and were transfixed when the first imported copy arrived at Liverpool’s NEMS

Two factors, though, made them particularly dismal.

  • Christmas is different in a boom.

We both shopped in the busiest weeks of the year in the middle of cities going through a minor economic boom – but at a time chains are under severe financial pressure, because money’s a great deal tighter in most of the country. Recruiting staff is a nightmare in these boomtowns, while central management is cutting store numbers and squeezing inventories. Pre-Christmas, even mediocre standards inevitably slip.

  • We’ve not yet grasped the past decade’s shopping revolution.

Brick & mortar shops are where most of us, everywhere, still buy most apparel: over 80% of clothes, even in the most developed e-commerce markets, are bought from them. But for almost any considered garment buying, we all probably spend more time browsing online than looking round shops – which are becoming the equivalent of utility rooms.

Shops are where we go to for the boring chores associated with shopping, like paying and hauling the package home, and they’re arranged round the retailer’s convenience. Selecting the clothes, though: we control where we select, when we do it and how we do it. No wonder it’s not just millennials who are losing patience with clothes shops.

Now I doubt the need for clothes shops will disappear in my lifetime – I don’t have think there’s One Big Insight into how apparel retailers should deal with this revolution. But I have noticed how some retailers in other industries have tackled problems caused by healthy economic growth in London, New York and their hinterland, and turned them into posiitive influences on their shops.

Take the area round my home: a rural idyll, with more or less zero unemployment, in the Cotswold hills just over an hour’s train ride from London.

  • Sometimes, staff shortages improve customer service.

Every winter sees more bits of my house going wrong and round us it takes months to get a tradesman out to fix things.

So, whenever something’s not working, I’m off to our nearest home improvement superstore. The only way the store can operate is by hiring pensioners – who’ve all spent half a century living in houses with the same three centuries of owner abuse as mine.

They fully understand how to explain to household maintenance nincompoops like me precisely what kit I need this week. Lack of conventional recruits has spurred them into finding massively better sales staff.

  • Understanding demographic changes can boost surprising profit growth.

While reviving our village artisan food store, we’ve uncovered a new demographic: older millennials moving out of London because they get so much more space for their money.

Top of what they want from us isn’t so much gluten-free pasta or locally crafted cheese: it’s a “really good cup of coffee” – where margins are far higher than on the poshest penne.  Networking with similar businesses in the region shows their single commonest job vacancy is for – baristas.

Our food shop’s not alone: while apparel chains are slashing store numbers, the number of local food shops in Britain has grown over 20% in the past five years.

  • Not everyone’s closing clothes shops.

Pretty, high-concept, hotels are springing up around us. The Soho House hotel chain has brought an apparel concept, The Store, developed for downtown Berlin, to a resort it’s built in what used to be deserted countryside a brisk walk away from my house – and they’re extending it to central London this coming spring.

Suddenly practically every rural business within ten miles of us from garden centres to upmarket delis is offering a curated range of high-margin clothing in a calm atmosphere – and the London-based millennials packing our local Soho House every weekend are buying the clothes in cartloads.

I’m certainly not suggesting any of these ideas would solve all the problems that plagued Tara and me.

But the grumbles we’ve all got about apparel stores these days don’t mean millennials or boomers will inevitably stop using them. I don’t think grumbles are demographic-specific either: we boomers are far too individualistic to share grumbles.

The huge challenge is for apparel chains to bring to their stores, where thinking is fixated on cost control, the development energy currently concentrated on e-commerce.  Those stores, of course, are the chains’ biggest cost base.


If other industries can make them work, so can the garment industry