Apparel Sourcing Intelligence - Worldwide

How to go bust in apparel retailing – 3: misunderstanding brands

The third rotten insight sounds just ill-informed, but harmless, consultant gibberish. In its tail, though, there’s a piece of sheer, instant death, lunacy that beggars belief.

3. Blurring of the distinction between brands and retail
Of course, for most of history, there never was such a distinction: till very recently drapers and merchant tailors mostly sold clothes made to their specification. In clothing, brands scarcely existed till the early 20th century. And in most Western markets, they were on the way out by about 1990. Most successful clothes retailers sold only own-label: the only real exception was department stores, which often used their range of aspirational clothing brands as a central part of their market positioning. But most such department stores had next to no clothing own label: think of Harrods, for example

True, for the past twenty years, many department stores, especially in the US, have tried to develop credible apparel own labels – with mixed results. But the channel’s been in decline, and department stores’ own brand activities have generally been on the sidelines: the real action in clothing has come from serious specialist, 100% own label clothing retailers (like Zara or H&M) , from straightforward third-party brands (like Nike and Levi, but also niche brands like 7 For All Mankind), and from the rather odd brands retailers like Wal-Mart or Marks & Spencer have developed to attract a market segment they’ve not previously been strong in. Mixed success again – but hardly a blurred distinction.

So far, just sloppy. As is “Traditionally, private labels were minimally advertised and depended on price comparisons with well known brands”. About as spectacular a misunderstanding of Gap, Mark & Spencer, Victoria’s Secret or TopShop as you can get. But so absurd, no-one would bother listening.

Now we move on to the real lunacy: “Owning their own retail channels give brands the added benefit of tighter control over their brand identity.” In a recession? Someone’s seriously suggesting that a brand owner should choose a recession to go into competition with his customers? At a time his retail customers are squeezing him dry, he should teach himself to be a retailer?

Not necessarily total folly: retail outlets are going cheap, after all, so for the odd hero brand, branching out into running their own shops might be worth the hassle. But is a recession really the time when “the added benefit of tighter control over their brand identity” is the most important thing in life? Does anyone really think specifying the Pantone reference of carpeting matters more than getting paid on time, keeping customers happy and ensuring a constant flow of garments customers are going to buy?

There IS a time brands like Nike need to look at shops like Nike Town. When things are good: when there’s the management to spare to get the shop right, the cash to fund start-up losses and the healthy profits to ignore other retailers who delist you because they’re not prepared to sell their competitors’ clothes. Spring 2009 is not such a time for anyone. Offhand I’d say there’s just one category of business that should be thinking of opening shops right now: government-run employment agencies.

Because in a recession there’s one distinction that never gets blurred: the one between the business that can pay its bills and the business that can’t. Brand setting up shops “for tighter control of their identity” will be in the group that can’t

Next time:
We’ll review more of the infallible recipes for turning a struggling retail business into a catastrophic one:

4. Focus on international growth
5. Emergence of lifestyle communities and touchpoints
6. Intelligent technologies for intelligent consumers
7. Green initiatives will go mainstream
8. Fast fashion and customisation will prompt retailers and brands to acquire greater control over their supply chain
9. Uncommon insights from common sources