E-urope: Amazon Struggles With Apparel

The Wall Street Journal: “Amazon.com Inc. might look like it’s taking over the world. But it hasn’t conquered Europe. Two decades after the internet behemoth’s first international foray into the region, it’s still working to gain traction selling apparel and footwear. That weakness in a major, growing market illustrates Amazon’s challenge as it expands abroad and tries to replicate its U.S. dominance of e-commerce.”

“To explain Amazon’s struggles in conquering apparel in Europe, retail executives and analysts point to an absence of top fashion brands, a website they say isn’t conducive to browsing for clothes and a fragmented market full of plucky competitors.”

“They say Amazon is like a chaotic, online department store where there is little control over brand presentation. By contrast, Zalando, ASOS and other specialty apparel sites are like an upscale online mall where brands are given more control and presentation is sleek, retail executives say … Amazon’s philosophy is that a large customer base attracts brands, while executives at Zalando and other competitors try to attract brands that will bring customers, said Barbara E. Kahn, professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.”

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Micromerch: Statements for Daily Life

The New York Times: Here comes micromerch:”personal merchandise for niche public figures and celebrities (or even not-yet celebrities) made possible by innovations in manufacturing and distribution, and with mechanisms greased by the ease of the internet. Consider it the modern-day equivalent of the private-press LP or the small-batch zine, amplified for social media and very late capitalism … small-batch merch — a couple dozen to a couple thousand items — can be made available for almost anyone, from emergent social media or reality TV demicelebrities to casual dadaists who toy with the dissemination of ideas in the modern marketplace. In an era when personal branding is presumed, no following is too small to monetize.”

“Want to show support for Sean Bryan, a.k.a. the Papal Ninja, an American Ninja Warrior contestant and lay minister? There’s a shirt (and laptop case) for that. Enthralled by the 1980s sunglasses worn by the rubber-legged teen social media star Roy Purdy in his absurdist dance videos? For a while, he sold them, too. Obsessed with Gordie, the French bulldog owned by Alex Tumay, who engineers Young Thug’s records? Buy a shirt.”

“Peloton, the home indoor cycling business, has a stable of a dozen instructors, and sells merch inspired by each. Jill Foley, Peloton’s director of boutique apparel, said the company has sold hundreds of T-shirts and tank tops with instructor catchphrases like ‘It’s Not That Deep’ (Cody Rigsby) and ‘Sweat Sing Repeat’ (Jenn Sherman).” She comments: “We’re getting messages to people in this micro way. We’re in people’s homes in their daily life.”

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Retail Politics: Is Fast Fashion Tone Deaf?

The New York Times: “Every once in a while, tucked into the stream of speedily made garments rushed into stores, designs with shockingly bad taste stand out: a shirt comparing women to dogs at Topman, symbols of the Holocaust on a top at Zara … Retail experts blame a heated competitive environment, where companies, many of them based in Europe, are spread thin trying to cater to a global customer base that is easily bored, is extremely demanding and can buy almost anything via e-commerce. Many brands develop a cavalier attitude: Churn out products now, ask forgiveness later.”

“Earlier this year, H&M, one of the largest clothing retailers in the world … was taken to task over a children’s hoodie emblazoned with the phrase ‘coolest monkey in the jungle’ and modeled in marketing materials by a young black boy. The description, which has been used to dehumanize black people, set off protests at South African stores that left mannequins toppled and racks overturned. In the aftermath, H&M chose a lawyer and company insider, Annie Wu, to lead a new four-person team at its Stockholm headquarters focused on global diversity and inclusiveness.” She comments: “We didn’t recognize that in this now new age of transparency, what the brand stands for is super important to people.”

“Fast fashion companies, which specialize in low-priced, quickly produced clothing and have grown faster than the apparel industry as a whole for years, are under pressure to be more prolific and provocative as they sell across more borders. H&M, which added 479 stores last year, now has more than 4,000 stores in dozens of countries … retail experts said that much of the creative process takes place in and around its European home office, far from many of its markets … Fast fashion has produced tone-deaf products for years, passing them off as a rounding error given the enormous volume of items the companies generate each year … Several companies have pledged to diversify hiring, retool corporate guidelines and initiate other measures to prevent mistakes from going out the door.”

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Boyd’s: Retail’s Past as Prologue?

The New York Times: “Like the Liberty Bell and the stone Rocky Steps, Boyds is a Philadelphia landmark, and one equally impervious to the shifting seasons. For 80 years, the family-owned business has outfitted lawyers, bankers, doctors, politicians and famous athletes … The store is where a young man goes to buy his wedding suit, and returns 30 years later, grayer, wealthier, thicker in the middle, this time bringing his son to buy his wedding suit … in this age of dressing down and click-and-buy, in an environment where the big chains have killed off the mom-and-pops and Amazon is killing off the chains, Boyds now feels like a shopping experience out of time … Out-of-towners who happen into this retail anachronism tend to react first with astonishment, followed by a sigh of pleasure.”

“It’s very possible that Boyds isn’t just one of a dying breed of old-fashioned retailers, however. Given its scale (50,000 square feet of selling space over four floors), and the level of service it provides, and the tailor shop and complimentary parking lot, and the near century of independent operation by the same family, it may be the only clothing store of its kind anywhere in the country … To understand how Boyds has avoided oblivion thus far, it’s instructive to spend an afternoon on the selling floors … The operation has a choreographed precision. Chris Phillips, the 43-year-old men’s tailored clothing manager, on this day stood near the elevator. It was his job to greet customers, determine their needs and spin them to the right salesperson.”

“Generally speaking, the men who come to Boyds aren’t there to browse. Overscheduled high earners, they view clothes shopping as one more task to be efficiently completed, an attitude to which every Boyds employee is attuned … Marc Brownstein, the president and chief executive of the Brownstein Group … dates his first Boyds shopping trip to high school, back in the ’80s, and now especially appreciates its delivery service to home or office, and the text messages he gets from the store when a brand is going on sale.” He comments: “The family just outthinks other retailers. They’ll deliver to your house, to your office. You park for free. You know what parking costs in the center of Philadelphia? They’re going to outwork and out-service everyone else.”

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Scrunchies Make a Comeback

The Wall Street Journal: “Women are wearing scrunchies again—in public, and most notably, to the office, where their presence is producing reactions ranging from unbridled enthusiasm, to jokes that might not be jokes, to silent judgment. Some scrunchie fans wonder if they will be taken seriously while wearing one. For an answer, they can look to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who made a decision long ago to stick to scrunchies: “I have been wearing scrunchies for years. My best scrunchies come from Zurich. Next best, London, and third best, Rome. My scrunchie collection is not as large as my collar and glove collections, but scrunchies are catching up.”

“W Magazine included scrunchies on its trend list for 2018. Scrunchies appeared on the runway at New York Fashion Week in September during the Mansur Gavriel show. Balenciaga included a lambskin scrunchie in its 2018 resort collection (they call it a chouchou bracelet) that retails for $195. And Urban Outfitters said it saw a 170% growth in scrunchie sales in 2017. Some in the pro-scrunchie camp say they’re gentler than elastics and easy, like sweatpants for your hair. Scrunchie haters say…they’re like sweatpants for your hair.”

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Goody Gumdrop: Blue Sole Shoes

Fast Company: “The blue soles of a new brand of shoes are made from an unlikely source: recycled chewing gum. The shoes, which are expected to launch later this year, are the latest project from a U.K. designer who has spent nearly a decade working on ways to turn discarded gum from sticky sidewalk blight into something useful.”

“Anna Bullus was in design school when she started thinking about the problem … She created a pink, bubble-shaped bin–itself made from recycled gum, blended with other recycled materials–to begin to collect the gum on central city streets, train stations, and other places with heavy foot traffic. When the bin is full, the whole container goes to a recycled facility, where any trash or cigarette butts are sorted out. The gum and bin are then recycled together … and made into pellets that can be used in the same type of manufacturing equipment that usually works with regular plastic.”

“Bullus says that her company, Gumdrop, is learning where to best position the bins to have the greatest chance of intersecting with someone at the moment that they want to get rid of gum … Turning gum into new products, she hopes, will give consumers more incentive not to litter old gum on the streets–and potentially begin recycling other trash as well.”

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The Beauty of Millennial Fashion

The Wall Street Journal: “Makers of clothes and cosmetics are starting to keep highly sexualized or unrealistic images of women from their advertising in response to pressure from millennial women and their younger counterparts in Generation Z. An ad campaign by New York-based designer Alexander Wang debuting March 5 will show no women’s faces or bodies. Instead, it will display the clothes and what Mr. Wang calls ‘the spirit’ of the women who wear them … Just last fall, his label’s ads included an image of a scantily clad model sprawled atop theater seats with an Alexander Wang handbag between her legs.”

“Even before the #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment, many of the millennial and Generation Z women these brands are courting had been protesting the stereotypical, highly sexualized or unrealistic depictions of women in ads.” Rachel Saunders, of research firm Cassandra, comments: “Part of it is the modern push for gender equality, but also because a super sexualized ad is going to make [the brand] seem uncreative and outdated to them. For young women, buying beauty and fashion products today has less to do with attracting a partner than it did with previous generations. They see it as self-care or being my best self.”

“Before, women opposed to such depictions didn’t have the megaphone of social media, she added. They also had fewer alternatives if they decided to give up a particular brand. However, the internet has shifted the balance in the shopper’s favor, giving her more clothing choices and a voice to influence brands.”

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Tattoo, Ink.

The Wall Street Journal: “While job-hopping is rampant, a surprising number of American workers are expressing a bond with their employers in permanent ink. Employees at such companies as tech’s Red Hat Inc. and sportswear icon Nike Inc. have brand logos plastered on their ankles, shoulders and arms … Like pulling an all-nighter at the office, a company tattoo can signify devotion in a way that impresses colleagues and breeds trust with clients.”

“Paul Bosneag, a manager who works with franchise-holders of the Anytime Fitness gym chain, said he opted for the needle in 2010 as job security. At the time, he said, he recalled thinking, ‘What kind of a jerk would fire an employee that has the logo tattooed on him?’ It turns out Chuck Runyon, chief executive of Anytime Fitness, has fired around seven people who got company tattoos. Performance, he said, is more important than loyalty.”

“Red Hat tech worker Thomas Cameron got reimbursed for his $100 tattoo by filing it as an office supply expense. ‘It’s ink, right?’ he said, ‘and you need ink in the office.’ Mr. Cameron plans another trip to the tattoo shop soon. The company recently announced it was changing its logo.”

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Inman Makes Bricks Fashionable in China

The Wall Street Journal: “In the prospectus for its mammoth 2014 stock listing, Alibaba Group Holding highlighted online-only women’s fashion brand Inman as a success story in China’s e-commerce world … Since mid-2015, Inman founder Fang Jianhua has gone in a surprising direction. He’s abandoned the online-only model to open physical stores. To date, Inman has opened 450 stores, mostly in China’s smaller cities. Last year, while Inman’s online sales rose about 39%, its offline business, which is newer and smaller, grew 300%, to 330 million yuan ($52 million), and reached 35% of total revenue. Mr. Fang expects the online-offline breakdown to be 40%-60% in the future.”

“In changing strategy, Inman had spotted several long-term problems. Online sales growth for brands such as Inman is slowing as China’s e-commerce market becomes more competitive, with megabrands such as Uniqlo, Vero Moda and Gap making big online drives. Meanwhile, the costs of online advertising are rising as are the challenges of standing out in a crowded field.”

“In 2015, Mr. Fang figured it would cost less to reach customers in smaller cities through a physical store than via an online store. Given its years of insight into its millions of customers, Mr. Fang thought Inman could manage its supply chain and stores better than purely brick-and-mortar competitors. For example, women in China’s cold, northeastern rust belt aren’t big fans of Inman’s understated cotton and linen clothes, so no need for stores there.” He comments: “The question is not whether a fashion brand needs to be both online and offline. The question is how big you want to be in the two worlds.”

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Is Gucci Today’s Most Innovative Brand?

From a Wall Street Journal interview with Imran Amed, founder of Business of Fashion: “Without a doubt, the single most innovative brand of the moment is Gucci … Gucci has completely overhauled their e-commerce strategy and changed the way they communicate about the brand. They’ve embraced new channels like Instagram but also done beautiful events and interesting advertising campaigns.”

“They’re not doing any discounting on their main runway collection … We’ve kind of trained the consumer to wait for things to go on sale. Gucci’s stopped that. Fifty percent of their customers are millennials. Millennials are the drivers of success for the fashion industry now. Without engaging them, you can’t really operate a successful business today. Gucci has found ways of engaging with that consumer.”

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