Has The Rag Trade Forgotten The Shopper?

I’m actually not sure if I should be highlighting this, as I seem to got quite adept at timing my need for specific clothing items with when that particular “season” is being reduced in a Sale. However, after ready Kantar’s report that the UK fashion market saw sales drop by 2.0% last year (Click here for report), I thought it might be worth me throwing my tuppence into the debate.

With the exception of Christmas, the clothing retailers just don’t get seasons right any more. And even then, it took a while to ditch the 1970’s “lingerie gift” concept and ride the Christmas Jumpers trend. They stick to a calendar that’s older than I am, and seem even more inflexible as their dependency on global supply chains has grown. The problem is that it seems to have passed them by that their shoppers have moved on.

Now, I appreciate that I’m a grocer and that the Fashion trade works very differently to my areas of expertise, but this isn’t about missing out on trends, it’s appreciating that the climate in the UK has changed, our demographics have changed and that our travel habits have changed. One of the better Christmas results has been posted by that dress-down Friday favourite, SuperDry – a business that has a higher than average percentage of its stock that is unaffected by seasonality. Contrast that with the former masters of clear-and-restock, Next. That one has been coming for some time – 10 years ago, people queued outside for 5a.m. openings and by day 3, it was pretty much all new stock. Go in on day 3 now, and there’s still plenty to be had!

Here we are in January, now regularly the start of the really cold weather. At the moment, most clothing stores will have warm jumpers, but not at full price. Great for the shopper looking for a bargain, but shopper-led retailing shouldn’t be about selling people a jumper they’d be happy to pay £40 pay at half price. Especially when the mercury is plummeting!

It’s worse in the £6.5bn childrenswear market. Whilst you could argue that adult consumers are conditioned to pre-plan their clothing purchases, kids clothing is often a necessity – replacements for a lost jumpers, holed trousers (my son is particularly good at this!). Yet, here we are again with seasons not reflecting shopper needs. Even in the massive schoolwear segment, it’s really only George at Asda who keep a full range of kids school clothes for the whole of the school year. Everyone else thinks parents only buy in July and August and that kids won’t either grow, lose or destroy their uniform in the other 10 months of the year.

As consumers, we have arguably benefitted from the global supply chains that lock the clothing retailers into this calendar. Mass produced clothes from the far east, or more fashion trend items from Turkey are arguably cheaper than any other generation has known. But if the price for this is an increasingly precarious trading position for the clothing sector, it’s clearly not sustainable. It’s also going to get worse if the Pound continues to plunge.

Inventory is money off the bottom line, but surely with the opportunities of the internet and incredibly efficient supply chains, there could be more flexibility built into the industry? With the normally reliable Next posting (0.4%) decline over Christmas and (1.1%) YTD, something is clearly not quite right.

The rag trade is resilient and can evolve. We have some dynamic players, and I hope that they can break the shackles they have put on themselves in a sustainable and without putting yet more pressure on their staff (we’ve already had too many hidden video horrors from clothing warehouses). There is a future there – but who will make the first leap?




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