The teen’s fashion scene is swept by howling whirlwinds.
Lonely riders, deadly duels, high noon’s: it all reminds too well of Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”, the last and, to my modest opinion, best installment of his so-called “Dollars” trilogy of “spaghetti westerns”.
Should we then rightfully tag the turbulent young fashion scene a “spaghetti fashion”?
In the original motion picture, Clint Eastwood (the Good) is a taciturn, enigmatic lone rider, searching for a cache of stolen gold against rivals Lee van Cleef (the Bad) and Eli Wallach (the Ugly).
"The real West was the world of violence, fear, and brutal instincts," claimed Leone. "In pursuit of profit there is no such thing as good and evil, generosity or deviousness; everything depends on chance, and not the best wins but the luckiest."
In the turbulent unfolding of the teen fashion market, we believe it is not the luckiest who wins, but the one with the soundest strategy. We believe failures come from poor strategic decisions, precisely from flaws in the strategies themselves, as the following facts and brand stories clearly demonstrate.
1. Abercrombie & Fitch’s turnaround
We’ve learned from last month’s rumbling news that A&F’s controversial CEO, Mike Jeffries, abruptly exited the stage.
The coup de scene followed 11 (!) straight quarters of same-store declines; 180 stores to be closed by end of 2015; one major brand, Gilly Hicks, shut down; same store sales down by 10% in 2013 and another profit warning issued for 2015, as the outlook for the current fiscal year dooms.
Much has been written on the many excruciating reasons why the teen retailer has been struggling to attract customers who have increasingly turned their backs to the brand: its weak inventory management, its premium prices through times of economic instability to mention a few of the most frequently mentioned causes.
More significantly we must introduce two crucial factors, which alienated their audience:
· Lack of understanding and response to changing fashion and market trends: reducing logo presence or removing shutters from the storefronts is not the radical, strategic change required for a turnaround business situation.
· Fierce competition from fast-fashion-forward brands: we’ll expand on this fundamental factor in the following.
2. The crumbling of a crowded group of troubled teem retailers: Wetseal, Delia’s, Deb Shops, and more (and maybe more to come?).
· Just a few weeks ago, adding up to a too long list of casualties, fashion teen retailer Wetseal filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
· On the lower end of the chain, part of an unstoppable chain reaction shaking the teen’s market, Delia’s and Deb Shops shared the same dusty road to oblivion.
· The downtown LA vibe is not rescuing American Apparel from a progressive, inescapable brand appeal and identity crisis.
The list might become longer in the near future, as we witness the static, ineffective reaction of most of these brands to the irrevocable changes taking place in the teen’s marketplace.
3. The winner of the gold cache: H&M (and a victorious cluster of fast fashion brands, the likes of Zara, Forever 21, and more).
The advent and overwhelming expansion of the so-called fast fashion or fashion forward retailers is unanimously deemed to be the devastating force shaping the teen fashion market (the other crucial factor being the increasing relevance in the teen’s purchasing set of indirect competing products, such as technology).
· Cheap-and-chic is the new fashion credo, which has converted millions of young consumers to the stylish, fashion-forward, eclectic and, significantly enough, accessible product offers from these (mostly European) brands.
· The business models on which these retailers operate are phenomenally modern, and successfully aligned to consumers’ lifestyles on the one hand, as well as to the fast paced digital world on the other: a marvelous case of cultural integration.
· These brands create, develop and deliver fresh, up to date merchandise to the sales floor every three weeks, rotating their sales floors more than twelve times per year, hypnotically attracting and engaging customers with their fashionable collections.
· Their product offerings cater to a wide array of consumers, with different body types and needs. And their pricing strategy is accessible. In a word, their approach to fashion is democratic: how striking the contrast with the Abercrombie’s of the world, exclusively and narrow-mindedly targeting the “beautiful people” (to use Jeffrie’s words) of the world.
In the original film, though dubbed "the Good, Eastwood’s character is not much better than his opponents -- he is just smarter and shoots faster.
The same applies here to the fast fashion retailers in our “spaghetti fashion”. Smarter and shooting faster: which is the difference between life and death, in the wild, wild, West (read fashion?).
On a sunny but bitter cold December weekend in New York City, my 10 year old son and two friends of his excitingly set on to an epic yard sale. Their state of excitement strikingly clashed with the total lack of enthusiasm on my side, since I was appointed to be the accompanying parent.
But, to my surprise, I was totally wrong: at the end of the day that triumphant sales event (because it was phenomenally successful) opened my eyes on so many sales tasks, behaviors and dysfunctions we experience on a daily basis in our field work with accounts and sales forces.
And this sales effectiveness lesson was not coming from one of the many award winning specialized sales books bookstore shelves abound with, nor from the copious slide decks we all ingurgitate from strategic planning sessions and motivational off-sites once or twice a year, when the sales troops are rallied for the incumbent sales campaign: they were candidly coming from my son’s first ever yard sale.
The event was preceded by a feverish preparation work, the strategic planning session, sitting on the sidewalk curbside: I witnessed a structured, almost disciplined sequence of the most important facts and activities of a classic preliminary situational analysis:
1. Merchandise selection: a pile of Rick Riordan books so new I wondered whether they’d actually read them before the drastic decision to part from them; and a hodgepodge of miscellaneous toys and card games. Though partly determined by inventory, it was clear that the key drivers for their core assortment were (a) target consumer and (b) product knowledge
2. Pricing strategy: participated discussions, at times heated, as to what ideal price positioning would result in the highest sell-through at the end of the day (and the greatest profits for the partners). Again here the “partners” showed solid knowledge of what the perceived correct price points would be for their target and they had clear talking points as to how to support the competitiveness of their proposition
3. Micro-location for the pop up shop: they had eyed a corner in the playground across the street, usually a “high traffic” area, and, most importantly, with highly qualified footfall, in terms of target consumer relevance.
4. Roles & Responsibilities. My favorite part: the “partners” aligned on roles and responsibilities each one of them was to perform in the collective enterprise (prospect outreach, merchandiser/visual merchandiser/product knowledge, closing the deal, etc.)
Objectives scope and advantage coherently articulated: in an intuitive way indeed, still clear strategic statement formulation.
The shop doors opened shortly after and the inception couldn’t be more successful: great footfall and great conversion, through a concerted effort from the three salespeople: Percy Jackson was a great hit, as their product strategy had clearly pointed out.
But soon the footfall started declining and, as we’ve seen much too often in real life sales, quota and budget panic assaulted our three little salespeople, who fell into the trap of randomly reaching out to each and every “prospect” in the playground: from sleepy guarding Grandma’s to crawling two year old children.
How often have we deviated from our target customer or consumer, thus misaligning strategy and sales, for the sake of making quota or saving a budget in extremis? As the adage says, “Every customer is not a customer”: and my son and his friends had the unfortunate experience of it, as their sales per minute started suffering after the initial hype of the new opening.
At the end of the day the sales was successful whatsoever: again intuitively, they turned their focus on re-merchandising their product offer (with replenishments from their best sellers) as well as improving the visual component of the shop, attracting more potential customers and – hail to the power of brand advocates – non customers who ended up shopping for their grandchildren and friends’ children.
It was indeed a successful yard sale, which made a lasting effect on the protagonists as well as on myself.
My personal sales effectiveness learning from the event is threefold:
1. Business strategy is key: I feel this is never enough said. Strategy is about he choices we make in the attempt to achieve competitive advantage in a market. What appeared even more important to me is that many key choices are implicit in the many decisions we take in the flow of running the business.
2. One of the key determinants of effective sales tasks is customer selection and profiling: the value proposition you create for your brand must be delivered to the customer set you have identified as core to your strategy, if you wish your growth to be sustainable and profitable over time.
3. Strategy must be aligned with sales and vice versa: success is decreed in the marketplace and needs us to bridge the gap between the big-picture strategy and the field execution.
It was a cold December day in the city: many hours later, my son and his friends were excitingly counting their earnings and planning on the next yard sale, building on the experience and learnings from their first event.
And I can’t wait to be part of it again.
Yet another fashion blog