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29 März 2019

The challenge of differentiation in high-street fashion

Imogen Hedgeland

Imogen Hedgeland
Senior consultant, Consumer products and Retail

It was recently announced that LK Bennett is the latest high street fashion retailer to sadly go into administration. This follows a long line of high profile casualties such as House of Fraser, Coast and Jaeger, with a number of other familiar high street faces reportedly at risk.

The challenges facing traditional retail have been much-expounded upon: changing consumer behaviours, growth of online, decreasing footfall, low consumer confidence, increasing operating costs, shrinking margins, and the list goes on.

In fashion, there is an additional challenge posed in how trend cycles have evolved. Gone are the days of clearly distinguished Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter seasons. No longer can brands operate around a calendar of two 8-12 month planning and development cycles and still deliver the right trends at the right time. The market is now characterised by micro and macro trends compounded by high levels of competition, meaning consumers are bombarded with messaging about what they should be buying. The winners are those who are able to set their product apart from the crowd through speed, price, exclusivity or audience engagement.

For those brands born in the digital era, their conception is rooted in these factors. Boohoo have profitably capitalised on the power of social media, identifying trends from key influencers and getting them to their audience in as little as one week. In The Style similarly engage socially with their audience and drive exclusivity through influencer partnerships to design, develop and launch collections.

But for those retailers born in the time of thriving high streets, especially those who (with the likes of LK Bennett in mind) aim to compete on quality rather than on price, how can they drive differentiation through their product organisation? Here are some suggestions:

  • Exploit tech and team capabilities: There is great opportunity within Buying and Merchandising to reduce manual work through automation and gain deep customer insights through analytics. This leaves the team free to add the human difference, making the strategic and creative decisions needed to deliver a great product
  • Differentiate product pipelines: Adapting product calendars to specific customer propositions enables organisations to increase experimentation and improve speed-to-market for their trend-led products, whilst optimising the delivery of their basics lines
  • Closely tailor ranges: Clear definition of store formats within an omnichannel proposition, combined with the right merchandise planning tools and processes, enables effective tailoring of ranges to offer consumers the best product for them – vital to capturing in-store spend
  • Build strategic partnerships: Partnerships are a great way to build capability and create exclusivity, be that through creating a ‘store of the future’, leveraging material innovations, or collaborating on design
  • Understand end-to-end customer missions: The answer does not sit in one function, but requires strong collaboration from product conception to fulfilment and even to post-sales engagement. One key question for organisations is, how much could and should teams be structured to reflect end-to-end customer journeys?

Whilst a great product is only one piece of a complex puzzle, without it, there is little chance of survival in the current climate.