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The Business of Fashion – Regulation, acquisition and the slowdown

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When the global financial meltdown struck in 2008, many of those with a vested interest in the luxury market watched nervously; high net worth individuals had surely seen many investments wiped out as the recession struck and would thus be more inclined to austerity. While there was a brief moment of humility and caution over indulgence in life’s finer things, it was brief. The luxury market proved surprisingly resilient. Global spend has increased since the recession by around a third, helped in no small part by the explosion of growth in developing regions, China in particular. Orson Welles once said “If you want a happy ending, that depends of course on where you end your story”. Our story, sadly, does not end here.

It was not a good omen when fashion curator and director of the Musée Galliera in Paris Olivier Saillard said during New York Fashion Week last month, “We are in a moment that’s very bizarre in fashion: there are too many clothes”. Business of Fashion lamented both a lack of quality and vision in contemporary collections,

“Fashion seems stuck between the need to surprise using a new array of communications tools and the urge to deliver novelty at the fastest possible pace. Slowing down might be a solution, but that would be a hard route, which will hardly find followers.”

And it is followers that fashion, and the luxury market as a whole, are in need of. Earlier this month the Financial Times reported on the global slowdown of luxury spending. Behind this slowdown lie two factors. On the one hand, there is what are hopefully short-term influences; geopolitical turmoil is rife. Hong Kong continues to see protests that refuse to simmer down, causing disruption to myriad businesses. The city accounts for perhaps 20% of global luxury spending. The Middle East, whose consumer origin or nationality according to Bain & Co. has the biggest average per capita spend, is similarly in chaos, with Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya all in various stages of unrest. Regions like Saudi Arabia and Qatar are caught between a rock and a hard place. In Russia, sanctions have hit oligarchs and their ilk hard. As a result, shares in luxury good companies have been hit hard. Prada has seen profits slide 20% in the first half of the year. Everyone’s darling of fashion innovation, Burberry, has warned of a “cautious outlook”. Mulberry has issued a string of profit warnings and recently ejected its CEO.

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McKinsey illustrate the drift of luxury growth from developed to emerging markets

So we can reason that these companies are seeing fewer customers. But they are also attracting new ones, albeit with very different expectations of the service they expect from the companies they have relationships with. This is the longer-term challenge. Millennials may have been treated as a distinct niche group with quirky demands from brands, but next year they will outnumber Gen Xers, according to McKinsey. These utterly digitally savvy citizens have embraced and contributed to a digital fragmentation in the consumer decision journey, the production process and the fundamental nature of buyer / seller value exchange.

“[A] confluence of digital, the rising power of street fashion and changing consumer attitudes… are radically altering the industry. [It is a] consumer-led shift away from ostentatious and mainstream mega-brands towards understated originality”

One of the most obvious ramifications of this has been the trend of ‘logo fatigue’. It is likely to hit those like Gucci particularly hard, while benefiting those like The Row, and little-known retailers like L’Art du Basic. For larger brands there are some examples for inspiration though. Yoox, whom we have profiled in detail before, have gone from strength to strength in embracing effective digital strategy. The fashion ecommerce site reportedly sees 42% of its global traffic coming from mobile devices, and has recently made a significant push into experimenting with instant messaging app WeChat. As elaborated by Fashion and Mash, the account allows users to “shop via an interactive look book, and to instant message customer service teams and personal stylists. Content also invites users to exclusive events and provides early access to specific products”. In the physical world, Ralph Lauren’s hosting of a cafe in its Fifth Avenue store in New York may be less immediately strategic but seeks to leverage the same burgeoning trends. Brands will need to do more of this, more often, if they are to find what works best for them in terms of engaging and converting future prospects.

Also this month, Zeitgeist found itself at an event at London’s Four Seasons hotel off Park Lane, hosted by law firm Baker & McKenzie. Threats, tech trends and M&A were the main subjects of discussion. Zeitgeist scribbled down some bons mots which were thought worth recounting here. Last month, McKinsey produced an insightful piece on the future of luxury growth, indicating growth would come for the most part from what they termed global megacities, a large proportion of which were located in emerging economies. But China is facing a slowdown; no doubt one of the reasons it was recommended in the conference that businesses start to think less of China as an independent market of growth and more of ASEAN as a region.

3D printing was a matter of much conjecture, but it was pleasing to see that the regulation of such materials was already being considered. One speaker offered the technology would be a greater problem for toy manufacturers than luxury, but cautioned that fast fashion and high customisation were a potent mix. Current UK regulation allows for printing any designs (of one’s own creation or not) at home for personal use for no gain. Such laws may have to be re-examined as 3D printing becomes more widespread. It is difficult to protect the IP of a fashion designer’s work, and difficult therefore to know where to draw the line between inspiration and infringement. The case of the red shoe, specifically between Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Louboutin, has illustrated such difficulty. In the case of 3D printing, one speaker suggested that printing could be limited via restriction similar to how publishers use paywalls, or a more sophisticated version of the DCMA. The importance of protecting the source code of 3D printing designs looks set to be important; Pirate Bay already has a section for such product. Social networking as a new source of IP was also discussed. David Yurman sought opinions on styles to be included on a Valentine’s campaign; users could drop hints to their partner. Bergdorf encouraged fans to design Fendi bags over social, too. But there have been slip ups; Cole Haan offered to pay fans $1,000 for taking pictures of their shoes, without making it clear it was part of contest where someone would win and that the company was sponsoring the activity. They got off with a warning from the regulator, but luxury brands must treat that as a cautionary tale as they continue to experiment. “The law is not keeping up with the technology”, as one speaker sagely confessed.

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David Yurman’s Facebook campaign suggests new IP possibilities for businesses in the future

The M&A chat was equally of interest. Speakers ruminated on the rise of vertical integration as LVMH et al seek to own the whole process. It’s a brave step for companies that traditionally haven’t involved themselves with supply chains or distribution, according to those speaking. Acquisitions were taking two forms: one was spotting missing gaps in the portfolio. For LVMH, the hole in their portfolio was jewellery, which lay behind their purchase of Bulgari in 2011. More recently Giorgio Armani – or as one speaker referred to the man himself, “King George” – reclaimed control of Armani Exchange as it attempts to leverage fast fashion trends. The other form was that of acquisitions in support of brand development – innovation, technology, CRM in Mandarin, social media, etc. More of these sorts of acquisitions were expected on the horizon.

How do these deals play out today? Private equity buyers have a lot of capital and access to cheap debt, but traditionally many of the targets of a buyout have been family-owned businesses who were not ready to relinquish control to a PE firm. These firms are much quicker and more aggressive at deals; they can quickly globalise a brand, can improve the supply chain and stretch the brand up and down from the original price point. Of course, adding new assets, like social media, makes due diligence – and knowing how to allocate risk to a mercurial medium – much harder. Owning supply chains carries risks of more exposure (see Apple and Foxconn). One of the most thorny issues that speakers envisioned was for a luxury good empire known for provenance and quality to be acquired by a a company in a jursidiction that is not known for such things. What if Alibaba bought Balenciaga from Kering, for example?

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Digital is expected to drive, on average, 40% of projected luxury sales growth from 2013 to 2020

Next year will see the return of John Galliano to the runway stage to the helm of a fashion house, this time at Martin Margiela. A recent article on the designer’s flameout while creating works of wonder for Christian Dior emphasised the way in which Galliano “had been cloistered off into a strange protective bubble. Sometimes, we isolate (and elevate) talented creatives so much in the fashion industry that they lose connection with reality”. It is arguably a similarly protective bubble that the fashion industry itself has often been accused of being in, and we would argue it is in now with regards to the need for greater digital sophistication and a more significant investment in digital strategy as it concerns customer insights and the law. It is plain to see that the luxury industry continues to face disruptive challenges, be they at the hands of digital, demographic or geopolitical trends. Some of these disruptions will hopefully, as mentioned earlier, be more temporary in nature. The more fundamental shifts in consumption, though challenging, also present myriad opportunities for businesses that are brave and agile enough to test what works best to capture and retain the customer of the future. Last month Exane BNP Paribas published a report illustrating just how important digital sophistication will be (see above chart), and naming those most likely to benefit from such changes. They could do worse than start by reading our previous post on the future of retail.

The state of retail

January 6, 2013 7 comments
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The love of the bargain is what drives them… Click for CNBC’s coverage

It’s a common fallacy to think of a time before a change in status quo as somehow being magically problem-free. A Panglossian world where all was well and nothing needed to change, and wasn’t it a shame that it had to. Similarly, we cannot blithely consign the retail industry of the past to some glorious era when everything was perfect; far from it. The industry has been under continual evolution, with no absence of controversy on the way. It was therefore a timely reminder, as well as being a fascinating article in its own right, when the New York Times provided readers recently with a potted history and a gaze into the future of Manhattan department store stalwart, Barneys. Not only is their past one in which the original proprietor sought to undercut his own suit suppliers, creating a bootlegging economy by literally ripping out their labels and replacing them with his own, but it was also one where department stores served a very different purpose to what they do today. They had less direct competition, not least unforeseen competition in the form of shops without a physical presence. Moreover, today they are run in an extremely different way, with an arguably much healthier emphasis on revenue (though some might say this comes at the expense of a feeling of luxury, in a lobby now brimming with handbags and little breathing room). The problems and opportunities for Barneys could serve as an analogy for the industry of which it is a part.

Despite brief reprieves such as Black Friday (click on headline image for CNBC’s coverage), as well as the expected post-Christmas shopping frenzy, can one of the main problems affecting retail at the moment simply be that it is undergoing an industry-wide bout of creative destruction? Zeitgeist has written about the nature of creative destruction before, and whether or not that is to blame for retail’s woes, the sector is certainly in the doldrums. In the UK, retailers are expecting a “challenging” year ahead. Recent research from Deloitte shows 194 retailers fell into administration in 2012, compared with 183 in 2011 and 165 in 2010. So, unlike the general economy, which broadly can be said to be enjoying a sclerotic recovery of sorts, the state of retail is one of continuing decline. How did this happen, and what steps can be taken to address this?

Zeitgeist would argue that bricks and mortar stores are suffering in essence due to a greater amount of competition. By which, we do not just mean more retailers, on different platforms. Whether it be from other activities (e.g. gaming, whether MMOs like World of Warcraft or simpler social gaming like Angry Birds), or other avenues of shopping (i.e. e-commerce, which Morgan Stanley recently predicted would be a $1 trillion dollar market by 2016), there is less time to shop and more ways to do it. The idea of going to shop in a mall now – once a staple of American past-time – is a much rarer thing today. It would be naive to ignore global pressures from other suppliers and brands around the world as putting a competitive strain on domestic retailers too. Critically, and mostly due to social media, there are now so many more ways and places to reach a consumer that it is difficult for the actual sell to reach the consumer’s ears. This is in part because companies have had to extend their brand activity to such peripheries that the lifestyle angle (e.g. Nike Plus) supercedes the call-to-action, i.e. the ‘BUY ME’. The above video from McKinsey nicely illustrates all the ways that CMOs have to think about winning consumers over, which now extend far beyond the store.

If we look at the in-store experience for a moment without considering externalities, there is certainly opportunity that exists for the innovative retailer. Near the end of last year, the Financial Times published a very interesting case study on polo supplier La Martina. The company’s origins are in making quality polo equipment, from mallets to helmets and everything in between, for professional players. As they expanded – a couple of years ago becoming the principle sponsor of that melange of chic and chav, the Cartier tournament at Guards Polo Club – there came a point where the company had to decide whether it was going to be a mass-fashion brand, or remain something more select and exclusive. As the article in the FT quite rightly points out, “Moving further towards the fashion mainstream risked diluting the brand and exposing it to volatile consumer tastes.” The decision was made to seek what was known as ‘quality volume’. The company has ensured the number of distributors remains low. Zeitgeist would venture to say this doesn’t stop the clothing design itself straying from its somewhat more refined roots, with large logos and status-seeking colours and insignia. Financially though, sales are “growing more than 20% a year in Europe and Latin America”, which is perhaps what counts most currently.

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Louis Vuitton’s ‘L’ecriture est un voyage‘ is a good example of experimental thinking and missed opportunities

In the higher world of luxury retail, Louis Vuitton is often at the forefront (not least because of its sustained and engaging digital work). While we’re focusing purely on retail environments though, it was interesting to note that the company recently set up shop (literally) on the left bank of Paris; a pop-up literary salon, to be precise. Such strokes of inspiration and innovation are not uncommon at Vuitton. They help show the brand in a new light, and, crucially, help leverage its provenance and differentiate it from its competition. Sadly, when Zeitgeist went to visit, there was a distinct feeling of disappointment that much more could have been done with the space, which, while nicely curated (see above), did little to sell the brand, particularly as literally nothing was for sale. The stand-out piece, an illustrated edition of Kerouac’s On the Road, by Ed Ruscha, Zeitgeist had seen around two years ago when it was on show at the Gagosian in London. Not every new idea works, but it is important that Louis Vuitton is always there at the forefront, trying and mostly succeeding.

So what ways are there that retailers should be innovating, perhaps beyond the store? One of the more infuriating things Zeitgeist hears constructed as a polemic is that of retail versus the smartphone. This is a very literal allusion, which NBC news were guilty of toward the end of last year. “Retail execs say they’re winning the battle versus smartphones”, the headline blared. What a more nuanced analysis of the situation would realise is that it is less a case of one versus the other, than one helping the other. The store and the phone are both trying to achieve the same things, namely, help the consumer and drive revenue for the company. Any retail strategy should avoid at all costs seeing these two as warring platforms, if only because it is mobile inevitably that will win. With much more sound thinking, eConsultancy recently published an article on the merits of providing in-store WiFi. At first this seems a risky proposition, especially if we are to follow NBC’s knee-jerk way of thinking, i.e. that mobile poses a distinct threat to a retailer’s revenue. The act of browsing in-store, then purchasing a product on a phone is known as showrooming, and, no doubt aided by the catchy name, its supposed threat has quickly made many a store manager nervous. However, as the eConsultancy article readily concedes, this trend is unavoidable, and it can either be ignored or embraced. Deloitte estimated in November that smartphones and tablets will yield almost $1bn in M-commerce revenues over the Christmas period in the UK, and influence in-store sales with a considerably larger value. That same month in the US, Bain & Co. estimated that “digital will influence more than 50% of all holiday retail sales, or about $400 billion”. Those retailers who are going to succeed are the ones who will embrace mobile, digital and their opportunities. eConsultancy offer,

“For example, they could prompt customers to visit web pages with reviews of the products they are considering in store. This could be a powerful driver of sales… WiFi in store also provides a way to capture customer details and target them with offers. In fact, many customers would be willing to receive some offers in return for the convenience of accessing a decent wi-fi network. Tesco recently introduced this in its larger stores… 74% of respondents would be happy for a retailer to send a text or email with promotions while they’re using in-store WiFi.”

These kind of features all speak more broadly to improving and simplifying the in-store experience. They also illustrate a trend in the blending between the virtual and physical retail spaces. Major retailers, not just in luxury, are leading the way in this. Walmart hopes to generate $9bn in digital sales by the end of its next fiscal year. CEO Mike Duke told Fast Company, “The way our customers shop in an increasingly interconnected world is changing”. This interconnectedness is not new, but it is accelerating, and the mainstream arrival of 4G will only help spur it on further. The company is soon to launch a food subscription service, pairing registrants with gourmet, organic, ethnic foods, spear-headed by @WalmartLabs, which is also launching a Facebook gifting service. At the same time, it must be said the company is hedging its bets, continuing with the questionable strategy of building more ‘Supercenters’, the first of which, at the time a revolutionary concept, they opened in 1988.

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One interesting development has been the arrival of stores previously restricted to being online into the high street, something which Zeitgeist noted last year. This trend has continued, with eBay recently opening a pop-up store in London’s Covent Garden. These examples are little more than gimmicks though, serving only to remind consumers of the brands’ online presence. Amazon are considering a much bolder move, that of creating permanent physical retail locations, if, as CEO Jeff Bezos says, they can come up with a “truly differentiated idea”. That idea and plan would be anathema to those at Walmart, Target et al., who see Amazon as enough of a competitor as it is, especially with their recent purchase of diapers.com and zappos.com. It serves to illustrate why Walmart’s digital strategies are being taken so seriously internally and invested in so heavily. Amazon though has its own reasons for concern. Earlier in the article we referenced the influence of global pressures on retailers. Amazon is by no means immune to this. Chinese online retailer Tmall will overtake Amazon in sales to become the world’s largest internet retailer by 2016, when Tmall’s sales are projected to hit $100 billion that year, compared to $94 billion for Amazon. The linked article illustrates a divide in the purpose of retail platforms. While Amazon is easy-to-use, engaging and aesthetically pleasing, a Chinese alternative like Taobao is much more bare-bones. As the person interviewed for the article says, “It’s more about pricing – it’s much cheaper. It’s not about how great the experience is. Amazon has a much better experience I guess – but the prices are better on Taobao.”

So how can we make for a more flexible shopping experience? One which perhaps recognises the need in some users to be demanding a sumptuous retail experience, and in others the need for a quick, frugal bargain? Some permutations are beginning to be analysed, and offered. Some of these permutations are being met with caution by media and shoppers. This month, the Wall Street Journal reported that retailer Staples has developed a complex pricing strategy online. Specifically, the WSJ found, it raises prices more than 86% of the time when it finds the online shopper has a physical Staples store nearby. Similar such permutations in other areas are now eminently possible, thanks in no small part to the rise of so-called Big Data. Though the Staples price fluctuations were treated with controversy at the WSJ, they do point to a more realistic supply-and-demand infrastructure, which could really fall under the umbrella of consumer ‘fairness’, that mythical goal for which retailers strive. Furthemore, being able to access CRM data and attune communications programmes to people in specific geographical areas might enable better and more efficient targeting. Digital also allows for a far more immersive experience on the consumer side. ASOS illustrate this particularly well with their click-to-buy videos.

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As the Boston Consulting Group point out in a recent report, with the understated title ‘Digital’s Disruption of Consumer Goods and Retail’,  “the first few waves of the digital revolution have upended the retail industry. The coming changes promise even more turmoil”. This turmoil also presents problems and opportunities for the marketing of retail services, which must be subject to just as much change. If we look at the print industry,  also comparatively shaken by digital disruption, it is interesting to note the way in which the very nature of it has had to change, as well as the way its benefits are communicated. It is essential that retailers not see the havoc being waged on their businesses as an opportunity to ‘stick to what they do best’ and bury their head in the sand. This is the time for them to drive innovation, yes at the risk of an unambitious quarterly statement, and embrace digital and specifically M-commerce. What makes this easy for those companies that have so far resisted the call is that there is ample evidence of retailers big and small, value-oriented to luxury-minded, who have already embraced these new ideas and platforms. Their successes and failures serve as great templates for future executions. And who knows, the state of retail might not be such a bad one to live in after all. Until the next revolution…

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