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Fashion frenzy: are retailers moving too fast?

Fashion retailers have long seized opportunity and just as everything else in the world has sped up, production lines have also shortened over time to meet the growing impatience of customers. Bricks started working alongside clicks for a more fluid shopping experience, with stores moving online while retaining a high street presence. And in-store experience mixed with next day delivery to satisfy our need for both new and now.

Then Covid hit, and as stores closed e-commerce in retail really took off. It gave new players in fast fashion a chance to compete and opened up the battle between logistics and logic.

Missing the (Pri)mark?

During 2020, sales at Britain’s 20 largest e-tailers rose as much as 23% to £8.4 billion. We may not be going to social events but a rise in self-care and onset of boredom means a lot of us have still been craving that fashion fix.

You may be wondering why Primark entered a third lockdown with only a very basic online presence and no delivery service then. Sure, there’s a website, but it does little except showcase products and direct you to the nearest – closed – store. Hardly helpful when stuck indoors. They’ve also reported a huge loss of sale, 

The challenge with this business model, reliant on cheap clothing with a quick turnaround, is that it comes with minimal margins. The cost of tech integration plus additional staff and transport far outweigh any sales.

With recent reports in Retail Week suggesting that Primark has lost £1.1 billion from not selling online, it seems like a risky strategy not to invest during the pandemic. Only time will tell if they were right to sit this opportunity out and wait for the “highly cash generative” period after lockdown that they foresee. 


No Boohoo here

In January this year announced it was taking over the online Debenhams brand, then added Dorothy Perkins, Wallis and Burton to its books; a move that was met with some degree of confusion by Shore Capital. However, the fast fashion company has been quite clever with its purchases.

While the store version had been declining, Debenhams has one of the highest performing retail websites in the UK and takes around £400 million per year from 300 million visitors. Buying the brand name less the stores and people means Boohoo holds on to the part with the most equity and an already loyal fan base.

Since Boohoo has always been about online selling and delivering fashion at speed, logistics are already in hand for the new additions. And though some of the names, like Wallis, may feel at odds with Boohoo’s youthful audience, it gives them access to a new one. Boohoo has also already proven it can bring heritage brands into the 21st century, by doing so with Karen Millen and Coast. 

Adobe stock

Shein-ing a light on bad practice

You might not have heard of Shein until recently. During lockdown, the website rocketed from 500,000 to 4 million unique monthly visitors in just six months. It came, it sold, and it conquered – 230 countries in fact. Now the elusive fashion e-tailer sits just behind Next and ASOS as the third most visited fashion e-commerce site in the UK.

Delivery times however are 2-3 weeks, which might seem to go against the original intent of fast fashion. But with cheaper products and postage, it’s appealing to cost-conscious customers who are willing to trade time for savings.

Yet in the heady rush of scaling up so quickly, it seems to have forgotten business basics and has come under fire for all manner of bad practices. Firstly, customers have suggested that products are often not fit for purpose or as described when they eventually turn up. Then there are the accusations of ripping off of others designs. And recently it was called out for selling swastika necklaces and adding Muslim prayer mats to its stocklist under ‘decorative rug’.

Being so quick to market has seen Shein spiral but, even if the above is forgiven, will it survive post lockdown when shops can meet the need for speed again and provide quality?

Retailers need to remain mindful that just as fashion moves along, so do the desires of the customer. Brands are better off using this time to communicate with customers and build towards longevity, rather than chase the latest craze and damage both finances and reputation. There’s fast – and then there’s frenzied.

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