Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Good, and Bad of the Sale rack.

Fall is around the corner. All the most interesting clothes , shoes and accessories of the year are about to appear in all the stores , everywhere. It's like the best drugs for the biggest junkies.... But unlike typical junkie mentality which is the sooner the score the faster to rush. This Recession has changed the scoring habits of Fashion fiends. Instead of the race to the racks , people are hanging back, white knuckling it, teeth grinding (what I refer to as jaw boning), even a bit of profuse sweating while waiting for the stores to break down and put the "stuff" on SALE. It's what we've come to expect. When you want it but no longer have the money to pay retail or don't want to spend money you may have, we no longer shop the old fashioned way.
There's a paradigm shift in the way the business of fashion is conducted. I've waited so long to use a big word:Paradigm. There's one small problem with this shift: it has taken the concept of Business and is pushing it towards extinction. The good thing is that you get something that otherwise would be out of reach. The bad thing is that it is putting designers and stores steadily out of business. A catch 22 is the result.
Some of you may be aware that Anna Wintour is attempting a moratorium on SALES. At the risk of a hairless cat suddenly sporting an Afro, I have to agree with her to a certain degree. The dealers are losing money and the suppliers are in turn going under with the end result being that one day soon there won't be any "stuff" available to buy; sale or no sale.The idea of Business the world over will go the way of the dinosaurs . Something has got to give, and yet there are no easy answers.
A small group of Fortunates still heavy with disposable incomes can pre-order and grab the goodies the moment they hit the selling floor. The rest of us wait. The salespeople live off commissions and are so desperate they'll put stuff aside for customers for when the mark downs begin. Meanwhile, the designers see their clothes go on sale 3 weeks after they've been shipped. It's instant charge back time. They, the designers, watch their payday turn into crumbs. The stores begin asking for discounts before the designer has even gotten paid.
When you're small you live from each piece you deliver .You pay for the fabric, the cost of production and watch your investment evaporate.
Are you following where I'm going with this?
Saks, Neiman's, Nordstrom's ,Barneys, and almost every specialty store in the country is bleeding. The same goes for almost every design company not buffeted with a perfume, secondary line or fantastic licensing deal in the Far East. That means everyone out there who's not a Donna, Calvin ,Ralph, Marc, Michael or Carolina, to name a few major players in this country, are living from check to check. If we want them to survive we need to try something risky. We need to buy something before it goes on sale. Anything. We need to grit our teeth, save up a little money and invest it in something ,it could be one thing. But we need to buy it . This is how we can ban together and shift the Paradigm to a new spot. Not the old one, or the present one but to a new place.
It's not an easy simple solution, but this business is in terrible trouble. Every species of it is in danger of extinction. We can take small steps to save it. In doing so we can slowly change the way we've gotten the things that give us pleasure. The food that feeds our sense of ourselves can still be ours, only this way everyone in the mix has a shot at a tomorrow. I know it sounds idealistic an impractical, even foolish. I just can't think of a better way. Whether it's KMart or Bergdorf Goodman the game is the same. Let's play!


tarleisio said...

Dear Fluff, thank you for your blog. You say so many things not many of us even have the temerity to think - no small feat of courage.

Sales are, whether we like it or not, an evil necessity. I wonder, though, if the true root of the problem is not so much that the recession has eaten up our disposable incomes, but the very idea that clothes should be such a fast-moving commodity. Fashion is ephemeral, yes - what looks hot right now will look dated, a few years down the line. But our very idea of clothes has become a throwaway - buy more, buy now, and hey - while we're at it, buy it on sale!

I seem to remember a time when personal style was an investment, more than a flash-in-the-pan statement of the here and now. My mother - a woman who always had a style all her own, used to save up for months to buy the one key thing that would define her particular moment - and many, many moments thereafter - and usually, she would walk away with some YSL Rive Gauche item she would keep, wear and cherish for years and years.

Now, however, we've become accustomed to bleeding edge of-the-moment throwaway fashion, and if it isn't "now" and it isn't "it" and we haven't bought it on sale at half price, it somehow loses its cachet and allure.

I'm one of those unlucky souls who can only afford to buy items on sale, and even then, I hesitate - because I prefer to buy and wear something that will make me taller, better, and ever-more chic not just the day I walk out of the store, but every time I put it on, today, tomorrow and next year, too.

Nine and a half times out of ten, when I've found something unusual, something unique that puts a smile on my face and in my sartorial soul every time I wear it, it hasn't been - on sale. Which makes acquisition that much more precious, and that much more appreciated!

x said...


While I do appreciate your good intentions in shedding light on how "Sale" really hurts business, end of the day "clothes" aren't really a "need of the hour" especially for people who have stacked plenty of it during the good times.The trend currently is "buy what you need" and not "buy what you want"!With the current state of the economy, job loss, pay cuts etc and customers getting a whiff of what it is to buy deeply discounted clothes(from last Fall's experience) its very unlikely that the "Sale culture" would go away anytime soon, how many ever crusaders might fight its cause!When even celebs are scampering for discounts, the "aspirational buyer", the one that saved up money meticulously or used the plastic recklessly to feed on her Louboutins, that breed is dead and gone!The happy days are still far away!A reduction in inventory is a necessity and the busting of fashion houses, an inevitable consequence of the toughh times!

P Adhikari.

WendyB said...

I was bitterly amused by how Sadove told the WSJ this week that he understood how ridiculously customer-unfriendly delivery times were negatively impacting sales. He acknowledged that pieces are in the stores so far before people are interested in buying them that by the time the appropriate season really begins, everyone's bored with the clothes and the sales start. Yet for all the recent lip service by him and others, I don't see any change. Stores like Saks seem to be on suicide missions. They do everything wrong including, when times are tough, panicking and slashing costs across the board -- so that they stop spending money on promoting their own inventory -- rather than cutting real fat. I don't care if they all put themselves out of business. They deserve to be bleeding if their business plans are lousy. I just don't like seeing them take designers with them.

sharonA said...

I can only approach this idea from the art angle. Given that's my background it's the clearest perspective I have.

If we regard fashion as an art (and I do), then yes, you're right. It makes no sense whatsoever to have sales. After all, galleries in Chelsea don't have them, and many of those artists are living paycheck to paycheck too.

But art is not a luxury most of us can afford, even those of us who make it. It's a secondary need. When applied to fashion, I realise that's almost a horrific statement, given that the way we dress is such a direct expression of who we are and our first impression. The difference is that in fashion, there are so many cheaper alternatives. I'm sorry to say it, but it's a fact. Given the option between small independent designers and an international budget chain like H&M, or even a thrift shop; my unfortunate choice is clear.

So how do we sustain the arts in a bad economy? The same way we sustain small farms - locally. If we buy art and fashion from people in our immediate range, we can keep these things alive in our community.

How can artists help? Pricing is everything. If we can't put fashion on sale but we want it to be accessible to everyone, then we must bite the bullet and re-think the value we place on our art. If sales are anathema, then those prices have to come down or fashion (or art of any kind) will never stand a chance.

Divalocity said...

I just wrote about the same thing that the European stores are doing to get rid of their excessive inventory, they are slashing prices on everything. With the present economy being the way it is, maybe the stores could change their pattern of buying.

Kathleen Fasanella said...

Interesting to see this, last Tuesday I posted a litany of reasons why designers shouldn't sell to department stores.

There is no doubt the problems defy ready solutions, but hanging all our hopes on exhorting consumers to change their purchasing habits -when it's a behavior they've been rewarded for- is an exercise in futility. You can’t convince people to change their attitudes in order to affect a change in behavior. It never works. Attempting to compel people with balanced arguments rarely has the desired effect. Rather, you must change behaviors first, then attitudes will follow.

Here's the central conflict:
We want things to change. The easiest way to have things change is for others to do the changing. It gets us off the hook, it's easier. But how likely is that? You don't need a Ph.d in psychology to know it's not going to happen.

If you can't change other people, you can only change yourself. So how do we change? I have a lot of ideas about that. Unfortunately, it's easiest if you never formed habits (operational processes) that need changing. That's the hang up, the difficult part. Change is hard and again, why we want others to do the heavy lifting for us.

The easiest way to change big box behavior is to abdicate, don't sell to them. If their sources dry up, they'll either do more of what they're already doing (private label w/16 month time lines leading to a dearth of innovation) and thus stagnate or they'll change their practices. In the meantime, how do you cover your operational costs and make payroll? You can sell it yourself and sell to independent stores. With the sameness in department stores, people are increasingly flocking to independents.

The change, the hard part, is that you make less and you make it faster. If there's less of it, it's rare. More people will pay for it. Inculcate in the consumer that this is all there is, once it's gone, it's gone. Zara has done this very successfully. The biggest lot they run is 500 units. Consumers know that if they like what's on the rack, they need to buy it then -and at full price- because it's not going to be there next week.

This concept is known as lean manufacturing and I write a great deal about it on my website. I have one company that cuts, sews and ships in 24 hours selling consumer direct at full price. They've never had a sale in the 4 years they've been manufacturing. Sure it's a tiny company with only 4 employees (2 stitchers) but you know, they broke seven figures last year. Their key advantage is that they started out like this, they never had to change.

We can't change others, we can only change ourselves.

Chris in SF said...

hummm.... maybe, just maybe, there are lots of forces at work, here.
For one thing, we, the consumers, have been brainwashed (by retailers!) into thinking that we should expect the best, at a discount. How many commercials have I seen with ridiculous tag lines like "affordable luxury"? REALLY? How may blogs have I seen where people ask fellow readers how to find the "cheap knock-off" of this lamp or that chair or that couch? I always chimed in saying, "why not save your change and buy the real thing?" Oi vey, was I tarred and feathered every time for just suggesting such a thing! Branded as elitist and what not...
No one wants to pay what an object is worth because we no longer understand the meaning of "value". We've been walmartified.... value now means paying less for something. SO, if the bottom line is saving money above all else, why would you care about such a thing as the quality of merchandise?
what we need is a PR campaign to teach people the real meaning of value... to understand that true value requires, among other things, craftmanship. And, this craftmanship uses skilled labor which demands a higher price point. If the average consumer was taught that to expect the best you have to pay more for it, things might change. Educating the consumer is key.
I took a wine tasting class to learn about wine; to tell the difference between a superlative vintage vs. a two buck chuck and, how this difference is reflected in price. It doesn't mean that I can afford a vintage Bordeaux but, I understand what characteristics I need to seek and, I save my money to buy something within my budget that is similar. And, when I do, I savor every drop. But, does the average person know why a couture gown is so price-prohibitive? Do people really understand the difference between a well-made garment vs. the disposable imitation from a discount chain?
I was at a discount chain just yesterday, and, under the sickly glare of the rows of fluorescent lights, I was flabbergasted to see the racks upon racks of garbage that's being sold at a discount. I mean, just thinking about all the resources, the (cheap) labor, the raw materials, transportation costs, and the energy used in manufacturing of such awful looking stuff... this is unsustainable. I don't think that our planet can take much more of this waste. I was baffled by what I saw.. and, curious to see who the heck "designed" and approved these atrocities being sold. Yet, the consumers were consuming simply because they were "getting a deal", they were getting a good "value" for their money...
I say that there is an urgent need to educate people as to the worth of design, execution, materials and how these things add real value to objects and how all of these things translate to the price you should have to pay.
Lastly, can't we also start by producing less crap?

Jose said...

I agree with many of the posters that something isn't right about the buying patterns. I work at a big luxury retailer on Madison, and the biggest problem we have is that our "Pre-Fall" collections are still very heavy on the outerwear and knits. Meanwhile, our few customers that are still in the city on these summer weekends are looking for pieces in which to survive the heat. Hence, we are selling polos galore on a floor packed to the gills with outerwear.

I wish the buyers and the vendors would make pre-fall more about warm weather clothes and not heavy layers. That way, the clothes won't already be on sale when people are finally ready to wear them. God knows, the last five years have seen the seasons cycle out farther and farther into the year. Fashion could catch up.

p.s.: I'm not discounting how Saks ruined every luxury salesperson's life and livelihood in America last year when they did that ridiculously desperate early and deep price-slash.

Santino said...

Your call sounds surprisingly similar to the Bush directive "This work begins with keeping our economy growing. ... I encourage you all to go shopping more." I'm skeptical.

Fashion is a business, designed to produce wealth, as much as to decorate it. Is there any reason that it shouldn't suffer the same fate as myriad other businesses (luxury and other) across the country? Of course there's the example of France, where fashion is subsidized like a national park but I don't see that happening here, nor would it seem just, catering as it does, to the few.

I suppose there's an argument to be made about a national investment in the fashion industry akin to that in the auto industry. The numbers hardly balance, because your focus is the elite product of a limited number of small houses that produce much of their work outside of the country. Would you add Jaclyn Smith to the mix?

Admittedly, I'm drawn to beautiful clothes with thoughtful design in luxurious fabrics, but at the expense of my bank account and financial well-being. I would hardly argue that we should make a cause of it (what color ribbon do you propose? ... or perhaps bumper stickers touting our commitment to endangered fashion designers?).

SB said...

This issue came to mind while I was looking at an ancient Greek vessel at the Met Museum this weekend. Looking at the vessel, one could clearly see the amount of work and thought that went into its creation- the same feeling I get when trying on a beautifully designed garment. A Balenciaga jacket is gorgeous down to the last seam, and obviously so to anyone.

However, as Chris in SF says, objects no longer have the value they once did for so many people. Why buy a $200 Jonathan Adler vase when there is an identical one at Crate & Barrel for $20? There is very little value placed on craft and materials because image has become everything. As long as you LOOK like the real thing, authenticity doesn't matter. And honestly, for some people, it doesn't.

Many of us can probably afford to save up a little and buy that 'one thing' instead of waiting for the sales, but it will be a very slow change if it happens at all. It's not the 'American Way' to buy in small quantities at higher prices.

The collective consumer mindset needs to throw off the last 40 years of advertising brainwashing, basically- not an easy task. Less can indeed be more, if we make better choices.

Sandra @ said...

as usual, intelligent post. But I have to agree with Santino and Tarleislo as well. Fashion will suffer just as any other commodity, especially since we are so far removed from this idea of dressing. Dressing and style require smart buying decisions based on quality, fit, and a bit of investment.

Fashion has become this diluted market where throw away fashion is the norm.

Just like the real estate market, this economical downturn will shake up consumers and force them to shop quality. It's unfortunate for the designers that are flashes in the pan, but so be it. The designers that have staying power will survive.

Anonymous said...

Every clothing item is on sale right now. I am amazed that I can go into any department store and see the same type of clothing at the same sale prices. How can you choose? Are we at the end of this sale decade or at the beginning?

elle ko said...

we can learn a lot from the patterns observable in Japan's retail, which have been going on for 20+ years. bi-annual blow outs literally translating to "blood letting."