As you’ll read in Apparel’s annual Top 50 Report, this year’s crop of most profitable apparel companies reflect a trend toward achieving greater balance across their enterprises, in multiple ways. Companies such as Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch are focusing on improving performance and reversing same-store sales declines in North America while setting their sites on expansion in swelling international markets, particularly in China and India. Retailers including Ann Inc., Jos. A. Bank and Nordstrom are balancing their full-line stores with outlets, while companies with large brand portfolios, such as Phillips-Van Heusen, Oxford Industries and Perry Ellis are striving to strike the right balance of focus and resources across their national and heritage brands. Companies are balancing marketing across the digital-physical divide, right-sizing inventories and deploying technologies while grooming highly trained and engaged workforces.
There’s yet another area in which apparel companies are making strides in achieving balance — you might call it the acquisitive vs. experiential duality — and some of our Top 50 are experts when it comes to turning a shopping trip into a holistic experience. Consider lululemon’s yoga classes, Ralph Lauren’s immersive lifestyle experience, The Buckle’s hyper-attentive customer service, the Nike+ Community that brings runners and other athletes together, or “pop-up” happenings such as the Pico de Gap taco truck and its celebrity chef-created menu, rolled out in L.A. last year to celebrate the launch of Gap’s new 1969 collection.
Generally speaking, on the list of apparel companies’ top priorities, creating these more extreme types of “experiences” probably doesn’t figure in the top five, but I’m wondering if some rapidly occurring shifts in our society might not make this a more compelling goal in the not-too-distant future.
In his book, “The Tipping Point,” author Malcolm Gladwell talks about the mysterious sociological changes that spread and accumulate and suddenly “tip” to spawn enormous movements that can range from clothing fads to huge societal behavior shifts. In last month’s column, I discussed the “great disruptor of choice” — the new omni-channel model that provides a seemingly unlimited number of choices to consumers to buy and return anything, anywhere at anytime — and how it is wreaking havoc on the traditional supply chain. It might be fair to say that shopping behaviors have tipped: the path to purchase no longer resembles a line, but a cat’s cradle string game. The new supply chain paradigm is a supply web.
It’s a web that may be taking its toll not only on supply chains, but on consumers, too. Our new “always-on” world has been accompanied by some fundamental shifts in society that could radically alter shopping behavior in ways that make accommodating the logistical shifts of omni-channel shopping look like child’s play.
Consider two articles published recently in The New York Times and The Atlantic, respectively. In a nutshell, the first, “Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue?,” shares research that reveals how making decision after decision over the course of a day takes a toll on us mentally and physically, sapping energy and making each decision more difficult, with the result that our brains seek shortcuts. One of those shortcuts is recklessness — we make impulsive, poorly thought out choices; the other shortcut is that we avoid choice, and do nothing. (Cue Rush’s Freewill here.)
The other article, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” reveals a world in which our web of connections has become vastly broader but much more shallow, leaving people isolated and lonely behind computer screens, a trend that is only compounded by the increasing number of people living alone — in 2010, 27 percent of households contained just one person, vs. 10 percent in 1950.
These trends, should they continue, may leave retailers with a whole new set of problems on their hands: namely, isolated folks too drained from their endless decision-making to do anything but veg out in front of the computer screen, watching from a great remove the carefully constructed lives of their Facebook friends. You don’t need a whole lot of outfit changes when you’re sitting at home, by yourself.
It may be that turning a profit in the future will hinge on more than simply clothing their customers — apparel companies will need to give them a reason to get out of the house in the first place, while also carefully curating their collections and providing extreme personalization, in-store and online, to make everything easy, fun and