When Marshal Cohen passed around a vibrating mascara at last month's Apparel Executive Forum, he wasn't trying to accentuate anyone's features, but he was making a point: innovation is going to be more crucial than ever in today's slowing economy.
The truth is, we're facing a new reality in this country: an end to the hyper-consumption that has characterized the past several decades. Access to credit has dried up, savings are down, unemployment is up and the oversaturated U.S. retail market - approximating 20 square feet of retail space per person - is out of whack with the times. We've left behind "an incredible spending period that was an abnormality," said The NPD Group's Cohen. Now and into the future, he said, companies are going to have to earn those sales.
Put another way, said Credit Suisse's Omar Saad, "The easy money has been made in U.S. retailing."
So, what's next? First, a new mindset - one that's acutely in touch with the customer. "Consumers are going to buy because they need," says Cohen. Put a twist on a commodity, and you'll drive consumers to buy more of them, more frequently. Figure out how to turn a luxury item into a necessity - think fashion denim, which by raising the bar in fit, finish and brand association "out-innovated" the rest of the apparel marketplace.
The take-home message is this: if you wait until the economy has recovered to do something new, it will be too late, said Cohen. Now is the time to cast out old ideas, establish new traditions and use technology to rewrite the rules.
In short, you have to think differently. Take seasons. When it comes to apparel, they're out. Today's consumers are driven by a desire for instant gratification, and are shirking the traditional retail model that offers heavy winter coats when it is still swimsuit weather.
And this "buy now, wear now" mentality is characterized as much by passion as it is by budgetary constraints. With fewer dollars to go around, each purchase becomes that much more meaningful, making it crucial to connect with your consumer on an emotional level.
Getting there may not even require a new product innovation or presentation. You may be able to accomplish that connection simply by recasting your message.
Lately, I've started to believe that there's a way to inject passion into just about anything. Consider the new Hot Pockets TV ad campaign. With its very funny spots pitting young, walkabout free eaters against traditional seated-at-table diners, the company has transformed an ordinary frozen burrito-type meal into an entire movement for "eating freely."
For an apparel-specific example, consider MyShape.com, an innovative online retailer that creates a unique 'store' for each customer by using its Personal Shop method to find apparel that matches her measurements, body shape and preferences. It's not only helping consumers find what fits, flatters and pleases, it also speaks to them as people who are "time- and attention-strained," says the company's Mercedes de Luca, who also spoke at the Forum.
Today's economy demands that you find a way to wrap passion and necessity together. In this issue's Q&A with Bertrand Pellegrin, the author of "Branding the Man" says that men have changed - they know more about fabrics, styles and fit details - but that retail stores haven't. He challenges men's apparel retailers to create stores where men want to go and hang out. What's missing, he says, is a great customer experience.
So, whether you're a retailer or a brand, whether you sell underwear or cocktail dresses, now is the time to ensure you have a strategy for turning shoppers into fans.
Because, as de Luca says, "Consumer experience is the next "killer app.'"