Shopping for Fashion, Six Months On

Will shopping ever return to the way it was before the age of coronavirus? Probably not in 2020.

Six months have passed since lockdown measures were put in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus, causing sales for the fashion and retail industries to plunge as stores closed for months on end. Come September, the majority of stores will have reopened, albeit with a slew of new safety measures in place and significantly lowered foot traffic.

Here are five of the biggest shifts in the fashion retail landscape we’ve seen in the age of coronavirus.

This month, Boston Consulting Group reported that fashion retailer sales will be down as much as 35 percent in 2020 compared with last year, and that luxury stores will see sales drop as much as 45 percent. Businesses that had minimal or no e-commerce operations were hardest hit as the pandemic fueled a rapid shift to online shopping in key markets like Britain, France and America.

In fact, fashion’s worst quarter ever was also its best for online sales. Prada’s online sales doubled. Bottega Veneta’s tripled. And Farfetch, the digital marketplace that allows upmarket vendors to sell their goods online, reported last month that it had seen a 60 percent surge in traffic for the second quarter compared with the same period last year — and 500,000 new customers.

Mainstream retailers have also reported major gains online. Gap, said last month that its e-commerce business had doubled in the second quarter and now accounted for half of all North America sales. At the same time, store sales fell by almost 50 percent.

A common 2020 refrain has been that the pandemic has accelerated industry shifts that were already underway, and bricks-and-mortar store continue to close at an alarming rate. Lord & Taylor said it would liquidate its stores after filing for bankruptcy in August; the Zara owner Inditex said it would close 1,200 stores in a bid to boost online sales; and the RealReal, the online luxury resale marketplace, closed all of its physical stores, part of an ill-timed venture offline.

Department stores are, by design, one-stop shops for anything and everything and with a business model that historically has been dependent on shoppers walking away with something new.

But growing consumer concern over the environmental impact of fashion, coupled with the challenges of selling non-essential items during a pandemic, mean that some big-name retailers have started making steps to rewrite the rule book.

Last month Selfridges, the London department store, announced Project Earth, a five-year sustainability plan that includes a clothing rental service in which shoppers can borrow items like a £1,000 ($1,336) Louis Vuitton handbag for four days at a cost of £138 ($184).

The plan also calls for a secondhand fashion shop called Resellfridges, which will enable customers to sell their own items for store credit, and in-store beauty and perfume product refills at the counter in order to save packaging.

John Lewis, another British department store chain, has started a furniture rental service and said that customers who bring John Lewis clothing to stores to recycle or donate to charity will get £3 per item, up to a maximum of £9, to spend in those stores or online.

New businesses have also arisen to curb overproduction. Lost Stock, a Scottish start-up introduced in May, is selling £35 “surprise” packages of garments direct from Bangladeshi factories. The products were meant to be sold by household retailers, but many canceled orders without payment to the factories after the pandemic set on.

Few of the additions to shop floors in recent months have been glamorous. Many store employees now wear face masks, and many layouts have been reconfigured to create more space and promote one-way traffic flows. Cleaners in personal protective equipment roam the hallways spraying disinfectant, while hand sanitizer is always liberally available.

Foot traffic has plummeted. But retailers hope that those shoppers who do return are far more likely to buy. And that means rolling out the red carpet. Saks offers by-appointment shopping before opening and after closing, “giving people the opportunity for one-on-one service when the store is limited to just a few customers.”

The Hong Kong department store Lane Crawford has introduced an app that lets associates send personalized looks to customers, and Neiman Marcus has increased the personalized ante by offering virtual events and access to personal stylist services usually reserved for the highest-spending shoppers. (The services were introduced with a punchy advertising campaign for a “new normal,” featuring $440 cashmere cardigans and $1,000 sweatpants.)

Luxury e-commerce platforms like Net-a-Porter have long offered fast home delivery. Start-ups like Toshi, which brings in-store services to customers at home and on demand for smaller brands like Erdem, Roland Mouret and Galvan in London and New York, are seeing an uptick in business as clients look for new ways to reach and treat their customers.

Consumers have increasingly turned to curbside pickup as a means of minimizing contact, collecting online purchases often without leaving their cars. Target began testing curbside collection in 2017, but in recent months the service has exploded in popularity, with pickup sales jumping 700 percent for the quarter ended Aug. 1 compared with the same period last year. According to the McKinsey consultancy, the approach has also gained momentum in Italy and China, both markets hard hit by the pandemic.

Covid-19 caused havoc in fashion supply chains, with disruption considered likely for months to come. Many businesses are now reassessing their global approach to production.

But some brands have always sourced closer to home. Arias, a women’s wear brand founded in 2017, sells only collections that are designed and made in New York City. The London men’s wear staple Christopher Raeburn creates designs from locally sourced military dead stock. And Thebe Magugu, the winner of the 2019 LVMH Prize, sources production from factories and artisans in Johannesburg and Cape Town in his native South Africa.

In some cities, lockdown has meant a move away from the usually busy commercial and entertainment districts as customers stayed local and supported independent businesses. Will a similar trend emerge in fashion, too?