August 09, 2017

So What, Who Cares (vol 3, issue 50) How Smart People Bypass the Retailers Who Didn't Want Them


This is a long one -- one I apparently began writing 13 years ago.


Back in 2004, I reported on the any-day-now strategy that retailers were bound to embrace: expanding the range of sizes available to women, since a greater percentage of women wear a size 14 and up and since so-called "plus sized" women were actually recession-proof spenders compared to the "straight-sized" shoppers. Yet over the next decade, the retailers were slow to show affection. In a 2012 story on plus-sized fashion bloggers, the New York Times noted "Trends can take as long as two years to trickle down to plus-size lines."

Noticing that plus-sized people wanted the same clothing as everyone else, and the same representation in fashion as everyone else, took a few years beyond that. What finally did it? Money -- namely investors looking at the number of women in the country who wear something bigger than size 10, noticing that there were $17.5 billion in plus-sized sales from 2013 to 2014, and concluding there was opportunity going unnoticed. Cue Eloquii getting $6 million in Series A funding in 2014 and $15 million in Series B financing last year.

Couple that with the rise of Instagram influencers and bloggers who have bypassed traditional media to show images of non-model-sized women looking chic, edgy, playful and everything in between, and fashion industry types are now looking around and murmuring, "People no longer look to magazines for useful interpretation of fashion, there's a lot of them who will never be a size six, and we're leaving money on the table to burn along with all the brands going into bankruptcy."

Of all the retail revolutions the Internet has brokered, the creation of a plus-sized market that does not want or need conventional media approval may be one of the most interesting.

So what? E-commerce has already made shopping safe, pleasurable or convenient for other people whom brick-and-mortar retailers have served poorly: As Nadra Nittle wrote: "I'm African American, and purchasing online allows me to avoid the pitfalls of 'shopping while black'"; Iranians who are politically and culturally constrained by their government have turned to e-commerce as a way to foment creativity while also making a living. 

Non-model-sized women blogging or posting Instagrams about their Gwynnie Bee subcriptions or their Universal Standard trade-ins are providing examples to otherwise underserved shoppers that there are online brands offering fashionable clothing and pleasant consumer experiences.

Moreover, these two brands are also tackling a classic bugbear of plus-sized retailing. A lot of analysts contend that plus-sized shoppers do not spend as much as straight-sized shoppers because they're hoping to shrink out of the clothing. Gwynnie Bee lets shoppers return clothing after wearing it a few times (great for customers whose sizes are in flux) while Universal Standard lets customers exchange clothing if they change sizes.

‚ÄčBut most importantly -- and this should make retailer executives lose sleep -- the nature of the consumer experience is no longer defined by or dependent upon an in-store experience. Online retailers have defined the process of browsing, buying, receiving and consuming: There's the personalized site-surfing experience, the unboxing experience (it's no coincidence retailers are now sinking money into lovely, social media-worthy packaging), the modeling it for social media experience -- all of which the consumer can participate in without feeling shamed by sales associates or saddened by the lack of options in her size. An online customer can create a social shopping experience without ever leaving her house.

(This is great news for indie brands, which can build consumer communities around e-commerce. It's terrible news for retailers who are losing the younger customers; this era of consumer choices has prodded millennials to be more brand loyal than previous generations, so imagine the opportunity lost by retailers there.)

Brick-and-mortar outlets do have some constraints online vendors don't feel: Showrooms only have so much space for stocking sizes, for example. But that doesn't mean your average store -- especially one that has no problem carrying sizes 16, 18 and 20 online (cough, cough, The Gap, cough, cough) -- can't run the numbers and see whether they'd make more money per square foot by shifting the sizes they stock. Retail experts seem to think they would.

Who cares? The 67% of shoppers who are feeling ill-served by retailers care, because it would be nice to buy clothing without feeling as if the problem is you.

Conventional clothing retail is in freefall this year. Know what's not? Makeup and skincare -- Ulta is doing wonderfully. Know why? Because skin care and makeup purchases aren't dependent on clothing size, and thus groups of friends whose clothing sizes are all over the place can go shopping together and have a pleasurable social experience.

There's a mountain of evidence suggesting that the future of retail rests in selling the experience -- today's consumers value their time and want their shopping to maximize it with convenience, luxury or novelty.

It's any retailer's prerogative to ignore customer segments it does not feel are congruent with its brand. Tim Gunn wrote in 2016:

I’ve spoken to many designers and merchandisers about this. The overwhelming response is, “I’m not interested in her.” Why? “I don’t want her wearing my clothes.” Why? “She won’t look the way that I want her to look.” 

Those merchandisers are welcome to pass up a customer base that numbers 100 million plus people and $20.4 billion in spending power. I look forward to seeing how that will work out for them.


Your pop culture recommendation for the day: A few friends talked me into giving Spotify Premium a try, and nearly three months in, I'm hooked. (Of course.) I enjoy being able to drill down into different genres and playlists, and I like seeing how the algorithms throw up recommendations and playlists in response.

The most serendipitous discovery: I listened to a Balinese gong playlist one night, and one of the daily mixes I get now is basically the kind of mellow, aural wallpaper that's great for productivity. There's a lot of Message to Bears and Clem Leek on it.

(What music is good for productivity? I'm glad you asked! When I wrote on it, I learned that lyric-free music is probably best for tasks that require concentration. You want something that will help allay low-key boredom while not taking up too much active attention.)

Anyway, people like me are basically responsible for a new phenomenon in music. Billboard's quick read "Turn Down for This! How Mood Music Is Changing Streaming" addresses a shift in how people consume music -- they want soundtracks for the activities in their lives.

This shift is a challenge for music industry execs -- many of whom regard music as something with which people actively engage and build their personal identities around. They are now trying to understand an audience that sees music as a part of their environment, instead of music being the thing around which everything else coalesces.

And now, the fine print: You can manage your subscription here, you can read the archives here, you can read me at the Observer here, you can ping me on Twitter here. Thank you for reading!