There is a first time for everything. For the current generation of startup fashion tech retailers, coronavirus has presented a unique set of challenges. How to maintain supply chains during a global shutdown? How to re-open shops in a pandemic proven difficult to track and predict? Despite the broad embrace of e-commerce, the fashion industry has been largely reliant on in-store experiences for customers inspired by social media campaigns or visual merchandising. The first wave of business casualties included American fashion retailers JCPenny, Neiman Marcus, J.Crew as well as Debenhams in the UK and Reitmans in Canada. Coronavirus-related bankruptcy filings are surging worldwide.
With European Union set to re-open its borders on July 1 and USA, Canada and Mexico aiming for July 21 to allow international travel, many brands are hoping to recuperate springtime losses over the summer holidays season. Early signs point towards a healthy possibility of rebound for the sector. Economists are noting the phenomenon of “revenge spending” as consumers seek comfort in familiar and novel shopping options to deal with the pressures of the new normal. Trying on and buying new clothes can be a cathartic experience that fulfills our basic needs and motivates us to pursue greater achievements. Many retailers are proactively looking beyond the mandatory masks, social distancing markers and free hand-sanitizers to ensure their customer safety.
I reached out to Fokke de Jong, CEO and Founder of Suitsupply. With over 140 stores around the world, there is no better case study to see how a multinational company is adapting to new shopping realities. After all, a team responsible for award-winning innovations in marketing and sustainability must have something up its proverbial sleeve.
At the outset of the coronavirus crisis, few could foresee such profound disruption to global commerce and fashion market, in particular. How has Suitsupply weathered the storm?
Our first understanding was that store closures could last a couple of weeks. Then the gravity of the pandemic swelled, leading to extended lockdowns by governments around the world. We design clothing for people who want to look sharp outside of their homes. The impact hurt the business, but in hindsight it was a call for greater creativity that presented opportunities for how we can improve our ecosystem.
Did you note any make-it or break-it characteristics for fashion businesses in this crisis?
Defining business strategies were potentially saving grace for brands. For example, retail location strategy. While most retailers target main streets, Suitsupply believes if you have a strong value proposition, people will find you. Our investment in destination locations came with extra square footage at an advantageous price. That certainly softened the blow when the overhead meter ticked on and revenue was bottoming out. As a vertically integrated company, we weren’t concerned with the impact of department store closures. Sustainability made a practical difference too. We aren’t in the throw-away business. As a slow fashion brand which creates essential products with a long life span, we knew we would be well received by our customer. We never submitted to markdowns that took over the online shopping space. If you have an attainable price strategy that is reliable, you can reject the industry push for heavily promotion-based yo-yoing. The trickle-down effect of responsible, transparent commerce poses great benefits for the brand, the customer and our planet.
Is the switch to e-commerce sustainable for brands with Custom Made services?
The stay-at-home experiment clearly delineated the needs online and offline. We see validation of the idea that consumer behavior will inevitably shift to rely on a company’s digital footprint to the extent it is made convenient. Customers with a purchase history at Suitsupply fared well in a digital-only environment. They were familiar with our fit, fabrics and we were able to apply their alteration history to new purchases. However, most retail brands cannot survive on repeat business alone. New customer acquisition is an essential component of any successful business. Our best asset in that are our teams. The irreplaceable piece of the omnichannel loop in the past months was the social experience of our stores. Our customers are energized by face-to-face interactions. That’s the magic that makes everything come together. We launched our virtual shopping program with urgency to facilitate a real-time, one-on-one store experience in the privacy of a home. It is proving to be an incredible tool, but we do not believe it replaces the benefits of brick and mortar.
Your brand is known for “radically personal customer experiences.” In your professional opinion, how safe is the future of shopping for clothes?
Beyond basic precautions which are expected to ease away in the long term, analysis reveals that customers are adapting their expectations and behaviors post-pandemic. We introduced Safe Shopping Screens. These are free-standing partitions allowing for safe interaction during pinning sessions. We also implemented virtual experiences that allows you to pre-select items for store visits to reduce browsing time and guest concentration. When you arrive for a fitting session, everything is ready for you to try on with the right color and size options.
So, you see the role of technology in fashion retail as an intermediary tool, not as a solution in and of itself?
Consumers may be comfortable with platforms suggesting lightbulbs based on an algorithm, not so much when they need to pick an outfit for an important dinner Friday night. Anytime you are making a purchasing decision for something as personal as clothing, the best-in-class brands need to combine a streamlined digital offer with an experiential space and knowledgeable in-store teams. We are actually looking at walking back some of the automated experiences to deepen our relationship with customers on a human level to ensure we have an accurate understanding of their needs. The obsession for data cannot overpower the fundamental principles of service. The future of successful retail is defined by how personal your relationship with your customer can be.
What metrics should brands use to define their re-opening successes?
I believe the best metric right now is the health implications for our employees and customers. For example, we immediately recognized the intimate nature of customization process as our vulnerable area for potential community spread. This presented the most concern beyond any sales reports. A testament to the effectiveness of the protocols and innovations we applied to the in-store shopping experience is the absence of coronavirus infections among our teams and no infections traced to interactions in any of our 144 stores around the world. In 2020, this is the greatest source of pride for any brand. We are committed to keeping this momentum going.