Eric Musgrave

Since 1980, menswear & fashion retail commentator, opinionated thought-leader,
event host & all-round top bloke. Contact me to discuss working together.

Fashion needs to wake up to the climate of change

I wrote this post for specialist fashion courier firm Freight Brokers (Motto: Signed. Sealed. Delivered). 

After 36 years of observing and analysing the fashion business, I am a great admirer for the skill, expertise and cleverness of so many people in every sector of the amazing industry.

Yet every so often I wonder if those folk directing even our biggest brands and largest retailers have a clue what is going on in the world. This thought springs to my mind each and every time I consider the increasingly mad schedule of seasonal deliveries and subsequent trading behaviour. Have these people never heard of climate change?

I did not know whether to laugh or cry when I learned that both Next and Marks and Spencer had delivered their first autumn drops a few weeks ago on what was, in most parts of the UK, the hottest day of the year. We were not yet out of July, the school holidays had barely started in most areas, yet our two leading retailers and many smaller concerns had already slashed the price of summer stock to make way for heavier merchandise.

Over the years so many executives have admitted to me that the fashion system has somehow become perilously out-of-sync with our changing climate patterns and consumer behaviour, yet they usually claim to be powerless to do anything about.

They blame their competitors. They blame long lead times for production. They blame intransigent fabric manufacturers at the start of the supply chain. What they don’t blame is their own weakness, lack of leadership and absence of will to slice through the current practice to devise a calendar that is more fit for purpose.

What is needed is a much more sophisticated attitude to weather, a much fuller analysis of what weather patterns are developing, and a greater understanding that they should not be leaving essential business decisions to chance.

The past two spring seasons in the UK have been subject to heavy rain which have resulted in sales being – excuse the obvious pun – a complete washout. Most retailers and brands would probably put this down to a bit of bad luck, but what if wet springs are in fact the new normal. How many times will this have to happen before they decide to change their product offer?

How many times does October, for example, have to display all the characteristics of a lovely Indian summer before the fashion industry might acknowledge that this might not be unusual?

I am impressed by the work of Planalytics, a US company with a UK subsidiary based in London, which works with fashion clients to reduce the impact of variable weather. It points out that while there has been a slight warming trend in the UK, the bigger trend is in how consumers purchase. There has been a shift to buying “for now” – both in food and clothing.

The weather in the UK only repeats itself 15-20% of the time and retailers tend to plan off last year’s behaviour. This makes seasonal buying extremely challenging as more consumers are now waiting to purchase on a “need” basis. The “shoulders” of the seasons (March/April and August/September) are much more sensitive to the weather and Planalytics sees much more volatility in sales of seasonal products around these times.

March in the UK is a great example of how even small changes in weather versus the previous year drive huge changes in consumer demand. Most retailers are set up with strong focus on spring product but the weather is not the same year-on-year, so consumers’ demands change year-on-year. The Planalytics Weather Driven Demand Index for Women’s T-shirts show this remarkable percentage unit change in recent UK years:

2013 v 2012    -52%

2014 v 2013   +115

2015 v 2014   -15%

2016 v 2015   -3%

In July just past, the average mean temperature for the month was 16.4 degrees, 1.8 degrees warmer than July 2015. Based on Planalytics’ weather-driven demand index, this relatively small change in temperature drove increased sales on T-shirts of +11%, sandals +14% and swimwear +24%. Yet many British retailers had already reduced much of their summer ranges to make way for new transitional or autumn product. There was an opportunity this year to clear through summer products with less discounting, while the warm temperature meant there would be less demand for the early autumn ranges anyway.

I wonder how many retailers adopt the sort of scientific analysis and planning Planalytics offers. Given that the fashion business is in a period of unprecedented change, with the rise of online shopping only exacerbating the challenges caused by a slowdown in consumer demand in a ridiculously overcrowded market, a re-evaluation of the entire attitude to climatic seasons may be viewed as another problem too big to be wrestled with.

But too many players are getting it too wrong too often at present. Stock that is not fit for (climatic) purpose sits there unbought, which inevitably leads to markdowns. British customers have become, like the Americans before them, trained to wait for a discount. One way to wean them off this addiction is to provide irresistible product that is weather-relevant, something that is based on forward projections on meteorological patterns, not past performance.

The solution is likely to be more complicated than just producing more “transitional” styles. It will be easier too for own-label multiples to devise a different way of working than, say, department stores that rely heavily on hundreds of third-party brands.

The operators who get to grips with this first are likely to see benefits in terms of full-margin sales quite quickly, but I am not underestimating the complexity of the issue. I am fully aware that fashion is becoming more international and many businesses will have to factor in different demands from beyond the shores.

Heaven knows getting things right to suit the UK is challenging enough, climate change or no climate change. As Woody Allen so cleverly observed: “I love the weather in Britain. You can enjoy all four seasons in one day.”

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