LONDON — British consumers are suffering from a fever. Shopping fever.
In the U.K., creating a frenzy has become part and parcel of launching celebrity clothing lines, designer collaborations with high street brands and beauty products. The idea is that anything, if hyped enough, can inspire mass attention, indiscriminate spending, compulsive consumer behavior — and, in some cases, even injury. (At Oxford Street’s winter sale staged by retailer Next, brawls broke out, and a crush caused consumers to fall over at Primark’s London flagship opening in April.)
Discounts of more than 50 percent on merchandise attracted crowds from as early as 4:30 a.m. onward at Selfridges’ Boxing Day sale on Dec. 26. The store served 9,000 consumers within the first hour of opening. At Harrods, sales on Dec. 28, the opening day of its winter sale, ran at 15,000 pounds, or $29,900, per minute.
At the opening of the ultra low-priced fashion chain Primark’s Oxford Street flagship last April, crowds had started lining up in the early hours of the morning. Violence nearly broke out after a false rumor was circulated among shoppers that the company had halved its prices for opening day. The event required police action and the store was temporarily closed.
Last March, a furor surrounded a tightly distributed edition of British designer Anya Hindmarch’s canvas shopping bag, embroidered with the words “I am not a plastic bag.” Lines snaked around the block at her London store — and eventually catalyzed worldwide purchases of 80,000 of the bags, priced at 5 pounds, or $10, apiece. Hindmarch stirred demand for the item, putting her canvas creation on offer at just two other boutiques, Colette in Paris and Villa Moda in Kuwait, as well as on the company’s Web site, before widening distribution in April throughout the U.K. via Sainsbury’s supermarkets and in July through Whole Foods in the U.S.
When shoppers were allowed only 20 minutes each to prowl the opening of the Kate Moss for Topshop debut in May, 3,000 Moss fans lined up around the Oxford Circus flagship — where they could try on a maximum of eight items and buy up to five of them.
“We are living in a society where consumerism is the new religion,” said David Lewis, a cognitive neuropsychologist at East Sussex University. “There’s a physiological basis for this [manic] consumer reaction. When people buy something they get excited, and it releases a chemical in the brain, phenylethylamine, which is present in chocolate and affects the brain like an amphetamine,” continued Lewis, author of “The Soul of the New Consumer” (Nicholas Brealey Publishing). “It’s addictive.”
Increasingly, retailers are engineering public relations and marketing campaigns to launch designer or celebrity lines, or offering limited editions. H&M and Topshop issued bags of refreshments to queuing shoppers at introductions of their respective ranges of Roberto Cavalli in November (croissants and orange juice) and Kate Moss in May (Evian and sweets). Moss herself appeared at Topshop, modeling some of the self-named line in the store’s windows for a few seconds before being overwhelmed by the throng on the other side of the glass and stepping back inside.
“The whole experience is designed to create a feeling and atmosphere,” Lewis noted. “At these launches, the presence of TV [cameras and paparazzi] also adds the sensation of being involved in something glamorous, being a part of news or celebrity.”
Still, it can be a fine line for fashion brands to walk between enough excitement and too much hype. “It is a very fine balance to negotiate, particularly with a designer like Roberto Cavalli for H&M,” said Rita Clifton, chairman of the U.K. unit of consultant Interbrand. “You can’t have people thinking the clothes are cheap. Armani is very good at this, subbranding down the scale and maintaining exclusivity for his main collections.”
Not surprisingly, Jörgen Andersson, marketing director of H&M, considers the brand’s exclusive designer launches as “shopping events.”
“Girls put it in the diary and meet for breakfast before,” Andersson said. “It creates something fun that people talk about. It’s the whole idea of bringing an extremely talented designer to people who would not have otherwise had the opportunity to buy it. It’s making it reachable for a short moment,” he continued. “For example, with Karl Lagerfeld, the closest most people normally get to the Chanel brand is buying the perfume.”
The clamor for Anya Hindmarch’s $10 reusable shopping bag was also rooted in a celebrity connection. The canvas totes attracted interest after they were included in Oscar goody bags and were subsequently photographed by a number of magazines dangling from stars such as Reese Witherspoon, Jessica Biel and Keira Knightley.
“Frenzy occurs with the fear of someone having more than you,” Lewis observed. The prospect of a limited supply adds to “that kind of panic,” the author-psychologist pointed out.
“I just came to check it out, but I got totally sucked in,” related a 22-year-old woman shopping the H&M Cavalli launch at the brand’s Knightsbridge store in November. “Before I knew where I was, I was grabbing armfuls of stuff.”
Different strategies seem to work best for different brands.
For H&M, each of its designer collections was marketed with an intensive print, TV and billboard advertising campaign, combined with a flurry of editorial features. “We start it very close to the launch. We are always crystal clear [in communicating] the launch date and the stores it will be at. Like with a film or releasing concert tickets,” said Andersson.
However, in the case of Kate Moss’ line for Topshop, Andrew Leahy, Topshop’s public relations chief, said the retailer tried to temper the frenzy with its limits on time allocated for each shopper and the limited number of items available for each person to try on and purchase.
“We found the frenzy thing a turn-off,” said Leahy. “We wanted the opposite of those shots of people fighting over a dress. We wanted it to be a pleasurable experience for the customer.”
There’s another consideration as well. Consumers at high-profile launches buying in bulk — often indiscriminately without trying on the clothes — can result in increased product returns. As a result, Topshop included a number of fitting rooms in the Kate Moss concession to help ensure consumers were happy with their eventual purchases. “It doesn’t look good for the designer involved to have scattered pieces of a collection lingering on a shop’s floor,” Leahy said.
Other retailers pointed out the drawbacks in the climate of retail frenzy, not least the invitation for negative press. “It’s a double-edged sword. Look at Lily Allen for New Look,” said one public relations manager at a fashion brand, referring to photos in newspapers of a distinct lack of crowds at the launch of the singer’s collection for the high street chain. “There’s so much media anticipation that if you don’t get a crowd, it’s a failure. Brands have started to be judged by the public and the press by the lines at these events.”
Will 2008 see the shopping frenzy grow? “I think it has peaked,” Topshop’s Leahy said. Others saw a possible consumer spending slowdown at retail and rising interest rates as potentially calming the outbreaks of shopping hysteria.
Will men ever fight for fashion? “No, they are too vain,” Leahy responded. “Although if Hedi Slimane did a high street collection, it might change. That, I would queue for.”