When it comes to the state of the retail and fashion apparel industries, the glass is either half full — or half empty. It depends on who you ask.
Online brands and the retailers who fared well during the 2017 holiday shopping season see the glass as half full. Sales were strong, with gains coming in at 4.7 percent while online sales rose 16 percent, according to some analysts. The National Retail Federation is also optimistic, and it recently issued a bullish outlook for the industry. But for many of the traditional retailers such as chain stores and department stores, the retail landscape is so challenging that stores must be shuttered and employees laid off.
Meanwhile, on the back end, shorter lead times remain a top priority, but is hard to achieve. And the convergence of online and in-store is not going as smoothly for many retailers and brands as they had hoped — despite investments in various technologies. The end-goal of creating a seamless and delightful shopping experience for consumers regardless of whether they’re shopping online, on a mobile device, a desktop or in a store remains elusive.
But for retailers who are not over-stored, over-inventoried and who have a solid omni-channel strategy in place, this year will be better than prior ones.
In its 2018 economic forecast, the NRF said it was “projecting that retail industry sales [excluding sales of automobiles, gas and meals at restaurants] will grow between 3.8 and 4.4 percent over 2017. Online and other non-store sales, which are included in the overall number, are expected to increase between 10 and 12 percent,” the NRF said in its report.
Matthew Shay, president and chief executive officer of the NRF said that a robust holiday season for retail sales “is just one of many barometers that points to a consumer that is clearly feeling positive about their financial health. Despite headlines to the contrary, the retail industry is strong, growing and meeting consumer demand with the products they want at the prices they expect and the shopping experience they want to have, online or in store. With consumer confidence high, unemployment low and wages growing, there is every reason to believe that retail sales will be robust throughout the year.”
Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist for the NRF added that the “underpinnings of the economy are very good and consumer spending is at the center of our outlook.” As such, the NRF expects a good year.
But there are fundamental changes occurring in the market that is making traditional retailing difficult. In a recent Fitch Ratings report on the sector, analysts at the firm said that retailers are “facing a number of structural changes to shopping patterns.”
“Consumers are increasingly focused on value, particularly regarding price,” authors of the Fitch report noted. “Discount-oriented models are taking share across categories, and include discount general merchants, deep discounters, club stores, dollar stores, off-price retailers and fast-fashion players, as well as online discounters such as Amazon.com Inc.”
Case in point: amid numerous store closures in 2017, Dollar General opened 1,000 units. And online, consumer behavior is rapidly changing. “Consumers are using the online channel for not only convenient shopping experiences, but also pre-purchase brand discovery and product/pricing research,” Fitch analysts said. “Expectations regarding robust and convenient shopping experiences across stores and online, the speed of online delivery and pickup/return optionality for online orders have increased.”
The Fitch report also noted the ongoing change toward consumers buying services instead of things.
And regarding the need for a more seamless and integrated shopping, retailers still have a long way to go. Researchers at NewStore issued a report recently that showed a lack of clienteling capabilities at the store level. The “Omnichannel Report” by the modular cloud platform provider showed that 19 percent of retail brands provided clienteling information to store associates while 7 percent of the companies “offer shared access for store associates to view a customer’s online shopping cart.”