February 24th WWD and LUMINE held their latest annual installment of the WWD Retail Forum Tokyo. The continuing COVID-19 pandemic necessitated an online format, a first for the event, where guest speakers represented a global selection of professionals covering a broad array of the industry’s verticals, brick and mortar, online, resale, consultancy and design studios.
The WWD Online Retail 20/21 Forum co-hosted by LUMINE, rounds up several ideas and directions for what the future of fashion retail may look like and lessons from companies who are innovating within this challenging environment, tasked with providing insight into what, perhaps for the first time since the pandemic began, a post pandemic fashion retail industry will look like.
Today’s retail landscape is in the throes of unprecedented difficulty resulting from various necessary restrictions to individual movement and mass closure of public spaces. While the Retail industry was in the midst of fundamental structural change pre-pandemic, the last year has in many cases hastened these processes. Within all of this upheaval opportunity has presented itself for those companies nimble, committed to adaptation and focused on consumer preference and behavior.
Doug Stephens, a retail consultant led off the conference describing a rather bleak retail reality, one increasing dominated by the largest of apex online and offline operators; Amazon, Walmart and Alibaba whose sheer volume of scale and vastness of reach leave little possibility for much of any operator to compete at price or diversity of offer. Instead, Mr. Stephens points out that retail companies will thrive when providing value to consumers beyond price or variety, pivoting to becoming beacons of culture, expertise, entertainment or expert information centers of specific product.
With the table set, three notable themes emerged.
While clear momentum was evident towards the efficacy of online retail pre-pandemic, most clearly championed by the tech industry’s embrace of DTC retail, the pandemic’s new reality all but makes online presence an absolute requirement. Romain Gaillard, of the Detox Market founded his multi brand retail beauty company as a program of pop ups intended to build community through a focus of educationally leaning activations championing health and wellness with events in Toronto, New York City and Venice California.
When COVID-19 hit North America his entire business plan was brought to a standstill. However, his structure was nimble enough to take advantage of the sudden and intense demand in hand cleansers, sanitizers and skincare. Through a rapid development of his, at the time smaller online operation, Gaillard was able to meet customer demand while providing more detailed product information – riding a wave of interest in self-care.
Gaillard sees his post-pandemic company as digital first, backed by a series of physical retail pop ups located just off of heavily foot trafficked locations that rather than sell products, offer educational experiences which through activation integrations provide introductions to the digital the Detox Market world.
Mark Walker, Chief Executive Officer of legendary surfer Kelly Slater’s brand Outerknown, describes his companies’ mission as one of sustainability – sourcing and constructing garments whose origins are certified organic, aligning with their own participation in the fair labor association.
Taken further the company has developed production methods that pelletize used fishing nets and carpet which can then be spun into fiber and made into shirts. These shirts can in turn, at the end of their useful lifecycle be reduced back into pellets to be re-spun into fiber.
James Reinhart, Founder of resale retailer thredUP, describes a sustained increase in demand especially amongst Gen Z consumers who are ever aware of the apparel industry’s caustic impact on the environment and as the dubious title holder as the world’s second most polluting industry.
Noting that on average 70 percent of an individual’s closet goes un-used, thredUp has developed an online infrastructure that makes turning in unused garments as frictionless as possible while connecting a potential purchaser through their digital sales portal. Sellers can also earn credits with retailers of new goods when they turn in products with partners brands such as the Gap creating a circle of purchase, return, resale and earned new product credit purchase.
Taking cues from other industries’ best practices, several speakers spoke of the automotive industry’s used car market as model for sustained value proposition in clothing beyond initial purchase.
Lisa Yamai, of Japanese outdoor lifestyle brand Snow Peak, introduced the company’s headquarters in the remote Niigata prefecture, where corporate campus is envisioned as year-round cam- ground. There, invited consumers are able to reserve a stay at one of several tent sites.
Founded in 1956, Snow Peak has charged itself with answering the question: what can the apparel industry do to improve, to create a positive impact on nature and earth?
With no answers immediately forthcoming, Yamai launched an apparel collection within the company in 2014, focusing in 2018 on local wear which has revitalized waning local artisanship in Noragi outdoor clothing, traditional outwear of the region. Through a program of local factory tours, she hopes to strengthen a bridge to consumers.
Jill Standish, of Accenture, made note of how the pandemic’s mandate to stay at home required individuals to, “hunker down home” raising demand for shorter quicker supply chains. The advent of “click and collect” developed by several retailers and realized most elegantly by the Nordstrom Local concept in New York City, is an example of a store without stock, existing solely for customer online purchase pick up and try on.
Taking this forum as an opportunity, LUMINE has the expectation that each company will deepen discussions leading to various evolutions that revitalize the industry which, eventually will reinvigorate Japan’s markets. The company has also taken on its share of new challenges and strives to create new value in the world, inspired by this thought-provoking content, from various perspectives, illuminating several paths to be taken in the future.
As the pandemic inevitably recedes into our collective rearward memory, the faint outlines of new practices and doctrine are beginning to take form. It is in this liminal moment of catastrophe where the new is not yet codified and legacy practices have not yet fully released their grip, that striking new opportunities and innovations most dynamically thrive.
While continued present difficulty is almost certain to cause continued collective pain, the beginnings of a more resilient and sensible fashion industry are just starting to take shape.