Backstage at Telfar Men's Fall 2020

LONDON — Retailers have been in an ongoing race to keep up to speed with the new generation of digitally savvy customers used to getting everything with a mere click — up until early this year it wasn’t unusual to expect a 90-minute delivery for a luxury fashion order.

But lockdown, factory closures and the shift to slower, more local lifestyles have forced the system to slow down — and customers to become more patient.

Cue the pre-order model: Brands and retailers alike have been increasingly relying on selling new collections on pre-order and most agree that this “slower consumption” system will continue to resonate with luxury consumers in the long term.

When placing a pre-order, customers get access to a new collection as soon as it’s released and buy into it before it’s even produced, by looking at runway or look book imagery, much like professional buyers. They then receive their orders up to six months later once the production cycle is completed.

“Designers can pre-sell their complete collections and only produce what has been purchased, reducing excess waste. For an emerging designer trying to run a business during a pandemic, [pre-order] is a viable solution that requires zero inventory,” said Lisa Aiken, fashion director at Moda Operandi, whose business was first built on designer trunk shows, offering customers the chance to preview new collections in their entirety and pre-order.

Moda doubled down on its trunk show business amid the pandemic, hosting a series of Moda Live virtual shopping events where its clients got early previews of collections and interacted with designers in real time.

According to Aiken, luxury shoppers have been increasingly looking for quality over quantity, so their attitude toward speed of delivery is changing as a result.

“Clients are more than willing to wait several months for a trunk show order if it means they’re receiving a quality piece they love,” she said, adding that pre-orders work for trendy accessories as much as all ready-to-wear categories, from lounge to resort wear.

More traditional wholesale retailers such as Net-a-porter are also seeing the opportunity and jumping on the pre-order bandwagon. Net-a-porter extended the service — previously only available to high net worth clients via its personal shopping team — to the wider public in July.

An edit of key runway pieces from the likes of Chloé, Dries Van Noten, Carolina Herrera, Gabriela Hearst and Etro, among others, are now available to pre-order on the Net web site for an October delivery. The pitch to customers? Being “the first to wear next season’s key looks.”

Adopting pre-order can give retailers access to valuable data to make more informed investments when it comes to seasonal buys, which could also potentially mean higher sell-throughs and less unsold inventory at the end of the season.

“We analyze pre-order data to help inform the seasonal buys, as trunk show bestsellers are a great indicator for what will sell in the next season. A recent example includes Rosie Assoulin’s ‘Thousand-In-One-Ways’ sweater from her pre-fall trunk show. This top resonated with the Moda client early on, which allowed us to make a deep investment with high confidence,” Aiken said.

For independent brands, offering their collections on pre-order on their own platforms has also proven to be an effective way to engage customers directly, tackle cash flow issues — and answer to some of the industry’s biggest sustainability issues.

By knowing the exact quantities ordered instead of predicting demand, brands end up with little if any unsold stock, while customers never have to deal with their product of choice being sold out.

“We are not about hype and scarcity. The whole point of our bag is accessibility and community. But when thousands of bags sell per second we can’t even know how many to make. We plan production six months in advance. It takes time and money to make bags and we are 100 percent self financed,” said Telfar Clemens, whose label Telfar made waves at the end of August when offering its popular vegan leather totes on pre-order for the first time.

Buzzy British label The Vampire’s Wife has always offered pre-order for special, high-demand styles, like the emerald green Falconetti dress worn by the Duchess of Cambridge.

“Pre-orders are ideal for an independent brand. They allow us to try out new styles without a huge financial commitment. It is a way to further understand what our customers are desiring moment-to-moment. We buy fabric and commit resources [depending on] each order.  It is an extremely efficient model that helps eradicate overproduction and waste and has supported our cashflow and planning, especially during the pandemic where all vendors and partners have slowed payments down,” said the label’s president Leonardo Lawson.

During the pandemic, The Vampire’s Wife amped up its pre-order strategy and extended it to its new line of masks.

Customers still proved willing to wait even for a high-demand product like a mask: “Some styles [of masks] were selling out 1,000 units in under 15 minutes. We use the same couture finishes from our dresses on the masks, so it wasn’t possible to mass produce in the quantities demanded, yet our customers pre-ordered and waited up to one month for new styles,” Lawson added. “They feel that they are receiving something special while our direct-to-consumer business is supported by this model. It’s a win-win scenario.”

Up-and-coming footwear designer Havva Mustafa has been adopting a similar approach since turning her label’s focus to a direct-to-consumer model.

“Pre-orders really help to gauge which pieces our customers are connecting with the most, allowing us to put together a more accurate production order. This means we do not burden ourselves with unnecessary stock. It also means that we are able to use the pre-orders to finance factory expenses, preventing bottle necks in our cash flow,” said the designer, adding that as customers become “more accustomed” to a slower pace of consumption, the aim will be to achieve a balance between pre-orders and instantly shoppable online drops.

“If they find an item that they like and are invested in, then they will have the patience to wait rather than finding an alternative.”

So could pre-ordering from the runway offer a healthier alternative to see-now-buy-now collections that require designers to invest in producing an entire collection in advance?

“[Pre-orders] allow for unlimited creative freedom from designers and let them optimize for creativity rather than salability, giving the consumer more choice,” Aiken said. “See-now-buy-now collections are often edited down by the time they reach the consumer to optimize for their commercial performance.”

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