Look Down! Look Up! Look to your left, then right and now behind. Did you see a shirt, tie, some colleagues and files or did you see pyjamas, posters and a closet? Neither? It’s okay as long as the items in the list don’t switch. Why you ask? Because nobody would want to conduct a board meeting in a Mickey Mouse pyjama and Wizard of Oz hat. That’s how the social construct is, and derived from it is fashion.
The outfit of a person is a source of communication altogether. Occasion, emotion, announcement and attraction, all projected with a combination of apparels and accessories dawned by the communicator. The Apparel market, conceived from this need of the society has shaped itself into one. Segmented, competitive, dynamic and unpredictable. And at the peak sit on a gilded throne the successful firms of the premium segment, maintaining a steady path of growth even in the volatility that prevails.
To get a gist of the apparel market, look at the two images below. Now try to guess what each of these similar looking jeans would be worth.
If a person is being rational, she/he would obviously assign a higher worth to the one on the right because it has more fabric, looks new and more ‘complete’. In reality, the one on the right is listed on Levi’s online store at $59.90 and other one is by Acne Studios having a retail price of $375.00 and is worn by Rihanna. This deafening echoes of ‘How?’ is what makes the apparel market so interesting. We would try to answer it in this article don’t worry.
So where does the magic happen for these firms? Is it the brand name, aspirational value or a cult?
It’s a Greek salad of all of them. A string of strategic and marketing decisions yields the power to these firms to extract such a high premium from apparels.
Zara is a brand that is synonymous with the apparel industry. The Spanish juggernaut is worth a massive $11.3 Billion and continues to grow at an astonishing 15% in the industry. A figure some firms consider beyond the ideal. Armani, an Italian empire in the apparel industry worth $9.1 billion is the go-to brand for the rich and famous.
The reason for their success is clever strides with respect to every element of the value chain right from the manufacturer to the customer.
Premium apparel brands are known to possess some of the finest scales to measure trends, weather, tastes, forecasts etc. It derives its competitive advantage from the skills of its human resource, the reliability of its measures, involvement of its top management, its exclusivity and power over the sales and distribution chain. The designers at the firms have to protect each and every design that is approved for production, even though the life cycle of the product can sometimes be smaller than the time taken to approve the design in other brands. The labour is sparsely distributed to skilled European workers along with South-East Asian and Latin American workforce rather than wholly to China. And on a completely unrelated note, the US government or the market hasn’t had any major tussle with either Zara or Armani even with multiple sweatshop and child labour allegations (Sorry Apple!).
Big brands like Zara have a rapid channel for transportation of apparels from the factory to the stores. The life of a design is a ticking time bomb. The stock has to be sold before it goes off. This is the age of what is called Fast Fashion. The number of times an apparel is worn is going down and the number of shopping trips is increasing. The objective of the brands is to frequently end up in the shopping cart in a huge quantity. Zara can deliver and if needed replace stocks within 24 hours in its European outlets and within 40 hours in any of its international outlets. That’s the extent of how tightly the harness is held by the firms. Because, if the boat of fashion trend sails off, they would be looking at a gigantic mountain of unsold stock.
And what do you do with an unsold stock with a sale value of hundreds and thousands of dollars? Simple. You burn it.
This is the most important block of the entire chain. Every process, decision and estimate converge to what the customer wants and how to the customer acts. Now on the images that you initially saw. Why do ripped jeans carry such a premium?
Because as tools of communication, our clothes also reveal our journey as a human being. A person when he wears a half designed t-shirt, a crumpled jacket or a torn pair of jeans, it is representative of the tough journey the person has been through (Even though the hardest thing he/she would do in life is waiting at a Starbucks life for 3.5 extra minutes!). A perfect piece of clothing is new, has no history and has no story to tell. This story comes at a premium which in the aforementioned case is 525%. (Pro Tip: 365 bedtime stories, Parragon Books Ltd. is listed on Amazon at 11 bucks just in case!)
Another factor used by big brands is the fear of missing out. The movement of fashion and apparel design is so fast paced that a shopper is put in a position to make a hasty decision to either buy it or take the risk of it not being there for sale tomorrow. And most shoppers being risk-averse, choose to buy it now to minimise any regret later. And the cycle goes on and on. This keeps the inventory turnover extremely high for the firms, giving them the advantage and eventually growth. This also enables them to spend mere pennies on digital advertising.
Although the apparel market might seem stagnant, it’s a volatile entity. It is a society on its own sitting on untapped opportunities for the smart workers and disrupters to unearth. It is unlike all the other markets and is spread across multiple dimensions. An industry where the economic, societal and psychological elements collide. So the next time you are checking the price tag of a cool hoodie, remember that it might turn more than one gear at a time.
Go On, Tell Us What You Think!
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Abhishek Shridhar is a student of the Integrated Programme in Management at IIM Indore. He has been involved in the field of article writing for the past 2 years and was a part of the Media and PR team of i5 Entrepreneurship Summit 2017.