This is a very controversial topic and not one that’s easy to write about. So when I volunteered to write on this, I had no idea of what I was getting into. I don’t even think anyone believes there is an issue here. Then why was this troubling me? Well, let’s see if I can influence you on this.
In this feature, I will talk about whether ‘seasons’ as a concept is relevant anymore in the fashion retail industry by understanding:
- the genesis and evolution of seasons as a concept in fashion
- is this one of the reasons for the retail apocalypse?
- have seasons become a noose around our neck?
- how should we look at the business going forward?
Let’s look at the seasons as we understand them.
To the world, these words denote weather patterns; but to everyone in the fashion industry, it’s a way of life. Seasons are ingrained into every process in our supply chain. A designer designs as per seasons, buyer’s OTB is seasonal, sales plans are seasonal, so on and so forth.
But are they relevant anymore?
To answer that question, we need to first understand the genesis and evolution of seasons.
The genesis and evolution of ‘seasons’
The concept of seasons in the fashion industry started because people needed season-relevant clothing due to the extremities in weather conditions. Warm clothing was a winter necessity as much as soft breathable fabrics which were a summer necessity.
Back then clothes were considered essentials or necessity. But all that changed when the world saw economic development. As more and more people became economically empowered and affluent, clothing moved from necessity to fashion.
The industrial revolution created large factories to mass-produce clothing and then came brands that wanted to increase per capita consumption. To that end, they started promoting fashion as clothes that needed to change every season. From the silhouettes to colours, something new was offered every season. What the consumers wore the previous season was denounced as redundant a few months later. Brands primarily dictated what was in trend and told the consumers what to wear and what to discard.
The whole idea was to promote more and more buying. And boy, did we succeed! Between 2000 and 2014, clothing production doubled with the average consumer buying 60 per cent more pieces of garment compared to 15 years ago. Consumers in the United Kingdom have an estimated US $ 46.7 billion worth of unworn clothes in their closets.
Over some time, this got adopted into the DNA of the fashion industry. Research developed on how to make seasons work for fashion. The whole supply chain from yarn to brands calendarised this. Retailers started buying as per this, trade shows followed, marketing calendars, design, innovation and even ERP systems hardcoded this.
In the meantime, a curious thing was happening in the industry…
Is this one of the reasons for the retail apocalypse in the last decade?
The last decade has been devastating to the American retail industry, as traditional malls and countless brands continued to shutter at record highs, some of these, iconic and heritage brands. As many as 9,300 stores closed in 2019, while 1.3 million jobs have disappeared during the last 10 years in the US alone.
There are many reasons attributed to this – most important being the onset of online platforms amongst others. But can we just pause to consider these few other points like inefficient inventory, built by incorrect sales forecasting, necessitated by long product lead times, led by a seasonal calendar followed across the industry?
But this brings us to where we started.
Have seasons become a noose around our neck?
Seasons were simply supposed to be ‘go-to-market’ periods, with new products to compel consumers to buy more. But they have taken a life of their own and become an immortal edifice to the art of storytelling.
Unfortunately, trade shows, retail buying, design cycles, marketing and innovation calendars are all bound to this seasonal logic and do not take into account category nuances and supply chain logic. Instead, they apply seasonality to everything.
Lack of transparency in supply chains has led to retailers using similar inventory norms for core, bestsellers and fashion. For example, even if core could be replenished every week, retailers still keep 8-12 weeks of inventory, just to be sure that they don’t run dry.
This seasonal approach pushes the store to refresh 70 per cent+ of their merchandise every season. This forecast and push-based supply chain led to designing and planning 6-12 months in advance. Production commitments were made months before the consumer even saw the product.
This has led to over forecasting and inefficient inventory planning. Discounting & Liquidation became another menace the industry had to deal with, sometimes having to even burn the unsold inventory. These became large looming problems for the industry, which led to the unravelling of these fashion bigwigs.
Has the seasonal DNA of the industry become obsolete?
To answer that we need to figure out what happened to sales? If traditional brands and retailers were collapsing, did this mean that people were buying fewer clothes this decade?
Well, people are still buying the same amount of clothes, if not more. This only meant that there was a shift in where the consumers were buying from. Then the next logical question would be:
How should we look at the business going forward?
To understand this, we need to study the new kids on the block.
Let’s look at some of the new businesses that have come up like ASOS, Boohoo, Myntra and many such online platforms. These were primarily tech companies, which disregarded the seasonal approach.
They focused on understanding consumer behaviour on the tech platforms, buying patterns, data mining and last-mile connectivity. Their focus was on developing products that sold, challenging the status quo.
They would introduce a product, monitor its rate of sale, and then decide how much more to make. Even the frequency of product introduction was different. The consumer bought when he wanted, not waiting for seasons and brand directions on trends.
Social media had changed the consumer forever. Brands needed to reimagine their relevance to consumers, who started looking at a multitude of influences beyond trend forecasts by fashion brands. Having lost the ability to influence trends like in the old days, brands that were following this seasonal go-to-market with forecast and push-based sales, started collapsing.
And brands that did not follow seasons and just tapped into consumer demands started flourishing. If you don’t believe me, just Google the list of brands that filed for insolvency in the States during the last decade!
The question that we therefore need to ask is should we not look at different businesses, channels and events and work on go-to-market cycles independent of seasons. This would then mean:
- Building go-to-market calendars differently for different categories, keeping in mind supply chain nuances, lead times and planning inventory basis that.
- Building the business calendar around events, festivals, seasons with equal fervour. Design and plan around these events. Many brands look at these as flash buys that are not part of the mainstream buys.
- De-risk inventory by reducing season refresh percentages and moving to a clear try and repeat strategy.
- Bring focus to replenishment business.
If we look around, we will see a lot of category-based brands and manufacturer brands who have started to play this game and quite successfully.
I leave you with the premise that ‘seasons’ as the industry DNA is obsolete. The consumer has moved on. Should we also not do the same? Do share your thoughts with me and our readers, as this is a topic that requires more exhaustive debate.