I’ve noticed recently that there has been a real shift in reporting within the retail trade press - with less of a focus on the fatalistic 'Retail Apocalypse' and the external factors impacting the industry to a more self-reflective analysis and issue solving approach and it's about time!
This reporting has included various studies and reports into the retail industry including one which caught my eye and was carried out in the US looking at the demographics of merchandising teams, it got me thinking about the disparity between consumers and the buying teams who are deciding what to stock for them.
A recent report in Apparel News stated:
"In fashion and apparel, only 10 percent of retailers’ merchandising leadership are millennials while 74 percent of those merchandisers belong to the Gen X generation, between the ages of 35 and 55."
Winning retailers have more millennial customers (20 percent) than less successful concerns (9 percent), the report said. Successful retailers count 51 percent of their customers as Gen Xers while less profitable ventures said 58 percent of their consumers were from that age group.
Against the backdrop of disappointing retail results and the attribution of these to product and stock mistakes (some examples: Next, H&M and Moss Bros) could another issue be that the industry is suffering from a generational driven breakdown in what consumers are wanting and what retailers are thinking they will want? Can one generation really truly know what another wants to buy, even before they do?
Whilst there has always been consumer ‘tribes’ and demographic differentiators, the pace of change and technological adoption in recent years have resulted in the huge generational groupings labelled Gen X, Millennials etc. These groupings are distinct not only with what items they wish to buy but also how they want to be communicated with, how they discover and follow trends and even their expectations around purchase options and delivery.
Whilst experienced buyers and merchandisers are experts at suspending their personal views and opinions to deliver products suited to a brands consumer demographic, the speed at which they are now having to turn around new trends adds an extra level of challenge, especially for teams that rely on gut feeling over cold hard data when making decisions.
This generational alignment could help explain the success enjoyed by some of the newer retail entrants - designing products for consumers such as themselves and their peer groups, where the retail teams are fully in-tune with and ‘speaking the same language” as their customers.
Gymshark and Bee Inspired are both examples of brands that were started when their founders spotted a gap in the fashion market for the type of clothes they themselves wanted to buy and wear. The natural benefit of being a young start-up with a young audience is the synergy between those making product and merchandising decisions and those wearing the clothes - it’s always quicker and easier to be personally involved in a culture than to have to do your research!
It’s not all plain sailing though, problems can develop as start-ups mature - does their target audience mature with them, if they expand the range can they keep this core understanding?
Also in larger more established retailers, it’s not uncommon for the team responsible for product decisions to be doing it for a generation that none of them is part of. Of course, I’m not advocating that staff should be gotten rid of on their birthdays or that product experts can only work on brands whose main target audience match with their own ages it does raise an interesting issue - how do you ensure that your target generation is fully represented in the product development process.
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