Op-Ed | Are Stores Becoming Commoditised?

In the Internet Age, fashion consumers increasingly know what they want long before they visit retailers, undermining the traditional role of department stores and boutiques as curators of style, argues Eugene Rabkin.

Interior of a fashion boutique | Source: Shutterstock

NEW YORK, United States — Gene Pressman, the grandson of the founder of the iconic New York department store Barneys, which for decades was Gotham City’s principle tastemaker, famously said to The New York Times: “If you give customers what they want, then you die… The fact is they don’t know what they want.” In other words, the role of a successful store was to lead consumers and tell them what they should be wearing.

But is this still the case?

Today, the same products are often available at many stores across the world  — and, despite differences in visual merchandising, the rise of global e-commerce makes this homogeneity plainly visible, threatening to commoditise the role of the traditional fashion retailer. What’s more, consumers can save money by comparing shopping sites across various geographies and, increasingly, it’s price, not careful curation by retailers, that drives purchase decisions.

Furthermore, “the consumer is now influenced by a radically expanded group of tastemakers, ranging from traditional retailers and magazines to bloggers and friends,” said Lyst founder Chris Morton. “This shift has been driven by the dominance of social platforms in the content space like Twitter and Pinterest, and in the commerce space, like Lyst.”

Indeed, with a thriving ecosystem of influential fashion blogs, forums, Tumblrs, Instagram accounts, Polyvore moodboards and other social media only a few clicks away, consumers increasingly discover and research their purchases long before they visit retailers, undermining the traditional role of stores as arbiters of style who once answered the perennial question: “What should I wear?”

Sure, savvy retailers now operate their own blogs and Instagram accounts, but the truth is that, today, the rapper Kanye West is ultimately responsible for driving more sales of Givenchy t-shirts than anyone else. Indeed, Riccardo Dalai, the owner of Riccardi boutique in Boston, said he could not re-order them fast enough despite their lofty price tags. “These kids, when they come into the store, they already know what they want,” he said.

The Internet has also bridged the gap between brands and consumers. By now, most major brands operate their own e-commerce stores. Moreover, e-commerce has radically reduced barriers to entry for young labels, who are racing to establish their own direct-to-consumer retail channels. Of course, the math makes sense. Why deal with middlemen — who take a significant cut, often pay late, or don’t pay at all — when you can lock in a handsome profit margin by dealing with consumers directly?

“It remains the role of any fashion boutique to edit and contextualise products through merchandising and editorial strategies and, in doing so, infuse them with greater significance and socio-cultural cachet,” said Alex Kasavin, who is poised to open a new boutique called Idol in New York’s Williamsburg neighbourhood later this month. However, Kasavin did acknowledge the challenges facing fashion retailers, saying that, generally, brands are playing a growing role in controlling how their products are presented and that it has become increasingly dangerous for a store to define its aesthetic preferences too narrowly.

Hopefully, the best independent boutiques and department stores will continue to flourish. A great store can still surprise by introducing clients to new designers and entice them with great merchandising and immersive experiences. But the fact remains that retailers, large and small, are scrambling to adjust to the new shopping landscape. Some, like Lane Crawford, are adding experiential elements to their stores and upgrading their customer service offerings. Others are placing strategic importance on exclusive products. Barneys, for one, has heavily advertised its XO (Exclusively Ours) label to stress the exclusivity of their offerings.

These moves may stem the tide, but they won’t stop it. By and large, today’s customers know exactly what they want — and where to get it — long before they visit a store.

Eugene Rabkin is the editor of StyleZeitgeist magazine and the founder of stylezeitgeist.com

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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  1. this is probably the biggest issue facing the fashion industry. in the last eight weeks i have been to Paris twice, milan twice, new york, LA and Vegas. i saw the same product and in many cases the same windows. in fact it sometimes even feels like you are talking to the sa

    Robby Ingham from Heathcote, New South Wales, Australia
  2. Gene and Barney’s were also famous for breaking new talent which is a sure way to build cache and retain the edge in sales. I understand that working with designers early in their career can be daunting and we’re addressing that.

    Seth Friedermann from Brooklyn, NY, United States
  3. without question, the game has changed. The issue is much more segmented that the article describes as it would be hard to believe that anyone buying a Givenchy t shirt, for example, is price shopping… they may be searching availability but not price and conversely if one is searching for a pair of Levis or Keds. the internet is a double edged sword for brick and mortar stores unless they compete on the same playing field as their on line counterparts. sstaying on top of “one’s” emails blasts and presences on instagram and tumblr and facebook have become full time jobs for retailers which, Personally, I believe pays off in the long run as suddenly loyalty or comfort with a site or store comes into play

    JEFFREY FELNER from New York, NY, United States
  4. Additionally, I feel as if,at least in America, the stores don’t house nearly as much as the online shop version, or you can get it somewhere better for cheaper or faster. Physical stores have fallen back in the game, also, because customer service is lacking. People no longer really know how to speak to one another. This is a generalization, of course, but still factually based.

    Sabrina Hamilton from Clarksville, TN, United States
  5. Even if the Internet is driving taste and dictating style, the fact remains that department stores, especially in the US, have fallen way behind in merchandise, selection and service.

    On a recent trip to Tokyo, I was astonished at the high level of service at stores where seven or eight women, all bowing and smiling, were staffed behind each counter selling scarves, purses, perfumes. In Shibuya, I rode the escalator in one store up ten floors of just luxury men’s clothes. The Ginza is packed with people and outstanding stores.
    Japan excels in real life presentation, selection and service.

    While other nations cannot hope to equal Japan, the standard of excellence on that island nation is something to admire. And department store mediocrity in America is something to lament.

    Andrew Hurvitz from Van Nuys, CA, United States