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Op-Ed | The Problem With ‘Buy Now’

Consumer-driven ‘buy now’ strategies can damage fashion brands, argues Pascal Morand, executive president of the Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode.
By
  • Pascal Morand

PARIS, France — 'Buy now' has become a hotly debated term and topic throughout the fashion industry. Of course, there is nothing more basic and natural than the ability to easily buy a piece of clothing and wear it immediately. This is precisely what makes the argument in favour of 'buy now' seem so positive. At the same time, arguing against 'buy now' seems to imply having the old-fashioned view that it's better not to be able to buy something and use it immediately. The matter, however, is much more complex, not least because the concept of 'buy now' can mean different things.

Four Types of ‘Buy Now’

The first kind of 'buy now' is linked to seasonality. Seasonal buy now is tied to the idea that it's better to be able to buy a fashion product at the time when it's best worn. This kind of synchronization is increasingly popular because, for consumers, no matter what their income, buying a coat in July or a summer outfit in January is unnatural, unless, of course, they are planning to travel to another hemisphere.

The second kind of 'buy now' could be called consumer-driven buy now. This is based on the idea that fashion shows should be B2C events synchronized to the retail cycle. Under this scenario, some believe fashion shows should literally showcase inventory that's available to buy, closely matching demand generation with what's at retail, and thereby transforming dream-inducing shows as we know them into sales events.

The concept is also supposed to protect fashion design from speedy 'fast fashion' copycats. Applying this logic would mean pushing the Autumn/Winter womenswear collections, normally held in Paris in March, later to July or even September. A similar scenario would have to happen with the Spring/Summer collections. This is only possible, of course, if buying takes place upstream, at the usual time, as the average time between when retail buyers place their orders and when the clothes arrive in stores is about five months. The supply chain can always be improved, but its laws, like those of physics, are irreducible.

The third kind of 'buy now' is disintermediated buy now. This is where consumers can attend fashion shows or trunk shows and pre-order the items they like, knowing the goods will arrive five months later. In this case, the traditional fashion show calendar remains in place, but has a B2C component. One could call this see now, buy now, wear later or even pre-buy now since the consumer might have to place a deposit on their order.

The fourth type of 'buy now' relates to e-commerce and could be called digital buy now. Of course, e-commerce allows consumers to instantly buy with a simple click. The consumer takes great pleasure in the instantaneous nature of digital shopping and major social media players like Facebook and Pinterest are following Twitter's move to embed 'buy' buttons across their platforms, hoping to more tightly link demand generation to purchase and creating new marketplaces where retailers, brands, media and social platforms are obliged to cooperate as much as to compete on them for access to consumers and the resulting sales revenue.

Why Is 'Buy Now' So Controversial?

First, let's make clear that it's consumer-driven buy now that's at the heart of the current debate among fashion industry players. Everyone seems to agree that seasonal buy now is a logical approach that would probably be good, even necessary, to embrace. Meanwhile, disintermediated buy now could be implemented in parallel — but at what scale? And, so far, nobody has proposed the absurd idea that fashion reject e-commerce.

The idea of consumer-driven buy now is hardly new. It's been discussed in recent years both in France and abroad. But even if some have experimented with this approach, it has never been widely adopted for several reasons. For a start, consumer-driven buy now requires designers to freeze the development of their collections for several months before showing them on the runway in order to put them into production in time to stock stores before staging their show. This contradicts a designer's psychology and way of working. Indeed, many creatives prefer not to show their work after they have already moved onto their next project.

Secondly, consumer-driven buy now gives the consumer tremendous control. Trying to better understand and serve is the least we can do. But ultimately, if we follow this logic too far, we end up with consumers creating or co-creating their own products. And in the field of fashion, you can have too much of a good thing! Interacting more closely with consumers is clearly an imperative for brands of all kinds, but at a certain point the idea of being 'consumer-driven' undermines the kind of 'creative push' approach that leads to genuine innovation. This is because consumers typically favour smooth and incremental change. "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses," Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, is famous for having said. One can easily imagine how a panel of consumers might have reacted to Yves Saint Laurent's interpretation of the men's tuxedo for women! Let's remember that fashion design often works against market trends and consumers start to understand a design's meaning and relevance gradually, the same way they learn to understand disruptive product innovation à la Steve Jobs. The time between the date of a fashion show and the availability of product at retail is something that helps fuel desire and curiosity for consumers who have become accustomed to novelty.

There is no brand or group of brands that holds a monopoly on creativity, of course. But it’s perfectly possible to say that fashion labels whose concept is based on lifestyle and immediate wearability are better suited to a consumer-driven approach than those which constantly blend an identifiable style with disruptive creativity.

The perplexing idea of creativity-led designer brands moving towards consumer-driven fashion shows becomes even more complicated when digital media enters the picture. This is rather paradoxical because the digital world can be a terrific booster for creativity. It has, in particular, greatly benefited creativity in music, while also evolving the business model for the music industry. However, the use of digital technology can reduce and erode creativity. This risk is perceptible in fashion. Although it is undeniable that digital distribution of photos and videos can provoke new and strong emotional experiences, the fact remains that creativity and savoir-faire can be negatively affected. This stems from the fact that a digital image, even if 3D, is only a bowdlerized version of what can be experienced in real life — for instance, the perception of a fabric's movement or fit or touch, all of which make up a big part of the creative process in fashion and cannot be really experienced or appreciated digitally, despite the progress of haptic technology.

Thus, the damage which digital and consumer-driven buy now strategies can do to creativity in fashion is clear. Indeed, it's not hard to imagine how easily a designer could be driven to a kind of self-censorship by anticipating and worrying about how his collection might be perceived when shown digitally to consumers. And, of course, the idea of delaying the distribution of digital images to the public is hardly plausible.

There are also economic issues with this version of 'buy now,' notably the financial risks of pre-ordering stock, which only well-capitalised brands with their own stores and the ability to coordinate runway looks with in-store merchandising can do well. This is not the case for young fashion brands. Imagine that an ensemble by an emerging brand is unexpectedly highlighted by a digital influencer, while other pieces are ignored, resulting in an imbalance between what the brand is offering for sale and consumer demand, which could come with heavy consequences. Moreover, all brands would be increasingly exposed to the risks inherent in quick response to consumer interest, which would adversely impact quality and creativity.

The study by the Boston Consulting Group commissioned by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) brings an enriching perspective to the overall debate. It shows that the 'in-season opportunity model' — their terminology for consumer-driven buy now — is far from achieving widespread support. The study links this approach ipso facto to the idea of seasonal buy now, which is questionable. It also outlines a 'hybrid model' that is totally current, although more moderate, and underscores the fact that digital consumer-driven buy now is best applied to a small part of a creative brand's offering, like capsule collections or limited-edition bags.

The Relationship to Time

In the future, what kind of relationship will fashion have with time? Perhaps this is the ultimate question. The notion of seasonal buy now means better pacing. It also requires an end to premature discounting as underscored by the CFDA study, something the Fédération Française de la Couture has also strongly advocated.

We live in the Empire of Instantaneity. Today, Mick Jagger's "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" could be rephrased: "I Can Get Now Any Satisfaction." Impatience has become a way of life, a habit. And it's undeniable that the fashion industry has been completely transformed by social networks and the rise of new B2B and B2C platforms. To be sure, many interesting and stimulating options loom over the horizon. But we also have to beware of the risk of immediacy and keep in mind the words, written nearly a century ago, of French author Henry de Montherlant: "The day will come when, given the banality of speed and the ease of its one-upmanship, slowness will appear as the most natural way to express a certain delicacy."

Pascal Morand is the executive president of the Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode.

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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