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Op-Ed | The Case Against ‘See Now, Buy Now’

The lag between a collection’s appearance on the runway and its availability in store is critical in developing the consumer’s desire to purchase, argues Anabel Maldonado.
Burberry's February 2017 catwalk show | Source: InDigital
  • Anabel Maldonado

LONDON, United Kingdom — There's a key aspect of consumer psychology that has been overlooked in the fashion industry's push towards "see now, buy now", a concept born from a perpetrated fear that consumers, particularly millennials, are easily bored and constantly searching for newness.

While there are practical arguments for this fashion immediacy model, which makes garments available to buy immediately after they appear on the runway, the traditional lag between show and shop floor is fundamental to longer-term commercial gains. The gap in time is vital because it allows for cultural and personal value to develop around a product through repeat exposure, endorsement, and most importantly, customer-product projection.

Here's what I mean by the latter. Kering CEO François-Henri Pinault says that the gap between a runway show and product arriving in store creates desire, and that removing it will negate the dream. As a fashion professional with a psychology background, I have found that the impetus to visualise and project oneself into the future by viewing collections that won't go on sale for six months to be one of fashion's most powerful effects. What could be more exhilarating and motivating than seeing an Autumn collection in February, and being immediately propelled into September, wondering who you will be by then, what you will have achieved, what changes you will have made in life, and what you will wear from all these collections that will best represent this future you?

A lot happens in the consumer psyche during this lag that advocates of “see now, buy now” are not grasping. Value in luxury fashion is culturally established through repeat exposure, in addition to a number of internal processes within the consumer. As in other areas of psychology, the instant-gratification element of fashion immediacy may very well decrease the desire, anticipation and romance that comes with the traditional fashion system.

The traditional lag between show and shop floor is fundamental to longer-term commercial gains.

The argument that if you’ve already seen a product several times, then you’re bored of it by the time it hits stores, goes against much of what we know from marketing psychology. Research proves that messages are more effective when repeated and that recurring exposure to a stimulus over time makes us like it more. The term “effective frequency” describes the number of times a consumer must be exposed to a message before achieving the desired response — buying the product — and asserts that there must be a certain concentration of media to cross that threshold. The fear that consumers are put off a product by too much exposure may ironically thwart the process required to reach that threshold.

In fashion, the stimulus, of course, comes from visual and social cues. These might be from social media, press coverage or validation from members of one’s social group. By the time a product has launched, I’ve subconsciously compared that product to everything else out that season, decided what’s most ‘me’ and my initial reaction is relived and strengthened. The threshold is met and I’ve gone from “I like that” to “I clearly have to have it as I’m still thinking about it despite having seen so much else.”

Profiles of the millennial consumer vary, but one dubious claim is that we are all obsessed with being the first to have the newest thing. Nothing has changed about the motivation to buy luxury products. Luxury purchases are still emotional purchases. People buy expensive things that they identify with. If the aesthetic is spot-on in the view of the consumer, if it speaks to who they are, if it captures their identity, they may buy something instantaneously. They may very well buy it now, buy it later, and then buy it again next season in a different colour. But this is the exception. Mostly, and particularly with more directional fashion, this consumer-product identification process and the build of cultural value around a product takes time to reach a broader market. The point from seeing it once, twice, three times, to peak I'm-buying-it level may very well depend on the product, the shopper, and that person's individual disposition for novelty. Not everyone loved those Gucci fur slippers right away.

Also, yes, ageing millennials have more money to spend, but it’s worth remembering that most aren’t high net-worth individuals with an infinite budget, so they still need time to calibrate collections. They’ll buy several investment pieces a season once they’ve sat on it, not everything they like from the runway at once because all the best supermodels were at the show (!) and it was streamed live (!) from a scene-y venue (!).

Those pro 'see now, buy now' are overestimating the commercial power of fashion show buzz.

What leads to a purchase is the combination of established cultural and personal value when one has begun to imagine themselves with this product over time. I'm walking into meetings with my new Céline bag and owning the room. I'll be a more polished, confident version of myself strolling around in those Aquazzura boots. An emotional connection has been established and at this point, I don't care what season it's from. I still think about the Balenciaga block-colour loafers from Autumn/Winter 2010 and would jump at the chance to buy them now.

So, how much of a lag does there need to be for value to build around a product? Is there a way to compensate for the gap within a fashion immediacy model and recreate the “effective frequency” process in a shorter time period? Armed with better awareness of how cultural and personal value is created, can we expedite this and connect with consumers through shrewd, swiftly executed product placement, savvy PR and high-quality targeted editorial?

Not likely. For the average high-fashion collection, this process needs to happen organically, and these connections get fostered during the lag. In deciding whether to move towards "see now, buy now", it would be wise to take into consideration that the model doesn't give space for the customer to fall, to project. I'd feel very pressured and forced to choose something quick if I was thrown right into Autumn/Winter in actual Autumn/Winter without adequate time to calibrate. And while there is a digitally conditioned desire for more newness, there's no reason why this can't be satisfied with easy-to-digest capsule collections.

Those pro "see now, buy now" are overestimating the commercial power of fashion show buzz, and grossly underestimating everything that happens internally for a consumer during the lag. They are afraid of losing out on show ROI, but they may end up with a smaller burst of short-term profit while sabotaging the process that needs to take place for value to reach peak levels, tap into a larger market, and seduce the consumer powerfully enough to convert.

Anabel Maldonado is a London-based fashion journalist specialising in industry opinion, fashion critique, and fashion psychology.

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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