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The Future of Retail

“In 1930, the average woman only had 36 pieces of clothes in her closet.  Today, the average consumer has 120 items of clothing, but 80% go unworn.” 


For Millennials it’s not about the clothes, it’s about the wardrobe. How can retailers innovate to be relevant?


Mainstream clothing retailers are having a difficult time understanding and answering millennial needs. Whilst other categories have transformed entirely in response to changing social dynamics, major retailers are operating in largely the same way as they have since their earliest days. Expanding channel options (i.e. online presence) has not altered the fundamental concept of traditional shopping. If we look at the recent changes in industries such as banking and travel, we can identify a clear added layer of life-enhancing-value. Making an appearance online is not enough. So in light of technological and social progress, how can retailers deliver a new wave of relevance to a generation bored with shopping?


Millennials value experience over ‘stuff’

The core differentiator between the millennial approach to life and that of previous generations is the value placed on tangible vs intangible personal assets. While previous generations were preoccupied with accumulating material possessions and wealth, millennials have broken the mould. They are satisfied with more modest material wealth if it allows them to have richer experiences and memories and to achieve a deeper sense of fulfilment in life.

The recession sparked a re-examination of traditional priorities, values and even life-stages and millennials are very much in tune with what they consider to be truly ‘valuable’ in their own lives. 78% of millennials—compared to 59% of baby boomers— “would rather pay for an experience than material goods,” according to a survey from Harris Poll and Eventbrite. This difference is striking and points to more than a passing trend.

Retail expert Robin Lewis of The Robin Report  explains; “this is a generation that is bigger than the boomers in population, but their wallets are smaller, and they are more into the style of life than the stuff of life. This is a big threat to retail.”

Importantly, this is also an opportunity – for retail to understand the values and motivations of the millennial consumer and deliver a retail concept that is crafted for relevance.



Retail must speak to lifestyle and meaning

The millennial post-recession mindset is one that is motivated by purpose and meaning. This means choices are made consciously and in light of a connection to ‘the bigger picture’. Waste and excess does not fit the millennial agenda. In a sense, the generational cycle is coming full circle in terms of material ownership. According to capsule wardrobe start-up Cladwell, “In 1930, the average woman only had 36 pieces of clothes in her closet.  Today, the average consumer has 120 items of clothing, but 80% go unworn.” What we are now seeing is a subset of social influencers seeking to cut down on the excess purposeless ‘stuff’ in their lives and embrace a more minimalist ideal. And their influence is gaining momentum. Google Trends shows a sharp spike in searches related to “de-cluttering” and “capsule wardrobes” since 2015.

After it was published in 2015, 30-year-old Marie Kondo’s book ‘The Life changing magic of tidying up’ which focuses on the ‘joie de vivre’ that comes from purging excess personal belongings, sold over 2 million copies worldwide. The book struck such a chord with millennials that the author’s surname became a colloquial verb and to ‘Kondo’ one’s life now refers to the re-examination of the value and purpose in keeping personal possessions using Marie Kondo’s signature question ‘Does it spark joy?’.


Progressive companies and start-ups are beginning to respond. Cladwell is a start-up that helps consumers create capsule wardrobes and ‘free up their lives by owning less stuff’. Cladwell describes a capsule wardrobe as being, “a small number of items chosen to be interchangeable, comprised of things that match [your] colouring, [your] personality and [your] lifestyle.” This is a retail company selling life style not stuff.

American company MM.LaFleur's solution to the "shopping problem" is to cut it out entirely, replacing it with a clothing Bento Box. ‘Inspired by the Japanese tradition of serving an entire five-course meal in a neat little box, MM.LaFleur sends customers a box of personally curated products from their website designed to come together as a complete set of outfits—dresses, blazers, even accessories—that a woman would need for a week at the office. Customers who visit the website are invited to answer a very short questionnaire about their style and body shape, and a week later the Bento arrives at their doorstep. They can keep and pay for the products they like, then return the rest for free.’"We actually know our clothes best," LaFleur says. "If the customer shares a few details about herself, we think we can identify what will best work for her." The proposition is ‘Live with purpose, dress with ease’. This is retail consultancy.



It’s not about clothes, it’s about the wardrobe

The new wave of relevance in retail must be centred around ‘Life Style’ value. It is about empowering and equipping consumers. Moving from selling more stuff to partnering with individual consumers and consumer segments to help them to express themselves in a way that is authentic, responsible, practical and enjoyable. In the words of Sarah LaFleur, 32-year-old cofounder of the MM.LaFleur “I'm so sick of the stereotype that all women are shopping-obsessed".

Accumulating clothing as a pastime has lost its cache. Looking and feeling one’s best has not. Millennial Consumers are looking for a wardrobe that will work hard for them in every sense and craving the positive impact that will have on their lives. The dream is in achieving a stress-free, cost-effective, versatile wardrobe and an authentic and effortless personal style. They are looking to retailers to help them ‘spark joy’. 

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