I received an email last night from an acquaintance yesterday in regards to apparel retail, the internet, and change; it was something circulating among a group of research fellows for an investment advisory group based in New York City.
They were discussing the 'fact' that there had been an assumption that with the advent of the internet apparel had to overcome the the hesitation of consumers to buy clothing sight unseen. I was shocked, because being in apparel, having studied apparel retail for over 20 years, and being a cheerleader for the internet since 1996 that I issue was one that I have never once stopped to think about.
It dawned on me that that might be a legitimate issue in New York City but for the rest of the country that was never an issue. The reason for this is because the rest of the country has a long history of buying apparel sight unseen; those of us who remember receiving a Sears and Roebuck, Montgomery Wards, JC Penney catalog and or the myriad of other specialty catalogs that existed understand that buying clothing from a picture was not a novelty but rather a long standing tradition for a vast majority of Americans who are over 40.
I remember my sisters having slumber parties with their friends where they would sit with the JC Penney catalog and explore the new fashions or my mother thumbing through the JC Penney catalog much like folks today watch HGTV to find new ideas to decorate old rooms.
Realistically, the whole concept of brands came about because we were shopping sight unseen and a brand name represented a reputation for value and dependability; Craftsmen tools, Kenmore appliances all were names you could trust. JC Penney was popular in the 1970's because it represented "fashion" while clothing from Sears was old fashioned....pity the poor kid who's parents bought their clothes from Sears!
Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the concept of change that we tend to forget that some change is nothing more than a reconnecting to tradition, or a return to long known, well established principles.
The internet is not a threat to apparel retail but rather the exposure of the fact that they have lost sight of one major underlying principle of retail; define your customer, your market, and serve them. Retail can embrace the internet in a variety of ways but it will not assure them a future unless consumers can find a reason to embrace them. Until department stores can rekindle the reputations they once had they will continue to be irrelevant; you have to have a reputation, your name has to stand for something, or you will just be lost in the shuffle.
Retail has never been about how one shops but rather always about why one shops and what one shops for; we have lost sight of this basic principle over the course of the last 30 years of massive consumption fueled by easy credit; its not the internet that is a threat to malls and brick and mortar retail but rather the financial crash of 2008 that has fundamentally changed consumerism and retail.
Of course the innovators of today will hype the internet and social media as change because the reality is their sense of history only goes back about 30 years and thus, in a way they are changing their world; but realistically, they are not so much changing the world as much as they are returning the world of retail to its roots.
The concepts of 'community,' 'branding,' and 'social reputation' are all age old terms in the world of retail; The reality of Web 2.0 or consumer centric business models really is nothing more than reaffirmation of the ideas that, "...the customer is always right" and or "...have it your way...."
The key for the future of any internet based apparel line is reputation, brand, service, and value; but do not confuse the concept of value with low cost, but rather think of value as being a perception of getting more for ones money. Eventually even the most successful community based companies of today will have to transition themselves to a brand; before Threadless there was Jimmy Buffet, who has been transforming communities of "Parrot Heads" into successful brands such as Caribbean Soul and Margaritaville for 30 years now!