Fashion’s Pivot to E-commerce and the Future

Laveta Brigham

When the pandemic sent consumers home, they logged on and kept shopping — changing the course of retail. Between February and September, sales at nonstore retailers shot up a seasonally adjusted 22 percent, or $14.9 billion, as Amazon hit the gas and stores of all sorts raced to connect with […]

When the pandemic sent consumers home, they logged on and kept shopping — changing the course of retail.

Between February and September, sales at nonstore retailers shot up a seasonally adjusted 22 percent, or $14.9 billion, as Amazon hit the gas and stores of all sorts raced to connect with consumers in the only way they could — digitally. (Fashion specialty stores and department stores bounced back strongly last month, but are still digging out rather than building.)

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While the sudden ramp up in online activity proved to be a glimmer of hope for fashion through the very dark early days of the coronavirus shutdown, it is also looking like a key pivot point for the industry.

Stores have reopened, but with exceptions and some serious restrictions — the action is still online.

After seven months of social distancing and no idea when full-contact shopping can resume, consumers and retailers are settling into new routines that promise to shape not just e-commerce’s development but the next age of retail.

In interviews over the past few weeks, chief executive officers at some of fashion’s biggest and most influential companies emphasized the importance of the web in the new consumer landscape and said they are positioning their operations to meet shoppers wherever they are.

“There’s been this amazing acceleration of consumer willingness to engage online,” said Steve Rendle, VF Corp.’s chairman, president and chief executive officer, on Friday. “I don’t think it’s going to go back. Digital will be a critical, critical component of our go-forward strategy.”

He pointed both to changes in functionality, like curbside pick and shipping from store that make for a much more seamless customer experience, and on the marketing front, where the company is “getting better at our ability to engage” digitally.

When Stefan Larsson, president of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein parent PVH Corp., received the official nod to become the group’s ceo come February, he was careful to stress the importance of the web to the future.

“The e-commerce opportunity is real and it’s big and while we pivoted to follow the consumer through the pandemic, we have just started to scratch the surface for the e-commerce potential of the company,” Larsson said in an interview. “Winning post-COVID-19, I’m convinced you will have to, as a company, operate leaner, [be] more data-driven and [have] more speed.”

Similarly, Levi Strauss & Co. ceo Chip Bergh said: “It is about being agile and following the consumer. The consumer is clearly telling us their shopping patterns are going to change.”

Seventy percent of the people who shopped last quarter were new to the site, if not necessarily the brand, he said.

(And if this move online gives fashion companies more of a new-world vibe and something closer to the valuations that digital companies get, so much the better.)

The realities of the pandemic might have forced change, but it is the flow of everyday life that’s locking it in — and any chance that things will bounce back to the way they were seems to be in the rearview mirror now.

Marcie Merriman, managing director, Americas cultural insights and consumer strategy at EY, has been tracking consumers over the pandemic through a series of regular surveys that the consultancy conducts.

“The real tipping point was between May and June,” Merriman said. “That’s when places started to open up across much of the country and consumers didn’t start to revert back. Instead they said [shopping online] was even more important. If they were going to move back, it would have been as things started to open back.”

Even though attitudes toward being out and about in the pandemic have changed since late spring, people have now had the time at home to settle into new patterns.

Merriman pointed to research showing that it takes 21 days to form a new habit and 66 days to make that habit automatic. New York alone was locked down for 100 days before things began to reopen, while it has been 272 days since the first case of the virus was diagnosed in the U.S. — obviously lots and lots and lots of time for new habits to solidify.

That puts online shoppers and fashion past the point of no return.

“We have evolved,” she said. “We are evolving. We will continue to evolve and the pandemic and COVID-19 are increasingly irrelevant to our daily behavior. We’re no longer responding day-to-day to the pandemic. We’re rebuilding our lives in the way that we best know how. It’s not just going to overnight be gone or done.”

Ditto for companies that have frozen or cut spending on so many areas, but continue to pour money into new digital capabilities and logistics — ranging from machine learning to curbside pickup to beefed up shipping capacity.

Gap Inc. said this month it gained 3.5 million new customers online in the second quarter and was hiring to meet the surge in online demand, looking for people to pack and prepare orders for shipment, staff customer contact centers and facilitate contactless services. Already the company hired more than 50,000 people in the first half and is now laying in seasonal help.

This adds up to a move online that is supported both by consumers and merchants — but not the death of retail.

Consultant Katie Smith, a consumer and data expert, said there would be “a lasting impact for core areas of the assortment — those items we’ve grown used to stocking up on with the click of a button.”

“But I would also expect to see a sense consumers hit the stores with renewed vigor once restrictions are lifted and anxiety eased — embracing shopping as a sport, a chance to reinvent and refresh,” Smith said. “That puts pressure on the industry twofold — invest in digital and ensure the in-store experience is delightful.”

This would mark the continuation of a trend that was already underway, with the web serving up many of the core and essential looks as stores deliver the full branded experience.

But now retailers are going to have to figure out which experiences really deliver, turning the buzzword of 2019 into a brick-and-mortar driver (hopefully) in 2021.

“The pandemic edited away all the nonessential fluff,” said Robert Burke, chairman and ceo of Robert Burke Associates. “And so many times, these retailers or brands were doing experience for the sake of experience and had no direct effect or connection to their true brand. This has brought us back to the experience of customer service and valuing the customer.

“There will be a balance between online and physical retail,” Burke said. “But the idea of more human-scale retail as far as physical goes is really important. The bigger-is-better flagship store on Fifth Avenue is seemingly not attractive right this moment and probably won’t be ever as attractive as it was.”

And retailers have to think about how how attractive they are to both online-savvy customers and investors, many of whom view brick-and-mortar as old world and digital as new.

“It’s incredibly helpful for everyone to be touting digital commerce,” said Matthew Katz, managing partner at advisory firm SSA & Co. “You don’t want to be valued as a business that doesn’t have [online] capability. Just like Amazon loves its valuation because it’s a data company, retailers would love the valuation of being a digitally connected company.”

Taken all together, that could mean the actual balance between online and off-line — how much business goes to e-commerce and how much ultimately comes back to stores — doesn’t really matter, or at least not as much as the actual connection to the consumer.

“Does it matter where it comes from?” Katz said. “At the end of the day, seamless interaction with consumers is going to win. Where the transaction takes place is less important to me than how the full experience is digested as a consumer.”

Katz said consumers want both stores and the conveniences of the web.

“Consumers are telling us they miss interacting with people, live associates,” he said. “They miss the experience of being in the stores, the smell, the touch and they miss engaging in product. The store still has a purpose in consumers’ mind.”

Spending in U.S. topped pre-pandemic levels in September, but the mix has changed entirely, with department and fashion specialty stores still making up lost ground as as e-commerce roars ahead.

Sales gained/lost since February (in billions)

Change since February

Food services and drinking places



Gasoline stations



Apparel and clothing accessory stores



Department stores



Health and personal-care stores



Automobile and motor vehicle dealers



Grocery stores



Building and garden supplies



Sporting goods, hobby, musical instrument and book stores



Nonstore retailers



General merchandise stores (ex. dept. stores)



Total retail and food service sales




Source: U.S. Census Bureau

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