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Will COVID-19 be the nail in the coffin of brick-and-mortar fashion retailers?

words by: Natasha Marsh
Jun 17, 2020

The moment shopping went digital, brick-and-mortar retailers struggled. Many fashion retailers invested in elaborate campaigns and shopping experiences to draw customers in. But despite great efforts, they often came up second to the digital world for lack of convenience and variety. 

And now, in a Coronavirus world, non-digital fashion retailers are in hot water. Experts are calling it the retail apocalypse, and for good reason – big chain stores have closed, filed for bankruptcy, and laid off or furloughed employees.

When Old Navy, JCPenney, Everlane and Nordstrom temporarily closed stores and furloughed hundreds of thousands of employees, the industry started to really panic. Then, J. Crew and Neiman Marcus filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and shit hit the fan. Over the past months, more and more store closures have joined the list. 

Malls operaters spiral while planning for the future without these big brands occupying large retail space in their malls. With the pressure to cut costs and keep cash on hand, two of America’s most popular mall operators, Simons and Westfield, cut its dividend in half. Other brands and malls are debating to follow in their footsteps. 

It’s no surprise that fashion retailers’ fate is left to chance with Coronavirus’s unknown end date. The only way they will survive is if they study how the pandemic will affect what consumers will buy, where they will buy it, and why. Things like sustainability, price, safety precautions, and experience will all play into the future of retail. 

Even when stores reopen, will shoppers want to shop… or will the fear of being contaminated and the convenience of online overpower brick-and-mortars yet again? 

Admired brands like Nike and Lululemon are looking at the virus as a challenge to be extra creative. Nike revamped the app by creating online workouts from top instructors and athletes. Lululemon began offering fitness classes as well, and saw 170,000 customers tune in their first week. Nike and Lululemon are considered the lucky ones. They have a massive community at their fingertips and the infrastructure to implement real change. Other brands are attempting to survive by discounting products to get more digital foot traffic and brand awareness. 

If you’re a small brand, with small pockets, and a shrunken team to help you stay afloat: what else can you do? 

All over the world, lockdown orders are starting to lax. Entire cities are working their way to being completely open again. But even when stores reopen, will shoppers want to shop? Will the social aspect of shopping matter? Or will the fear of being contaminated and the convenience of online overpower brick-and-mortars yet again? 

To answer this question, we look at the markets that have already opened in the nation and overseas. 

In South Korea, Apple has opened all stores and have seen great success. They are doing things like temperature checks to all customers and employees, utilizing facemasks, keeping six feet apart and encouraging shoppers to shop online when possible. 

Gap Inc., which owns Old Navy, Athleta, Gap, and Banana Republic, reopened 300 of their stores last month in both America and Asia. They basically modeled grocery store procedures: implementing rigorous cleaning routines, hand sanitation stations, temporarily closed fitting rooms, face masks, plexiglass at registers and mobile payments, social distancing, and reduced hours. 

In order to entice shoppers, brands must follow serious safety measures and make shopping exciting again. It will need to offer something the online market doesn’t. 

Harvard Business Review predicts mobile and digital features will integrate with brick and mortar browsing. Retailers can get ahead of the curve by incorporating the endless aisle, “in which you look at and touch specific items in store, like furniture, and then view dozens of different customizations for that product.”

Fashion retailers in Europe are starting to test out the “opt into” model. Customers will have the option to share data and preferences with retailers when you walk into the store. Your answers will let associates know if you’d like assistance while shopping or if you prefer to shop alone. All dressing rooms will have monitors, allowing you to request a different size, color, or item at the click of a button.  

The future is customization. Yes, the current situation is bleak. But if fashion brick-and-mortars are able to innovate and bring excitement to their locations, they might just get the support they’ve been looking for. 

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