Beyond plaid: Contemporary retail survey

by Elise Diamantini

Contemporary retailers are seeing a boost in sales.

There’s good news in contemporary business at retail. According to our survey of independent stores across the country, 85 percent reported increases in overall business (2011 vs. 2010), averaging 12 percent and ranging up to 33 percent. 15 percent of responding retailers were down, as much as 25 percent. Retailers attributed gains to increases in foot traffic, as well as internal initiatives like collaborating with vendors on exclusives, finding quality goods at more accessible pricepoints and embracing social media to connect with customers outside of the store. One retailer said, “It’s important to stay as educated as the consumer. They read blogs and follow the online trendsetters. You have to have all this knowledge and then add to it. If you become a resource for the contemporary world, then you will create a business.” Contemporary retailers are optimistic about 2012 with many respondents cautiously planning up for the year (averaging from 5 to 10 percent).

Strong 2011 selling included knits and non-denim bottoms, and retailers are planning slight increases in these categories for 2012. Although 43 percent of respondents carry no tailored clothing at all, it comprises an average of 21 percent of business in those stores that carry it. These merchants are planning it slightly up for 2012 and are looking for bow ties, double-breasted jackets and knit blazers from the fall ’12 market. Warmer winter weather led to lagging outerwear sales and retailers are planning it slightly down for the coming year.

With all the new and exciting accessories in the market, it’s a clear missed opportunity for retailers. On average the category comprises only 6 percent of total volume and is planned the same for 2012. The market is filled with cool hats, scarves and even new tech items that can be profitable add-on items.

Denim, which makes up about 11 percent of total business, is being replaced largely by non-denim bottoms (averaging 9 percent of business and planned up for 2012). Survey respondents are planning denim down for 2012 but mention that if it has perceived value, it’s selling at an average retail of just under $200. Straight-leg jeans in clean, dark rinses or raw and coated styles are bright spots. One retailer said, “Consumers are looking for denim as an investment. They want brand recognition and quality at the right price. More brands are introducing bridge lines, which have a trusted name and value at lower pricepoints.”

Retailers agree that their customers are ready to take chances with (wearable) fashion and are willing to spend if the look is right. A common gripe among them is lack of innovation, failure to reinvent and oversaturation among contemporary brands, mentioning Americana-themes and plaid as examples. “Every vendor started doing the same thing and made Americana look cheap,” says one retailer. Another way of cheapening a brand is selling to discounters. Many retailers said they’ve dropped brands that sell current season or almost identical-looking product on flash sale sites.
Looking ahead to fall 2012, retailers are searching the market for newness: color, interesting fabrications, non-denim bottoms like chinos and cords and great woven shirts.

Sweet Sellers

* Best-selling brands: Ben Sherman, Original Penguin, 7 Diamonds, Sand, Rag & Bone, Billy Reid, Life After Denim, G-Star, Diesel, Hugo Boss, Scotch & Soda, Penfield, Canada Goose, Prps, Nudie
* Private label: between 5 and 15 percent
* Average number of vendors: 39 (ranging from 10 to 100)
* Hot items for fall 2011: Rag & Bone wovens ($195), Penguin V-neck wool sweaters ($79), Ben Sherman country twill blazer ($249), Life After Denim slim-fit chinos ($99), denim from Madison Park ($225), sportcoats from Johnny Love ($595)

Soap box talk

* “We’re offering more accessible fashion and exclusive product. We’ve increased our marketing efforts with events and promotions to bring exposure to individual brands. We understand the power of social media and have made a huge push with that.”

* “We want to take chances—the consumer is ready to explore fashion on a deeper scale.”

* “Shipping costs are a big concern for us.”

* “I’m over plaid, prep and Americana.”

* “There’s minimal inspiration—we need new, but wearable trends!”

Retailers sound off

* “As an industry we could broaden the whole cause and work on momentum to look good no matter what. If you want to look like a surfer, look like a great surfer. Restaurant owner? Look the part! We have let the bar remain low for far too long. One usually has to get dressed on a daily basis, so why not try a bit? It’s great to see the younger guys dress for the occasion. They actually put way more effort into how they look after work than they do at work.”

* “We’re looking for more immediate goods. We need to fill customer demand quickly with reorders. It’s a huge asset if vendors have in-stock programs.”

* “I’m looking for more deliveries of fresh merchandise rather than one lump of goods at the beginning of the season. Sell out and move on.”

* “Lines get stale if they don’t constantly reinvent themselves or try to push the envelope. Staying the same is lethal for a brand.”

* “Men are only inspired by crazy prices or an event that requires new clothing.”

* “We need a real focus on fit and quality at a great price. Ben Sherman has risen to the occasion with their Plectrum line.”