Q: I’m hearing a lot about the trend in consumers buying more used or vintage clothes because they are concerned about the environment and sustainability. Do you think this trend will affect better specialty stores, and if so how should we deal with it?
Steve Pruitt: I know a lot of retailers who are already addressing sustainability by selling vintage handbags and jewelry and offering some recycling services. For instance, if you bring in an old coat, you can get 10 percent off the new one, and the old coat will be donated.
But, for most stores in the higher end of the market, there is a limit to how much used and vintage items they can carry, and how much recycling they can offer, without compromising their brand.
I have another way to think about retailers participating in sustainability and it has to do with carefully controlling and planning their inventory. All retailers need to buy more than they expect to sell because they need a range of inventory available to make the last sale on each item.
So, even if the store is knocking it out of the park with sell-thru rates of 90 percent or 95 percent, they are still leaving 5 percent to 10 percent of their inventory unsold. When you think about how much that is worldwide we’re talking millions and millions of pieces of product every year that get given away or go to a landfill. In the case of designer leftovers, they may even be burned.
Furthermore, many stores don’t achieve that high of a sell-thru rate. Some will hit 70 percent or 80 percent, leaving an enormous amount of product unsold.
So, if I had customers asking me about sustainability, I would focus on practicing more careful inventory planning that can better predict my demand. This way, I’m ordering the exact amount of product I need, and not excess, “just in case”. Then you can talk to your customers about how little goes unsold, and the charity programs you have in place to get rid of what remains.
The good news for us is that people will never stop wanting new clothing, even if the demand for used clothing continues to grow. We just have to make sure that we do our part by not ordering more product than we can possibly sell.
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