The Retail Slump Is Killing Middle-of-the-Mall Brands

PayLess and half-dozen other brands have filed for bankruptcy in the first three months of 2017.

Fashion  
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Matchesfashion.com recently marked its 30th anniversary. And the outlet has reason to celebrate: the brand, formerly known simply as Matches, has undergone a tremendous transformation from its early days as an English boutique to a veritable online powerhouse in the age of eCommerce and digital retailers—hence the “.com” tacked onto the end of its name—so much so that publications have written about it as an example to be followed. Matches is, in this sense, an outlier: a leftover of the bygone brick-and-mortar era that successfully adapted to the Internet. According to the Financial Times95% of Matches’ sales in 2016 came online, an area where the brand saw a 73% increase in the past calendar year. The 80% of total 2016 sales made outside of Britain show that the brand has burgeoned into a global powerhouse, too.

Matches’ success story is noteworthy because it is just that: an outlier. Brick-and-mortar retailers and brands have had a very tough year so far, and things are set to get worse before they get better. According to U.S. jobs reports, the retail sector lost 30,900 jobs in February and another 29,700 in March; 5,800 of those jobs were in clothing stores.

Abandoned Malls From Death of Retail

American Apparel store closing sale. Photo credit: FameFlynet UK

Over the past decade, economic recessions and a widening gap in income inequality led to the demise of many malls across America; over 1,500 stores are slated to cross across America in the first four months of 2017. Here’s a list of retailers who have filed for Chapter 11 in the past 12 months alone: American Apparel, Nasty Gal, BCBG Max Azria, The Limited, Wet Seal, Bebe, Aeropostale, Pacific Sunwear and most recently PayLess ShoeSource. (For reference: there were only eight retail bankruptcies throughout the entirety of 2015.) Mall mainstays like Sears, JCPenney, Abercrombie & Fitch, and American Eagle have all admitted that times have been tough and that they would be shutting doors across the country, too. The middle of the mall is shutting down.

Recession, slow job growth and scant spending cash led to many middle-class, middle-of-the-road malls closing their doors and withering on the vine while luxury retail spaces thrived. Lower-end retailers are slated to bear the brunt of the downturn, but recent events have shown that even Fifth Avenue mainstays are struggling to adapt: Ralph Lauren just announced that it would be closing the doors of its NYC flagship, despite its attempts at wooing customers with high-tech changing rooms. Amid soaring rent prices and declining foot traffic, even the most iconic brands have to admit that prime real estate has become too rich, even for Ralph’s blood.

The middle of the mall is shutting down.

As outlets continue to bemoan the “retail apocalypse,” many brands are moving online and faring all the better for it. Much like Matchesfashion.com, online retailer ASOS boasted that it was projecting a 25-30% uptick in annual sales despite a gloomy UK retail forecast. In a recent Bloomberg profile titled “Instagram Killed The Retail Store,” Alexandre “Millinsky” Daillance of Rihanna’s favorite dad-hat brand, NASASEASONS, spoke on how he turned down Urban Outfitters request for 10,000 of his coveted caps. According to Millinsky, “My decision to turn down Urban Outfitters was based on two points: firstly, it was a matter of product placement. I wanted the hats to have a very high fashion standard, something like a Vetements cap. I knew that I couldn’t sell at both Barneys and Urban Outfitters.”

Abandoned Malls From Death of Retail

NASASEASONS 2016 fall/winter. Photo credit: NASASEASONS

Second to maintaining the brand’s overall coolness factor, Daillance was worried about sales: NASASEASONS is currently stocked in between 55 and 60 retail stockists and while he admits that the brand “sells more hats to retailers than I sell on my own web store,” the brand is hoping to buck this trend. “Once we feel like we’ve developed enough of a fanbase and clientele [in a particular geographic area], we’ll probably minimize our sales to stores.” There’s also the simply undeniable fact: 10,000 hats is a lot. “If there are that many hats in circulation,” says Daillance, “people will be less likely to buy directly from my site—which pays me a lot more money. The deal would’ve blocked both my own sales and those at fashion stores like colette, who would get angry and stop working with me.” In this respect, Millinsky admits that NASASEASONS was “inspired by brands like Anti Social Social Club, who don’t even need to sell retailers—except Dover Street Market, sometimes. Instead, [Anti Social Social Club founder Neek Lurk] is able to get customers to go directly from his Instagram accounts to his own website.” This independence from brick-and-mortar is hard-won, but it appears to be the endgame for smaller brands.

Abandoned Malls From Death of Retail

ASOS warehouse facility. Photo credit: Rui Vieira/PA Archive/PA Images

One sub-sector of the retail industry is not particularly worried, however, as fast fashion’s tremendous growth continues apace. H&M just announced plans for a new brand, Arket, for example. ASOS, the British e-retailer, has boasted double-digit jumps in sales, despite the UK’s ongoing retail slump. The key to the brand’s success is in its speed: ASOS’s digital-first business model minimizes lead times, maximizes sales and outstrips even its fastest fast-fashion competitors.

It goes without saying that consumers from many cultures still cherish personalized in-store experiences, but many now crave immediacy and novelty above all else. Beyond the eCommerce boom, one need no further than the pandemic of pop-star pop-up shops for further proof of this phenomenon. The rise of the Instagram brand and the downfall of the middle of the mall are just further proof that doors are opening and closing at greater rates than ever before.

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Image Credit
PBS
Photographer
Michael F. McElroy/The New York Times

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