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July 28, 2008 8:05 PM

Business, Fashion, Retail

Writing the Prescription

Yes, we've gotten tired of the ambulance chasing that has become retail reporting, too. Lately WWD has read like an obituary section, with companies and sectors falling like casualties of the economy. The First Aid Kit we put together for...

Yes, we've gotten tired of the ambulance chasing that has become retail reporting, too.

Lately WWD has read like an obituary section, with companies and sectors falling like casualties of the economy. The First Aid Kit we put together for the July 28 issue aimed to serve two purposes: Celebrate the rare nuggets of success in the industry today, and provide a 10-step guide to help more companies share in that success.

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Inspired by a record-breaking Akris trunk show at Bergdorf Goodman, Juicy Couture's nonstop growth and Eileen Fisher's continued momentum, we asked, "Why are these companies successful?"

A lot of it came down to the basics, and more than 30 experts counseled the following: Lower your overhead and spending. Watch inventory levels. Explain to your employees what's happening, how they can help and that, even though there are enormous pressures, you still value them. Having great product seemed like so much of a given (and arguably an intangible that you either have or you don't) that we decided to omit it as a step.

At points it was so simple that we wondered what value we were really adding to the strategic mind-set. But a quick look back at the paper answered that.

Interestingly, the mood among industry sages was more upbeat than we thought it would be. They've survived downturns before (six, some veterans counted), and are comforted that lean periods clean out the competition and allow the best in class to gain market share. Still, no one challenges that this is likely the worst downturn they've seen because, unlike the others, for once the fashion industry bears none of the blame. This slump isn't just about lack of design newness or markdown-happy retailers; it's about China, India and other emerging economies blossoming from infants to teenagers, demanding their shares of the world's gasoline and food, not to mention fair wages. And those forces aren't likely to change.

The toughest issue for us to reconcile in reporting were two opposite schools of thought on whether now is a time to dig in your heels or a time to rethink how your business model should change and emerge at the end of this down cycle. We had some of the most impressive figures in the industry advocating passionately for both sides -- and the laws of logic argued that half of them must be wrong.

The only way we (not chief executives of successful multibillion-dollar companies) could explain the dichotomy was that if you have a great business plan, congratulations, stick with it. If you don't, hurry and take your hits now when everyone is down, so you can position yourself to be on the upturn when the industry finally emerges from this mess called the macroeconomic environment.

There's a lot worth remembering in this article (clearly we thought so when we expanded the coverage to nine pages), but if there's one takeaway, it would have to come from the king of the turnaround, Allen Questrom, who warns against insularity: "A good retailer is a person who serves their clientele. They have to be aware of what's motivating, what's changing the lives of their customers and adjust their inventories to accommodate. Most successful retailers have to be very aware of what's happening outside their own world."
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