Although the economy is improving with wages up and many retailers experiencing better results, teen fashion brands are still not doing so well. Just last month, Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Michael Jeffries resigned after several quarters of weak sales. Earlier in 2014, American Eagle’s CEO mysteriously quit after less than two years on the job. Aeropostale also recently announced plans to close 75 stores after eight consecutive lousy quarters.
Fashion is a cyclical business, but it speaks volumes when the three biggest teen retailers flounder. Once successful, why are these brands failing to resonate with younger Millennials and Gen Z youth? The answer: Teens and their parents still spend conservatively post-recession and find their products too expensive. Not to mention, the younger generations increasingly eschew wearing gaudy logos and have a growing disdain for brands that come across as too exclusionary.
Fast fashion brands — retailers that move apparel quickly from the catwalk into its stores — such as H&M and Zara are typically blamed for the woes of teen retailers, but I have doubts about that assumption. After all, something about the brand promise of fast fashion seems a bit out of step with Millennial values. Does it really reflect this generation’s ethos to wear knocked-off designer goods, buy them cheaply and wear them only for a short time while trending? Nothing about this process reflects a sense of personal pride, of cultivating a unique style or of environmental and economic sustainability — things that younger customers tend to care dearly about.
Fortunately, there is a huge opportunity for a customer-centric brand to disrupt the teen fashion market. But what would it take for such a brand to capitalize on this market gap? If you’re a fashion brand, delivering on these three key attributes could potentially lead to great success among teens in a quickly changing landscape:
1. Provide an Engaging Presence
Delivering a seamless omnichannel presence is table stakes for today’s fashion brands. Companies need a captivating and easy-to-use website accessible via any platform where teens can instantaneously evaluate products, virtually try them on and place their orders.
In addition to e-commerce, brands need a site that mirrors social-media functions. Teen customers should be able to get their social-media friends to help them evaluate products. Consider a wish-list feature where teens can share items they want with family and friends.
2. Collaborate with Teens Shoppers
Rather than handing down or ripping off trends, why not let influential teens help design what’s next? One potential source of competitive advantage is to develop an online community of select fashion enthusiasts. This group can help identify and shape emerging trends in styles, patterns and more. By critiquing potential outfits and voting for favorites, a group of fashion lovers can help brands lead trends instead of following them.
For such a community, a fun idea could be to sponsor a contest where a winning look makes it into production, à la “Project Runway.” Doing so can help retailers get accurate, real-time feedback on where the market is going while also giving customers a sense of ownership over the merchandise.
3. Deliver Content that Counts
Teens have many questions, and they’re looking online for answers. Brands can make meaningful connections with teen customers by providing valuable information. Content will be a huge differentiator for the next market leader.
A teen retailer that offers fashion, beauty and grooming content through its website, social media channels and other outlets can help engage today’s teen customers in an informative way. Find out what issues matter to teens, and then provide a destination where they can learn about those topics. From beauty and wellness to “promposals,” teen customers seek answers, and brands could provide value by connecting teens with experts and with influencers such as YouTube celebrities.
As the Internet continues to empower customers, traditional retailing will continue to be upended. It won’t just be the teen retailers affected. Department stores, discounters, and other companies will soon feel the pinch. In 2015, brands that put customers at the center of their decision-making and that offer a differentiated, customer-centric experience will win.