Fashion retailers scramble to adapt as shoppers ditch their suits and frocks

Retail’s ‘golden quarter’ – the three-month run-up to Christmas and new year – is traditionally a time when fashion retailers cash in.

Shoppers embrace the new season’s lines, snapping up autumn and winter staples, and are often prepared to splash out on a new outfit for parties and events during the festive season.

But this year, parties have been cancelled, meetings postponed and weddings called off. Instead, the UK is facing a winter where people continue to spend more time than ever at home. How has this altered demand for clothes?

Some of the patterns of spending have remained the same, says fashion stylist, writer and blogger Kat Farmer. “Within a week everyone ditches their sandals and summer dresses and it’s about wool and cashmere and coats and boots,” she says. “That doesn’t seem to have changed this year.”

But, perhaps unsurprisingly, retailers including Marks & Spencer and Asos have reported a steep drop in demand for formal wear and increased sales of casual clothing and leisure wear in recent months.

TM Lewin announced plans to shut all 66 UK stores in June, while Moss Bros is in talks with landlords to close some of its shops. Both cited the cancellation of major events such as Royal Ascot, weddings and working from home as reasons for their decline.

In a world where collections are finalised months before they hit the shelves, retailers are scrabbling to bring out lines that remain relevant to consumers.

“A lot of us aren’t sure whether we’ll even have a job and if we do, whether we’ll be going into the office,” points out Andrew Busby, founder of Retail Reflections, which analyses consumer habits.

Fashion brands have continued to engage with their audience in the last few months even when they haven’t been able to trade.

“Primark continued to connect with customers via social media to ensure they didn’t desert them while stores were closed,” Busby says. This interaction could prove vital as the UK begins to return to some sort of normal, he suggests.

At the other end of the price spectrum, some luxury brands have offered live streams of their shops, so consumers can ‘browse’ virtually, giving them some of the same experience as actually visiting a store in person.

“The impact of Covid is just accelerating trends that were already visible in the industry – the switch to online, the polarisation across value and luxury – these are not new things but we’ve seen several years’ worth of change in a few weeks,” says Anita Balchandani, partner and retail expert at McKinsey.

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