Merchandising Strategies for the New Normal

Covid-19's impact on consumer preferences has necessitated a new set of merchandising strategies. In this report, we analyse strategies of fast fashion retailers in the UK to explore the merits of leveraging high growth categories and subcategories, dynamic pricing, compact seasonality, demand-driven supply chains and more.

Written by Atiqah KamarudinMay 29, 2020

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Introduction

Key Insights

  • Shift in Comfort Dressing: Current lifestyles have created a renewed a surge in athleisure, as consumers prioritised comfort.
  • Opportunity in Full Price Sell-Out: We’ve identified high-growth categories and subcategories, which provide opportunity for brands to experiment with pricing and maximise full price sell-out.
  • Accelerating Demand-Driven Supply Chain: Seasonless collections and tight assortments will allow brands to create agile, demand-driven supply chain.

 

We can’t understate the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on the fashion industry. As retailers continue to face inventory issues, changing consumer preference has highlighted the industry’s deep-rooted problem – seasonality. Some brands have taken measures to cut back on assortments, while others decided to push deliveries to next year.

This report aims to uncover the merchandising strategies adopted by fast fashion retailers in the UK and how they can move ahead to leverage on potential opportunities in embracing the new normal.

More than 200,000 data points were screened from January to May 2020 against the same period in 2019 across womenswear categories on Asos, Boohoo, Zara and H&M.

 

All data used in this report comes from products retailing online as tracked by Omnilytics, unless otherwise mentioned.

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Compact Seasonality

With production cycles and deliveries in disarray, many designers and retailers are wanting to reset the traditional fashion calendar, bringing it in line with the weather seasons. Saint Laurent, the first major label to skip Paris Fashion Week and move off schedule for the rest of 2020, will likely inspire others to follow suit.

With excess inventory and rampant discounting at an all-time high, retailers are in a better position to keep their assortments tight. Consumers, currently less interested in fleeting trends, are more likely to shop essentials and seasonless items.

Shift in Comfort Dressing

Despite low consumer sentiment, key apparel categories still observed positive YoY increase in sell-outs. The already-successful Activewear category benefitted from the growth in at-home workouts, with a strong 43% growth in sell-out YoY.

As lockdown measures started to ease in the UK, comfort dressing remained at the fore. Intimates, mostly dominated by Sleepwear, saw a whopping 41% increase in sell-out YoY. The bottoms category also saw a clear shift from formal styles to casual and relaxed silhouettes, indicating longevity post-pandemic.

With consumers prioritising comfort, loungewear – a trend closely aligns with athleisure – is at its peak. The style was uptrending across most core categories. Hoodies & Sweatshirts, Joggers, Jumpers & Sweaters and Sleepwear Tops & Bottoms were the main subcategories that made up this new core offering (Chart 2).

 

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Full Price Opportunity

The main Activewear, Outerwear and Pants & Leggings subcategories reported above average sell-outs at full price.

Activewear performed best in both total sell-out and sell-out at full price, signifying the renewed popularity of the category. Drilling further into Activewear, we can see that Tops & T-Shirts was the most popular subcategory, which was made up mostly of Tank and Jersey Tops.

In Outerwear, Hoodies & Sweatshirts garnered above average sell-out at full price, while Jumpers & Sweaters fell short by 0.5 percentage point. Casual silhouettes proved to be in high demand as Joggers and Leggings managed to record above average sell-outs, compared to more formal bottoms subcategories.

Consumers’ increased willingness to pay for these products signals a huge opportunity for retailers to continue driving these subcategories at full price. It’s wise to look out for opportunities like this on core items, prolonging the product lifecycle.

 

Retailers Championing Full Price Sell-Out

Zara was driving full price sell-out for casual outerwear at 65%. The retailer leant into the popularity of the category, as it increased its offerings this year by 40% compared to last.

With activewear on the rise and loungewear being the new essential, Asos was in a better position as it had the widest offering on these categories with nearly 10,000 SKUs. The retailer also led with above average sell-out at full price, signifying its strong position in these categories.

 

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Dynamic Pricing

Breaking down the median price by key subcategories revealed Zara’s dynamic pricing during the Covid-19 crisis. The retailer chose to increase pricing for categories with high growth, capitalising on demand.

Zara launched new Hoodies & Sweatshirts and Cardigans during the Covid-19 period with an average of 6% and 9% increase in prices respectively, compared to last year. Despite the higher price, the retailer managed to achieve an overall improvement in total sell-out at full price of 65%. Sell-out in April also increased following the rise in median price in Outerwear subcategories (Chart 5).

Similarly, the subcategories within Pants & Leggings also experienced increased sell-out. The success of the pricing strategy was led by the relevant offering, as you’ll see next.

 

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Dynamic Pricing (cont’d)

Relevant SKU Styles

Digging deeper into the bestselling SKUs, minimal and relaxed-silhouette pieces were preferred by consumers this year. The pandemic has clearly shifted consumers’ preference, as transitional designs in core colours won them over.

To tap into the ‘buy now, wear now’ consumer, brands not yet in this space could pivot towards this new demand in comfortable loungewear by starting with a small capsule collection. Given seasonless items stand a higher chance in the current climate, brands would be wise to evaluate the space in their assortments. At the same time, CEO of Hilldun Corporations, Gary Wassner, suggests brands go through the bestselling SKUs and find products that are emotionally compelling to consumers. It is the pairing of these product areas that will best serve retailers moving forward.

 

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Deliver What Consumers Want

Agility is the critical tool in being able to respond to the shifting consumer demands of the moment. Nimble communications are a great way to achieve this.

As consumers sought comfort dressing, Asos, Boohoo, and H&M promoted loungewear throughout the period. Tactical promotions and new style edits surrounding the theme were prominent on their landing pages and email newsletters. With summer approaching and WFH being the new norm, the interest towards this trend is expected to continue, but in lightweight, breathable fabrics.

Besides investing in seasonless product, delivering personalised items that resonate well with consumers will also keep them enticed. As seen from the collaborations at H&M with designers such as Giambattista Valli and Maison Martin Margiela, the campaigns managed to create hype and in turn generate full-priced sales for the brand.

Brands can also tap into a new category by paying close attention to market demand, as seen from the surge in face masks following the current pandemic. Face masks were one of the best-selling accessories in the UK and observed a steady rise in the market (Chart 7). As lockdown restrictions ease and more consumers venture into public, we expect to see further increase in demand and sales for this item.

 

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Use Data Analytics

Demand-Driven Supply Chain

As the Covid-19 crisis accelerates the transformation towards a demand-driven supply chain, brands need to rely on data analytics more than ever.

According to Sarah Johnson, who is the former Head of Merchandising at Asos and Founder of Flourish Retail, it is crucial for brands to reforecast sales according to the current climate. With historical data now redundant, brands should be guided by current market insights to generate a base forecast when reforecasting, before layering on strategic plans.

As consumer preferences change and the retail landscape gets increasingly competitive, brands should rely on data-backed analytics especially in a demand-driven supply chain model, where being agile is key. Brands will then be able to reposition themselves better by putting out more relevant products consistently, and in turn reducing the risk of markdowns and excess inventory.

They should also continue to pay attention to social media. The COVID-19 outbreak, which has led to the birth of several hashtags in the fashion circle, including #WFHFits, can be used to monitor the shift in consumer demand. The popularity of loungewear and relaxed, comfortable silhouettes were evident across influencers’ and celebrities’ profiles.

The change in the post-pandemic environment has also forced brands to continually reassess their strategies, which places a higher importance on real-time market insights.

 

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Conclusion

Next Steps for Brands

Identify Consumers’ Wants: At a time when consumers are steering the demand wheel, it is imperative for brands to meet their needs with increased speed and efficiency. With seasonless items taking centre stage and loungewear being the new essential, brands that do not react to this shift quickly will lose out in market share.

 

Strike a Balance Between Products and Dynamic Pricing: Zara’s ability to apply dynamic pricing on the relevant SKU styles has proven to be a fundamental strategy to entice consumers through Covid-19. The retailer saw an improvement in total sell-outs as it took advantage of the high growth categories and subcategories by increasing prices. Brands wanting to employ this strategy need to ensure the right price is in line with the value offered to consumers.

 

Increase Agility with a Focused Range Plan: As seasonality becomes increasingly meaningless, there is opportunity for brands to accelerate towards a demand-driven supply chain. However, speed is of the essence in this model. To increase agility, brands can start with reduced assortment width and targeted, focused range planning while shaving trend-led items. Brands such as Tanya Taylor have employed this strategy, by cutting back on its pre-fall collection by 30% and focusing more on transitional design. In order to succeed, brands need to start acknowledging this change by acting and planning now, supported by data and analytics.

 

Reroute and Reassort Existing Stock: In order to mitigate losses and protect margin, retailers can consider moving existing stock. In identifying products that can lend themselves to future seasons, there will be more time to generate full price sales, rather than resorting to aggressive discounting, which will erode brand equity. 3.1 Philip Lim has decided to shift its Pre-Fall products to Pre-Spring in order to avoid deep discounting and minimise possible order cancellations. Meanwhile, products that are still sitting in the warehouse can be integrated into the assortment regardless of seasonality, as advised by Gary Wassner.

 

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Meet the Author

Atiqah Kamarudin

Nur Atiqah Kamarudin is a Senior Business Intelligence Analyst at Omnilytics. With past experience at Nielsen and Euromonitor, she has spent years analysing data and unearthing insights to help brands and retailers make informed decisions. She currently produces reports on the fashion industry and its changing retail scene across the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Southeast Asia.

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