The fashion industry has been imploding for a while now and, thanks to the drastic changes COVID has brought, the need for a change is greater than ever. Over inflated inventory and constant surplus issues, all of which have been a thorn in the side for years, are even more painful and in danger of threatening retail than before.
In the recent New York Times article, Sweatpants Forever, Irina Aleksande takes a look at just how fashion has been further imploding under the added weight of the Coronavirus. Stuck on a precipice of change since the 2008 recession, the industry has struggled to truly find its footing in terms of producing what consumers really want and need.
Pre-Recession 2008, fashion was at its peak. In fact, I was a part of that heyday of the fashion industry: New York Fashion Week, Barneys, big name designers and all that. But since then, things have been changing and markets have been evolving, all while the industry has struggled to keep up.
It’s not the same old guard world, where the industry itself sets the standard and the consumers buy into it. In fact, maybe that never actually worked. Even before the forced hand of COVID-19, there were hints of an industry listening more to the needs of its customers. Take for example the rise of social media and its hand in consumer behavior. While once trends were set by creative directors, now the true impact on product development comes from outside the fashion houses. Trends are now more dictated by influencers than prepackaged runway shows.
So how do we create an industry that allows us to support both the creativity of designers and still fulfills the practical and emotional component of fashion consumption? The balancing act might be found in consumer-centric brands that meld with backend business models taking into account business owners, customers and brands together: Demand Side Product Development.
So What Comes Next?
I propose that innovation strategy and the “jobs to be done” methodology have a strong place in fashion’s best path forward. That aforementioned methodology considers the customer struggle as the primary driver behind both product and content development. And it gets there via a dedicated, systematic process: customer interviews, mapping to timelines and then identifying the core emotional, social or functional jobs that potential products can fulfill. That research drives product development and conversion-oriented copy. I believe this could help answer the issues within the fashion industry by leaning into demand-based fashion.
In Bob Moesta’s newly released book, Demand-Side Sales 101: Stop Selling and Help Your Customers Make Progress, this concept is explored further. It’s no longer about “sales” as an entity, but more the concept of “selling” in that consumer needs and struggles should be what drives product development and content. By giving customers what they need but don’t even know to be asking for, the process of selling into that identified struggle is far more effective than continuously guessing at customer needs.
Is Demand Side Production The Answer?
Instead of approaching the fashion industry in the same old way, what if we took the time to understand the struggles a target customer has and develop a product to satisfy that underlying struggle?
There’s no crystal ball, but Demand Side Innovation may be the best path forward. Customers buy products because of a struggle, be it emotional, functional or social. Often they don’t even know what that struggle is themselves, yet it still fuels their purchases. What can be produced to satisfy that need, that want, that struggle?
Customers may not always know what they want in a purchase from a product development side, but they know how they want to feel. Take for example The Mattress Interview conducted by Jason Fried and The Rewired Group. The consumer at the heart of this analysis had figured his sudden purchase of a mattress at Costco one day was an impulse buy, but deeper probing revealed it was a much longer, struggles-based journey than that.
A timeline of struggles (from restless nights to morning Advils to bodily aches) had resulted in an emotional struggle of feeling poorly and not being present for his family. That purchase of a mattress was more long-simmering than he had thought and, it turned out, had nothing to do with the features of the new mattress and everything to do with it simply not being his old mattress.
In that moment, he was simply in the right place (Costco, which provided a seamless return policy) at the right time (with his wife after another rough night) and not actually swayed by a product’s bells and whistles. That new mattress was simply “good enough,” meaning it would do exactly what it needed to at its price point without going overboard. By satisfying only the innate struggle (and not adding unnecessary extras, a product that is “good enough” without extra flash will not only capture sales but reduce cost of goods, creating products that have a higher sell through rate and thus reducing inventory liability.
With fewer options that customers don’t actually want overwhelming them, they will be willing to pay a bit more for the item that meets their needs accurately and in a way that’s just good enough: quality over quantity at its finest.
Demand side product development could be fashion’s best answer to those conundrums and tight spaces. By producing garments, copy, services and content that solve your customers’ struggles, you are protecting your market corner by producing what consumers need before they know they need it. And by implementing the jobs to be done methodology, you will not only be able to uncover the answers to customers’ questions (even when they themselves don’t know the deeper whys!), but will be able to more strategically produce more of the right stuff.
Is it possible to create a fashion brand based on underlying consumer struggles in a retail landscape, from the development side outward? Expanding the jobs to be done methodology from the marketing aspect into the production side will go a long way to ensure products made are products that will sell. For example, an athleisure brand may think customers want more pattern options but, in talking to customers, their main complaint is actually being too sweaty. So, rather than wasting time and money on new colors and patterns, they can instead use moisture wicking fabric in less color options, thereby reducing overhead and increasing products that will have a high sell through.
The future is trending towards consumer-centric brands. Brands need to dive deeper into understanding their core customer and psychologies to develop specific, struggle-addressing products in order to stay profitable and protected in their market space. The jobs to be done methodology must be implemented at regular intervals and sustained over time. As consumer struggles change, production should similarly adjust to maintain a captive customer base.
In the years ahead, we need to do less telling customers what we think they want and more listening to what those underlying struggles truly are. The brands that take that time to design for a struggle will see business success, the brands that don’t will find themselves with a very costly hobby on their hands.
The future of fashion might be saved through these new approaches to innovation. The industry has little choice but to start experimenting with methodologies already proven to work across other industries if we are to be solutionists to a sector that is wrought with inventory bloating and unsustainable business models. This adaptation to new ways of marketing and product development may actually yield a larger consumer pie: one whereby brands are laser focused and can protect themselves from competitors, with each brand producing for a specific, nuanced struggle.
I propose that there is hope yet, and it lies at the intersection of manufacturers, retailers and brands coming together to better serve the consumer.