Returns cost money, lots of money. Free delivery and no quibble returns are starting to become a strain on online retailers and it seems ASOS has had enough. The British fast-fashion giant recently announced it was cracking down on ‘serial returners’. An extension in its returns policy - items can be returned up to 45 days after purchase with a cash refund up to 28 days and credit thereafter - was also issued with a threat to investigate and ‘take action’ if it notices anything unusual with people returning more items than usual. If it suspects someone is wearing and returning goods, or ordering and returning ‘loads’, it may deactivate the account.
Left - ASOS' returns are costing them dearly
ASOS is one of the world’s largest online retailers, particularly amongst younger demographics, and its ease of ordering and returning is, arguably, part of the their success and growth story.
Becky, 29, says “I think it’s against the whole nature of online shopping. When you go into a shop you can take 10 items into the changing room and not like any of them, e-retailers need to expect the same thing to happen with their sites and customers should be able to return the items they don’t want.
"I buy a lot from ASOS and return a lot simply because it doesn’t fit right or because it doesn’t look how I expected it to when I bought it.” she says. “If it starts impacting how quickly refunds come through – or if I start having refund requests declined – then it definitely would discourage me. I love ASOS though – majority of my wardrobe is from ASOS, now, where they host so many brands – so I’m intrigued to see what happens!”
This issue is experienced by many retailers. Research conducted by resource planning platform Brightpearl, who surveyed 200 retailers across the UK, found more than a third of shops have seen an increase in serial returns over the last year. As a result, 45 per cent of retailers, including ASOS and Harrods, said they were planning to blacklist repeat offenders. It can cost double the amount for a product to be returned into the supply chain as it does to deliver it and in the UK, it can pass through seven pairs of hands before it is listed for resale. This all takes time and money.
Meli, 26, says “I’m glad that this prevents people returning used items as I’ve had something sent to me from ASOS before that was definitely used. However I’d hate to be blacklisted for genuinely returning items that don’t fit/I don’t like!
“I often order in bulk with multiple options and different sizes then do a try on at home to see what I like best, and return the rest. I think the real problem is sizing as ASOS stocks so many different brands, it’s hard to rely on standard sizing to be the same across all.” she says. “If I was blacklisted then it would certainly drive me to other online retailers or just shop directly with the brands that ASOS stocks. For now, it will make me think more carefully about exactly what I’d be likely to keep if it did fit.” says Meli.
Earlier this year, Zalando started a trial in which it would attach very big clothing labels to items to make it more difficult to ‘wear and return’ or post on Instagram. That label reads: “Dear customer, feel free to fit this article and try it, but if this label is removed, it will not to be accepted as a return by Zalando.”
Retailers have somewhat encouraged some of this behaviour with their ‘try-before-you-buy’ options. Consumers can order what they like and then just pay for what they keep. This encourages over ordering and a large number of returns. Amazon currently restricts this service to between 3 and 8 items.
Research from Barclaycard found that almost 1 in 10 UK shoppers have bought clothes online with the intent to wear them for social media and then return them. Surprisingly, it was the older demographic, men and women aged 35 to 44, with 17 per cent, revealing that they are guilty of shopping only for their #OOTD. The research also found that is was men who were more inclined to shop and return as they are more ‘socially self-conscious’ than women - with 12 per cent admitting to posting a clothing or accessory item on social media and returning it to the retailer afterwards.
Right - Zalando taking on the 'Serial Returners'' with their large tags
Lois Spencer-Tracey, fashion blogger, says, “Must confess, I'm a bit annoyed by this. I probably send back 80-100% of an order I receive purely because of their sizing and my body shape. Nothing to do with my Instagram or blog.”
Last year, Next announced it would start to charge customers a £1 fee for returns they make through a courier or through a Hermes Parcel Shop. The collection charge will be applied for each collection, regardless of the number of items collected. Returning items at any of Next’s retail or clearance stores in the UK remains free.
ASOS are playing the fashion police by admitting had resorted to checking people’s social media accounts in a bid to catch out consumers who wear clothes before sending them back, and falsely claim they have not received items bought online.
“I’m a massive online shopper. I find it so much easier to just order clothes in and try them on at home because then you can try on a full outfit, matching with the shoes and accessories you want. It’s so much easier to do in your own home rather than in a squished changing room. And usually returns are easy with things like collect+ which is much better than working out when you’ll next be in town to take clothes back to a store.” says Becky.
This is a difficult line for online brands to tread. On the one hand they don’t want to discourage consumers from ordering or being frightened to return things, and, on the other hand, they need to let excessive returners or people who are wearing things and returning them, know they are being monitored. It's definitely easier to return something into a faceless plastic bag than been quizzed by a sales assistant. This is probably an empty threat from ASOS, but does illustrate how serious this issue is becoming for fashion e-tailers. Rather than look at the volume of returns, maybe look at the conversion percentages of sales from shoppers. You don’t want to alienate active and engaged consumers, but neither do you want to service those costing the company dearly.
Read more ChicGeek expert comments - here
While the dust continues to settle on the hoo-ha regarding Burberry burning product - who have, miraculously, stopped burning product, BTW - the whole thing is a reminder of how brands deal with waste and what they should do with it.
Brands don’t want waste. Waste costs money. It also takes time and energy to get rid of it. Waste is a sign of over ordering, and being left with a mountain of stock to dispose of. This is basically what sales are: the motivation to shift unsold stock, shoving it all out the door hoping to make some form of profit, or, at worst, cover its costs.
In an ideal world, they’d be zero waste. What if brands only made exactly what they needed? No more sales, no more outlets, no more burning. Welcome to the future.
Janice Wang, Founder & CEO of Alvanon, a fashion tech business specialising in helping brands with fit and reducing returns, says, “Our industry is blighted by oversupply. Some 60 percent of the garments we supply are sold at discount, which means we are making too much of the wrong thing.”
Left - The Sewbots are coming
Sales and discounts are hurting retailers. Not only does it negatively affect profits and margins, it also has created an environment where consumers are hooked on discounts and never want to pay full price. It’s a race to the bottom for many retailers and this is putting many out of business. At the beginning of this year, H&M announced it had a $4.3 billion pile of unsold stock. What do you do with it?
“Sales are bad for brands and retailers because they reduce margin and damage a brand's credibility. It makes people question whether products are worth the price they have paid for them.” says Petah Marian, Senior Editor, WGSN INSIGHT.
Fashion retailers are always pushing for efficiencies, but there’s a disconnect, currently, between the speed of ordering and the making to order window which many consumers will not tolerate.
“To become competitive, fashion retailers and brands need to embrace new production strategies and technologies, such as data and intelligence, robotics and digitalisation, to use customer data to provide tailored, on-demand items.” says Wang.
“A responsive supply chain enables brands to react quickly to consumer demands and changing trends. The vision is to reduce lead times from months to weeks to days or hours.” says Wang. “Consumers today live in a constantly changing world. This shapes their behaviour and expectations. They demand newness and immediacy without compromise.” she says.
Marian says, “It means less wastage of resources and also the possibility of personalising items for an individual consumer. Less wastage means a more sustainable supply chain, and people value things more when they have participated in their creation.”
Fashion is currently stuck in the past. Buyers have to guess what people will buy and in which sizes, many months in advance. It’s guesswork, and, while they have got faster and more efficient, there is huge margins for error and then you’re left dealing with your mistakes. On the other hand, you could also not make enough of something popular: missing out on full-price sales and leaving disappointed customers.
Right - The type of robots soon to be making your clothes
“Regional and localised sourcing allows retailers to be more responsive to actual customer buying behaviour.” says Wang. “Styles can even be adapted in-season and delivered to stores while consumers still want to buy them. And, at the end of the day, smaller runs of garments that sell at full-price are better than cheaper cost volume runs of garments that have to be sold at discount.” she says.
How many retailers blame the weather for having the wrong product at the wrong time when publishing their financial results? It’s also really bad for the environment.
“Eventually technology will allow us to go from producing things by the millions to producing them by the ones. Everyone is talking about customisation and there’s no doubt that will eventually happen.” says Wang. “It’s the most efficient and sustainable way of manufacturing.” she says.
“You used to go to the tailor and they would make one item for you.” says Wang. “I can visualise that you will customise one unit to order. Bespoke, customised, perfectly fitting items made just for you and only when you order them – it sounds just like a Savile Row offering, only this time it will be purchased from your smartphone.”
Fashion businesses are looking at making items ‘on-demand’, but to make these cost effective and fast we’re going to need automation. Amazon has just patented an ‘on demand’ system: making the clothes once an order has been placed, not before.
It will be robots or ‘Sewbots’, situated closer to home, which will, eventually, be making our clothes. SoftWear Automation, based in Atlanta, introduced ‘Lowry’ in 2015, a sewing robot that uses machine vision to spot and adjust to distortions in the fabric. Though initially only able to make simple products, such as bath mats, the technology is now advanced enough to make whole T-shirts and much of a pair of jeans. According to the company, it also does it far faster than a human sewing line.
SoftWear Automation’s big selling point is that one of its robotic sewing lines can replace a conventional line of 10 workers and produce about 1,142 T-shirts in an eight-hour period, compared to just 669 for the human sewing line. The robot, working under the guidance of a single human handler, can make as many shirts per hour as about 17 humans.
“Retailers will push for this when it becomes cheaper to manufacture products using robots than using offshore labour.” says Marian.
Retailers, factory owners and brands will make huge savings. It will also mean things can be made closer to home so left time and expense in travel. They’ll be no more sweatshops and the robots can run 24/7.
Currently, brands are starting to explore this new idea, but it’s still quite niche and can be more expensive. Under Armour has its new Lighthouse Project, Nike has a new partnership with Apollo Global Management and Adidas' Speed factory.
Adidas currently has a ‘Speedfactory’ in both Germany and Atlanta. The factory is completely automated, and designed to be able to speedily produce limited runs of customisable product or replenish the hottest product selling quickly during the same season. Adidas said it can get shoes to market three times faster in a Speedfactory than with traditional means and hopes the two factories can produce one million pairs of shoes a year by 2020. Adidas will continue to experiment with the Speedfactories, adding new technology and more automated processes to get to a goal of 50% of shoes made by with 'speedier' methods.
This is the future. The future will be shops as showrooms, where you order the item in your specific size and then an automated robot, closer to home, will be able to manufacturer it within an acceptable window of time. Just imagine, something will never sell out. They’ll always have your size. Your better size even. You’ll be able to order something to fit perfectly.
The brands or shops that will thrive will be those with the best ideas or styles. Consumers will be able to customise, within reason, and brands will no longer have to hold vast inventory which ties up capital and kills cashflow. Sales will be a thing of the past and the waste and environmental pollution will be reduced hugely. Clothes could also become cheaper as the labour costs are reduced.
This fashion automation is part of the forthcoming ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. It will revolutionise what we buy and how we look. The machines are definitely coming because the industry wants it.
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News just in - Burberry president and chief creative officer, Christopher Bailey, who has been with the Burberry brand for 17 years, will stand down from its board in March 2018 and work with CEO Marco Gobbetti and team on a transition period until December 2018.
When Burberry’s renaissance began in the late 1990s, it was the perfect time to turn around a recognisable British name, dust it off and grow it into the new desire for luxury and branded products. We’d witnessed it at Gucci, under Tom Ford, and other languishing brands were thirsty for the same.
Burberry initially started with the Italian designer, Robert Menchetti. That didn’t last long and was soon replaced by an unknown designer, Christopher Bailey.
Left - Christopher Bailey who turned Burberry into the billion dollar business it is today
Initially, and this was pre-Google, so you can forgive me, I thought it was the same Chris Bailey who had started Jigsaw Menswear and the soon-to-be defunct Uth. A great designer and businessman, I thought it was a perfect fit.
I quickly realised they were different people and I bought a shirt from that first 2001/02 collection. Admittedly, it was in the Harrods sale and it was very expensive, if I remember, and I still have it. It was in a stretch, striped fabric, one I hadn’t seen before, with metal Burberry branded buttons and epaulettes. There was something beautiful yet innovative which became the signature of the new Burberry.
I quickly became fan. Every collection had a strong theme and the pieces were well designed and had that all important desire factor. The brand got bigger, the shows became fancier and major events with Christopher Bailey overseeing every detail, from store fits to the music to the Testino campaigns.
Those Bill & Ben hats, the paisley collection and then there was the coats with the leather arms which are still yet to disappear off the British high-street.
Bailey is one of the greatest Creative Directors of our time. He’s up there with Tom Ford for a progressive and consistent luxury handwriting. Burberry’s growth and success is down to his balance of updating Britishness while respecting the past and knowing exactly what consumers want now.
While the average Burberry customer probably doesn’t know or care who Christopher Bailey is, for us fashion folk, we like to see the whites of the eyes of those designing and leading the brands we look at.
Seventeen years in fashion is a lifetime, especially today, and while “See Now, Buy Now” pushed him into a creative cul-de-sac, Bailey produced some great clothes and images.
I think he’ll probably take a break. Burberry has made him a very rich man. But, it is exciting what this talented man decides to do next. Perhaps he’ll join Angela Ahrendts at Apple, maybe a bigger fashion job such as Louis Vuitton, his own label or maybe something really radical like Amazon. Who knows?
See more Burberry related comment pieces:
Time to Ditch “See Now, Buy Now” here
Choose Your Rip-Off here
Yesterday, The Evening Standard reported the new chief executive of Debenhams, Sergio Bucher, is cutting back on some of the older fashion designers who have been selling ranges at the department store for decades as he tries to freshen up its cool credentials.
About time. They desperately need a clear out. They haven’t named who is going yet, but they’ve already said they want to shift the focus of the stores away from fashion to more experiences like dining and beauty.
Left - Who is for the chop at Debenhams?
When ‘Designers at Debenhams’ started Debenhams was one of the first retailers on the British high-street to acknowledge and react to the growing demand from consumers for a ‘name’ on a product. It was a genius move at the time. After seeing their success, other retailers such as Marks & Spencer copied with Autograph, while, strangely, never put anybody’s name on it?!
That was 23 years ago and Debenhams hasn’t moved it on. They’ve stuck with the same crop of designers and 23 years in fashion is a couple of lifetimes, especially how fast it is today. The menswear, in particular, with the exception of Hammond & Co. hasn’t seen any new life or blood for years.
At past press days, where they preview their new collections, they’ve shown me 4 rails of men's clothes, all different ‘designers’, but all looking the same because they are designed by the same people.
Many of these designers have grown fat and lazy with Debenhams. Making millions while Debenhams has become a sea of grey, black and navy. While the men’s high-street has embraced so much over this time, Debenhams has stuck with an older customer who they disappointly underestimate with their product mix. A 45 year old man today is very different from the 45 year old man in 1993.
It has lost any form of excitement and point of difference. This seems an obvious and much needed step in the right direction. Department stores are looking old-fashioned at the moment: they have to make themselves relevant if they are to survive. You have to create newness all the time with the likes of John Lewis and Amazon biting at your heels.
Bucher will update on his strategic plan for Debenhams in April.
It was Prince who once sang about a raspberry beret and while he was admiring the wearer, going in through the out door, this season he should be one sporting himself.
Left - Gucci catwalk AW15
Seen on the catwalk at Gucci, it’s the beret’s simplicity that really makes it appealing for the cold weather season.
Left - Gucci - £160
A stylish alternative to the beanie or bobble hat, here are a few suggestions, but they can be picked up, relatively cheaply, on eBay and Amazon.
From the French word béret, it is a simple flat woollen cap traditionally worn by peasants. It was adopted by revolutionaries and artists and adds that romantic feeling to any look. Just remember, you want to look studious not like a New York Guardian Angel!
Left - Picasso
Above- Lock & Co - Basque Beret - £85
Below - Che Guevara