Women buy fewer clothes

LONDON • Women love new clothes, right? The answer these days is: Not so much.

There is an apparel armageddon spanning the Atlantic. And that is bad news for retailers.

According to Mr Steve Rowe, the new chief executive of Britain's Marks & Spencer, 60 per cent of women are buying fewer clothes than they were 10 years ago.

It is a similar story at American department store Kohl's, whose chief executive explained the company's weak results like this: "They're not buying apparel - that's the simple answer."

The picture can partly be explained by demographics. According to Mr Rowe, M&S' core clothing customer is a woman in her 50s.

It is a similar picture at British department store Debenhams, whose 41-year-old "Claire" buys fashion and beauty products and likes to have a glass of prosecco in the store restaurant.

The trouble is, older women buy fewer clothes.

Millennials are still buying clothes apace - they do not want to be seen in too many selfies wearing the same outfit. But they do not have as much to spend, so that means more, cheaper items, from the likes of retailers such as H&M, Primark, Asos or Forever 21.

Meanwhile, there are few must-have fashion trends to send women scrambling for new styles. And spending is being diverted to other areas, such as cosmetics, technology, holidays and meals out.

And where women are spending on clothes, they are looking for value, according to Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Poonam Goyal, another boost to the bargain end of the market such as TJX, which operates the American T.J. Maxx chain (known as T.K. Maxx in Britain).

All this makes life difficult for clothing retailers, particularly in the mid-market that is caught between the cheap-chic stores favoured by younger shoppers and more upscale locations.

So what is the answer?

Certainly not cutting prices. Clothing retailers have been slashing prices to stimulate demand on both sides of the Atlantic, but that has failed to kick-start a recovery. Even if, for example, the trend for frayed denim morphed into a fashion frenzy, that would not be enough.

Taking out overcapacity is the only option. Some British clothing retailers have already pared back their footprints, either through choice or company failure. Even Spain's Inditex, which owns the successful Zara chain, is expanding its store base more slowly.

Next has been canny in tackling the matter, focusing on large stores and providing nice cafes and toilets that appeal to older shoppers while, at the same time, reducing smaller outlets.

Others, such as M&S, simply need to cut back.

In the United States, American Eagle, Abercrombie & Fitch and Express are among retailers that have recently closed stores.

Macy's is among those that have also announced plans to retrench.

This is not just about a surfeit of physical stores. Online clothing capacity is expanding too.

Analysts at Cowen forecast that Amazon will be the biggest US clothing retailer next year. But new online specialists are popping up all the time and they are all nibbling at the sales of the existing players.

On the main street and online, there are simply too many mouths to feed.

This adjustment is going to be painful for investors in the short term. But as women's love affair with fashion falters, doing nothing will be even more costly.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 02, 2016, with the headline 'Women buy fewer clothes'. Print Edition | Subscribe