Why is fast fashion marketing effective? An analysis into the online fashion marketing industry and examination of marketing principles and technique, and how these can be linked to greater sales figures
The fashion industry has undergone significant change and development over the last few decades, gradually transforming from a more stable industry into a very turbulent one. The change in the fashion industry is said to be driven mainly by sourcing from abroad which can be directly attributed to cheaper labour costs (Jones, 2002). The industry is practically finding it difficult to compete on price alone as a result of tough competition from countries with low labour costs (Bruce and Daly, 2006). This suggests that firms that want to compete successfully in the industry must adopt a number of alternative strategies that would ensure that they remain competitive.
Competition from low cost products has forced some fashion retailers to adopt alternative strategies. One of these strategies is fast fashion marketing. Fashion retailers such as Topshop, H&M and Zara have adopted fast fashion marketing as a means of responding to low cost competition. Fast fashion marketing has had a significant impact on revenue streams of the companies that practice it. Fast fashion marketing companies not only solicit and value customer insights but take appropriate action on those insights so as to enable them improve their competitive position (Miller, 2006). Fast fashion retailers work mainly on a basic principle which suggests that “the customer is always right”. By so doing, the companies ensure that the customer is satisfied while at the same time realising maximum benefits their knowledge about the customer (Miller, 2006).
Fast fashion retailers continuously seek to understand customer needs and preferences. In addition, they study how these needs and preferences change over time. By understanding customer needs and preferences as well as their changes over time, fast fashion retailers can develop fashion products that meet customer requirements at all times and at the same time adapt to changes when necessary. For example in Topshop, when a customer picks up a pink skirt, and asks a salesperson whether there is a complementary white T-Shirt with a plunging necklace, the store manager immediately understands the customer’s need and transmits the message to the company’s buyer’s and design team. In less than a few weeks the complementary T-Shirt can be found on the shelves of Topshop (Miller, 2006).
Fast fashion retailers are growing at an alarming rate with their growth rate calculated to be almost three to four times the rate of the apparel industry as a whole (Miller, 2006). While traditional retailers bring in new products approximately once a month, fast fashion retailer like Topshop, Zara, and H&M source approximately 300 new designs per week. This shows that the turnover of fast fashion retailers is approximately ten times that of traditional retailers. The shelf life of a garment in Topshop and other similar fast fashion retailers is approximately a few weeks as oppose to approximately six months for traditional fashion retailers. This suggests the reason why these shops are referred to as fast fashion retailers. The innovation in the fast fashion industry can be compared to the innovation that took place in the fast food industry in the 1960s. Unlike in the traditional fashion retail stores where styles are dictated months in advance, fast fashion retailers depend on in-season trends for their cues. In addition, fast fashion retailers do not advertise heavily. Rather, they rely on the frequent flow of new products to lure customers into their stores. Compared to traditional fashion retailers who introduce new designs to racks just ten to twelve times a year, fast fashion retailers introduce new designs to racks approximately two to three times per week.
By creating a “buy it now” mentality, consumers of fast fashion products have been made to believe that there only a single opportunity for them to buy a particular product as it would not be replenished. Moreover, fast fashion retailers have made consumers to believe that their products are reasonably priced, which means that there is no need to postpone their buying decisions. Consequently consumers are forced to buy on the spot. It is therefore difficult for consumers to think that the product will go on sale. They have been made to believe that the product will no longer be available by the time they are expecting it to be on sale.
Fast fashion retailers therefore have significantly higher sell-through rates compared to traditional fashion retailers. This is evidenced from the fact that most fast fashion retailers are capable of selling their products at as much as 85 percent of the full price as opposed to an industry average of 60 percent. While production cost from local sourcing appears to be higher, fast fashion retailers are still capable of achieving profitability that is approximately two times as high as that of their traditional counterparts.
Fast fashion retail was a concept that was initiated by European retailers who have maintained a leadership position for some time now. However, a number of U.S companies have gained significant interest in the business model and are beginning to catch up with their European counterparts. Despite this catch up, U.S retailers are yet to fully embrace the concept. For example, Fast fashion represents only 1 percent of the U.S clothing market as opposed to 12 percent for the U.K. The companies that top the charts in the U.S include Forever 21, Charlotte Russe and Bebe Stores. These stores influence shoppers with instant messages, iPods and reality TV (Miller, 2006).
Some U.S companies have reacted to the threat of fast fashion by infusing “pseudo-fast fashion” into their business strategies. In early 2006, Target for example introduced a new series known as “Go International Series, Limited-edition collections” which was produced by up-and-coming apparel designers and was available only for 90 days. This series sent a clear message to consumers that it was a fast fashion product that will be available only for 90 days indicating that anyone who failed to purchase it within the 90-day window would be lost out. Another example of the “pseudo-fast fashion” in the U.S was by Chico who introduced the FAS. This strategy enables the company to employ frequent product flows to generate newness and scarcity thus transmitting an instant message to consumers that they may lose out if they fail to take necessary action.
While fast fashion appears to be leading the charts in the clothing and apparel sectors, one is forced to ask questions as to whether they are successful. The key question that one needs to ask is why is fast fashion marketing effective. This paper aims at providing answers to this question by conducting an in-depth analysis of a number of online fast fashion marketers. These include Zara, Topshop and H&M. The study will be looking at four key aspects of these companies. These include category management, quick response, marketing and production. Therefore, the study will be interested in answering four sub-questions:
– How do fast fashion retailers manage their categories to ensure that customers are satisfied?
– What are the strategies adopted to ensure that rapid response is achieved?
– How do fast fashion retailers source their products?
– What are the marketing strategies adopted by fast fashion retailers.
Providing answers to the above questions will enable one to understand why fast fashion marketing is successful and thus provide recommendations as to whether traditional fashion retailers can change their business strategies into the fast fashion model so as to increase their competitive position.
The study is organised under five key headings: Section 1 above provided a general background to the study and provided the objectives of the study; section 2 will provide a literature review which will focus on both theoretical and empirical literature; section 3 will be concerned with the methodology and data description; section 4 will provide the empirical findings and results as well as a discussion of the findings; and section 5 will provide general conclusions, recommendations and areas for further research.
2. Literature Review
Brun and Castelli (2008: 169) review the work of Blumer (1969) who defines fashion as “the word used to describe trends, which affirm themselves in a spontaneous way in accordance with the Zeiteist, i.e., the spirit of the age prevailing at a given moment”. This definition suggests that fashion is something that varies with time. Dealers in fashion products must therefore develop distinctive capabilities that can enable them to easily adapt to change. In other words, fashion dealers must have the capabilities necessary for delivering the critical success factors of the industry.
In response to its changing nature, fashion is no longer the way it used to be. A new type of fashion has emerged. Today, most retailers and designers talk of fast fashion. Fast fashion is a contemporary phrase employed by retailers of fashion products, which signifies that new designs leave the catwalk to the store within a very short time so as to meet up with current trends in the market (Tony and Bruce, 2001).
Fast fashion emerged from a product-driven concept known as quick response to a market-based concept known as fast fashion (Lowson et al., 1999). The main objective of fast fashion is to produce a product within the shortest time possible using the most cost efficient method. In order to achieve cost efficiency, the retailer must achieve a detailed understanding of the needs and preferences of the target market (Lisa, 2008). A number of factors are required for the success of fast fashion. These include category management, quick response, marketing, production, etc.
Category management links the retailer and the manufacturer in a more collaborative relationship (Sheridan et al., 2006). Sheridan et al. (2006) defines category management as “the strategic management of product groups, which aims to maximise sales and profits by satisfying customer needs”. Collaboration between retailers and manufacturers enables them to pool scarce resources together thereby maximising the total profits of the industry. This in turn makes it possible for high quality products to be offered at low cost to customers thereby keeping them satisfied.
As earlier mentioned, fast fashion emerged from a product-based concept known as quick response. Quick response emerged as a means of improving manufacturing processes in the textile industry with the objective of removing time from the production system (Hines, 2007). The concept of quick response resulted in lower lead times in manufacturing processes and to a more competitive U.S textile industry as well as to lower imports of textile products (Hines, 2007). Quick response is used today as a means of supporting fast fashion. It facilitates the creation of new products while at the same time pooling customers back to repeat purchases (Bruce and Daly, 2006). Speed is at the centre of fast fashion marketing (Miller, 2006). Fast fashion retailers achieve shorter cycles times by delaying decisions farther and farther along in the process (Miller, 2006). For example, Topshop is capable of changing the wash on jeans going through a factory within 24 hours; it can decide to change a short-sleeve jersey into a long-sleeve jersey within minutes following a single last-minute call to manufacturing. Rapid response depends heavily on a flexible supply chain. Flexible supply chains means that fast fashion retailers cannot depend solely on low cost production countries like India and China where labour costs are perceived to be cheap. Rather fast fashion retailers must also make use of local manufacturers who may just be their best option for last minute designs and manufacturing.
In addition to category management and quick response, fast fashion relies heavily on marketing for its success. Marketing remains the key determinant of the success of fast fashion in that it creates the desire for the consumption of new designs as close as possible to the point of creation. Marketing achieves this through its promotion of the consumption of fashion products as something fast, low priced and disposable. The objective of fast fashion marketing is to reduce cycle times from production to consumption so as to ensure that consumers engage in as many cycles as possible over any given period of time.
Unlike traditional fashion retailers who follow the annual cycle of summer, autumn, winter and spring, fast fashion retailers have reduced the fashion cycles into shorter periods ranging from four to six weeks and even lower in some cases. By so doing, more buying seasons have been created within the same time dimensions. Fast fashion retailers employ two main marketing strategies. While some operate with no advertising, others rely on advertising. Primark for example does not invest in advertising. Rather, the company invests in the store layout, shop fit and visual merchandising thereby creating an instant hook. This hook results in an enjoyable shopping experience which in turn leads to the continuous return of customers. Evidence suggests that approximately 75 percent of customers make their decisions within 3 seconds while standing in front of the fixtures. By not spending on advertising, Primark is able to pass these cost-savings to customers through low prices (Sheridan et al., 2006).
In line with this requirement, fast fashion marketing has been developed to enable fashion dealers easily respond to current and emerging fashion trends in a fast and efficient manner.
Fast fashion marketing can be defined as “the strategies that retailers adopt in order to reflect current and emerging trends quickly and effectively in current merchandise assortments” (Sheridan et al., 2005: 301). The speed by which decisions are made, as well as the innovations introduced into the store determine how sourcing and buying decisions are combined in the fast fashion industry (Bruce and Daly, 2006). Consumers of fashion products grow strongly and vigorously on constant change, which means that new products have to be introduced frequently to keep up with the pace of change (Bruce and Daly, 2006). Fast fashion companies can achieve this fast turnaround by making contacts with new suppliers with different products in addition to updating and maintaining relationships with existing suppliers who through an understanding of change in the fast fashion industry as an ineluctable factor that determines competitive advantage have developed capabilities to deliver it (Bruce and Daly, 2006). Buying activities therefore play a critical role in the industry through the selection of suppliers and product decision making (Bruce and Daly, 2006). Buying in the fast fashion industry has therefore changed from a pure strategic decision, which was considered less important to a strategic decision, which must be treated with some level of caution.
The fast fashion retail market can be divided into different segments. Three main segments have been identified. These include luxury, high street, and supermarket/out-of-town discounter. Competition in the clothing market has increased recently owing mainly to the entrance of supermarkets into the clothing sector. Supermarkets have made it easy for customers to buy fashionable clothing as part of their weekly shopping. This has reduced the amount of time spent visiting the high street. One of the major fast fashion retailers is Zara. The company has a rapid stock turnaround and is vertically integrated to its supply chain. According to the Economist (2005); and Stabe (2005) Zara is the market leader in the fast fashion industry. The company focuses on a limited range of products as well as on basic shapes. This enables it to deal with a very narrow product range. Fast fashion does not apply to the whole range of products in a store. Approximately 80 percent of products may be core products with fast fashion accounting for just about 20 percent of the entire product range (Mintel, 2002).
A number of empirical studies have been conducted following the emergence of the fast fashion industry. Most studies have focused on how this has impacted the supply chain of the fashion industry. Christopher et al. (2004) for example argues that the emergence of fast fashion has led to significant changes in supply chain operations. The study argues that product life cycles have become shorter as a result of fast fashion. In addition, impulse buying has increased as well as demand fluctuations. Moreover, higher demand fluctuations have made it difficult for demand to be predicted. Forza and Vinneli (2000) provide explanations for shorter product life cycles. Accordingly, they argue that because consumers have increased their desire for new products and variety, it is difficult for a particular product to stay for long thereby leading to shorter product life cycles (Forza and Vinneli, 2000). Consumers’ desire for new products and variety has been attributed to the higher media availability of fashion trend-based and “gossip” magazines (Doyle et al., 2006). Birthwistle et al. (2003) argues that the supply chain needs to be structured in such a way that facilitates rapid response as this can significantly benefit fast fashion retailers. This is because; time has become a key dimension of desirability in a fashion sector that is also characterised by high levels of demand unpredictability. While Christopher et al. (2004) advocates close-market or domestic sourcing as a solution to rapid response for fast fashion retailers, Finiton (2005) argues that while this may provide some benefits, the domestic or close-market sourcing model is best suited for international fashion retailers rather than to national retailers. Besides, it has been argued that rapid response is not determined mainly by the supply chain. Rapid response depends mainly on the requirements of the market and not on the proximity between the retailer and the supply chain (Abertnathy, 2000; Lowson et al., 1999). Fashion retailers are therefore urged to focus on understanding market requirements rather than trying to figure out which supply chain best suits them.
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