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Brands Should Do Less

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Retailers could be served by selling fewer styles... or at least looking like they do.

A woman holds a shirt by the hanger, looking at another rack of clothing.
A woman shops in New Zealand’s first Zara shop last year.
Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

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Though we’re in the holiday rush, that supposedly merry time of year when brands bulk up their product selection, go big on in-store events, and discount like crazy, one takeaway from a difficult year in retail is this: Brands would be wise to do less. That means opening fewer stores, offering fewer styles, and cozying up to the traditionally unsexy idea of steadier, slower growth.

We already know that more is no longer more when it comes to brick-and-mortar stores. Many mall chains rose to prominence by blanketing the country, and designer labels spent the aughts building massive flagships in which to display their full collections — “altars to the brand,” says Jennie Baik, the CEO of Orchard Mile who worked at Burberry from 2012 until 2014. Back then, retailers helped their bottom line by adding more square footage, and where there was a fresh geographic opportunity, be it in a new country or a new region, they could grow explosively.

As this year’s spate of store closures shows, that didn’t last. It couldn’t have: There’s a finite amount of space on this planet. Besides that, people’s growing taste for shopping online rendered massive store fleets obsolete. But Baik says that it wasn’t just the rise of e-commerce that undermined real-life stores.

“It’s how people thought about time and shopping,” she says. “No longer did you want to spend your entire day hunting for the perfect thing. Today, the idea of searching is a chore. You know that 24/7 lifestyle: We’re always on call. So people started to reprioritize and value time with family instead.”

E-commerce certainly made shopping faster and more convenient, but as it turns out, online retailers also subscribed to a more-is-more mindset when it came to the number of items they stocked.

“Every retailer has a gigantic assortment online, and that’s not what customers want,” says Katie Smith, the retail analysis and insights director at the retail analytics company Edited. “It’s product fatigue. I’ve heard people say that ASOS has too much product, and that they don’t like going into Zara because they don’t know where to look.”

Adding more product can give brands an immediate sales bump, says Marshall Fisher, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school who published a study on retailers’ growth strategies this year called “Curing the Addiction to Growth.” But eventually the new items will start to cannibalize sales from the rest of the pack.

Smith believes that we’re entering a phase of retailers buying product in “more measured and controlled” ways, tailoring their selection to a particular type of shopper rather than trying to appeal to everyone. Today, a small, curated assortment wins. Niche wins. Especially right now, when people are allocating more of their spending toward travel and experiences.

“It’s critical [for retailers] to not be too greedy right now, because people aren't buying as much clothing,” Smith says.

She’s already seen some retailers cutting down, either by reducing the number of products they carry or by dropping a few brands (particularly those that aren’t performing well or are stocked by competitors). The rapid churn in trends means that sites shouldn’t feel compelled to offer 50 styles of flared jeans; they could probably get away with having a few that sell well and restocking them as needed.

Some retailers already do this really well, and not just the spartan, chic boutiques that merchandise a single sweater next to a sterling-silver wrist cuff and a lone ceramic bowl. Direct-to-consumer startups like Allbirds and Glossier burst out of the gate with only a few products and a decisive sense of branding; both supplement their online businesses with strategically scant store presences. Reformation zeroed in on a shopper and an aesthetic and hasn’t let either out of its sight for a second.

“Reformation isn’t trying to appeal to every customer,” says Smith. “They know what shapes suit her and what styles she likes. They’ve completely cornered the market because of it.”

But some sites do have a ton of product and do want to reach wide audiences, and for them, filtering is a way to fake a tight curation. ASOS, for example, lets customers save their preferences so they don’t have to go back and reset them every time. This summer, Orchard Mile launched a feature called “My Mile” that lets users save their filter settings on a granular level, selecting only the brands they want to shop, in their sizes, in the categories that they regularly buy. (For instance, you could adjust it to show you Vince shoes but not the brand’s ready-to-wear, Baik says.) Orchard Mile makes product recommendations on top of that based on past behavior.

Over time, Baik hopes that personalization and recommendation technology will get good enough that sites will only serve up product that’s right for the shopper.

“I want to create a site that you never have to filter again,” says Baik. “The idea is that eventually those checkboxes will never exist.”

In Fisher’s view, retailers would also be well served by curbing their impulse to chase big yearly revenue gains, a mindset that has historically been rewarded by investors. New brands can grow their sales numbers by huge percentages each year, since they’re starting from nothing. But growth naturally slows for mature retailers, some of which nonetheless try to achieve large revenue gains by continuing to open new stores.

At a point, Fisher says, retailers should get down with lower growth rates and, rather than building more stores, focus on improving the nitty-gritty aspects of their operations, like staffing, pricing, and having the right product available in the right place. It’s not as eye-catching as a shiny new flagship, but it may prove more sustainable.

So perhaps the concept is this: Do just as much, but make it look like less.