How Traditional Apparel Retailers Can Compete with Fast Fashion


Fast fashion has undoubtedly taken the garment world by storm. Over the past several years, retailers such as Zara, Forever 21, and H&M have found ways to rapidly churn out new styles and products in record time and sell them at extremely low prices.

While this model has worked out very well for the above-mentioned stores, many traditional fashion retailers aren’t equipped to keep up with fast fashion. For many merchants, selling $1.00 tops or $7.00 jeans simply isn’t feasible, which is why it’s important that they find ways to compete on factors beyond speed and price.

This post explores ways in which you can do just that. Below you’ll find tips on how to compete with fast fashion retailers. Go through them and see if you can put them to use in your store.


Develop a unique brand

One of the keys to going up against fast fashion retailers is to differentiate yourself. Figure out your unique flavor or brand, and then make sure that it translates into your products and the shopping experience.


Use the 4 Ps

Need help developing a distinct brand? Business and life coach Marie Forleo offers some excellent advice on the topic. According to her, entrepreneurs who need to figure out what makes them unique should start with the four Ps:

  • Purpose (your story or reason for being)
  • Principles (what you stand for)
  • People (who you stand for)
  • Pisses you off (what frustrates you about your industry)

If you haven’t done so yet, take some time to reflect on the 4 Ps above, and let them guide your messaging, product decisions, and more.


Put your brand to work

Already developed a killer brand? Make sure it translates across your entire retail operation.

As Shelley E. Kohan, VP of Retail Consulting at RetailNext, puts it, “In the world of fast fashion, competing on the scale of speed would be exceptionally difficult. I do believe, however, that apparel retailers can compete with differentiated products, enhanced brand experience across all customer touchpoints, and loyalty programs that allow for personalization and two-way communications with their customers.”

In other words, you need to ensure that your customers can see and feel your brand in your products, employees, and store as a whole.


For an example, look at Free People, a bohemian apparel and lifestyle retail company. According to Shelley, Free People does an excellent job at differentiating itself through its products and the ethos of its brand. Free People has truly embraced the boho lifestyle, and everything from its products and brick-and-mortar store to its website embodies that brand and message. Because of this, the retailer successfully sets itself apart from fast fashion brands, and Free People is able to continue selling products despite having higher prices.


Curate assortments (don’t just stock up on more merchandise)

While some customers are enticed by wide assortments, a good number of people find them frustrating. Consider the experience of Esther Robbins, a 36-year old mom who walked into a Forever 21 store in New Jersey, only to leave empty-handed because she couldn’t find what she needed since the location was too big and just had too many products.

“Who has time to go through all the racks?” she told the Wall Street Journal. “I would buy more if it were easier to find what I’m looking for.” 

Smart retailers are recognizing the needs and sentiments of consumers like Esther. They’re focusing on quality over quantity when it comes to product assortments, and rather than stocking more merchandise, they’re thoughtfully curating items to make products easier to find.

Consider what fashion subscription service Stitch Fix is doing. The site sends members a select number of pieces every month based on each person’s style profile and preferences. Doing so saves customers time and enables them to quickly find clothes that fit their needs.

Now, following in Stitch Fix’s footsteps doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to start your own subscription service. However, you can learn from some of their tactics to better understand shoppers and figure out what they need.

For instance, Stitch Fix lets members take style quizzes, and the company employs stylists to curate pieces for their customers. Similarly, you can send out surveys to your customers to determine their needs, and you can offer personal shopping or styling services so they can get help finding the right items.

You could also try to keep track of item requests from customers. Bal Harbour Boutique in the UK does this, and the practice has worked out really well for them.

“We keep a book of requested items from our customers, then when we’re on a buying trip and see something that a customer requested, we buy it especially with them in mind. They feel special, and we have another happy customer,” says owner Dena Stemmer.


Make it a point to offer superb customer service

“Customer service may be your winning hand instead of focusing on speed,” says Lea Macchiaroli, founding partner at Blossom Growth. “Stand out as a truly customer-serving retailer. It may be how you help and connect with your customers that will help you compete with fast fashion retailers. Look at how Nordstrom’s built their reputation on their stellar customer service.”

Customer service is an essential differentiator that traditional apparel stores have over fast fashion retailers. Most fast fashion stores operate almost on a self-service model, in which shoppers can find what they need on their own. You’ll rarely find a fast fashion store associate who’ll take the time to listen to your needs, walk through the store, and thoughtfully recommend items.

You can use this to your advantage by employing people who can provide superb customer service. Train your associates to be attentive, and encourage them to get to know and understand your shoppers so they can offer personalized advice and products.

As Bridget Johns, RetailNext’s Head of Customer Success, says, “Fashion retailers who will succeed in the era of fast fashion are those that have a deep understanding of their customers and their needs. Service, craftsmanship, and unique products are all strategies that can be used to combat fast fashion.”


Hold in-store events

Retail and fashion expert Allyson Rees recommends holding in-store events, as they can energize the local market. When done right, in-store events give you the opportunity to offer customers unique experiences and generate foot traffic and sales.

They can also give you a social media boost, if you play your cards right. “Encourage customers to tag your store on Instagram and repost their images, or partner with local bloggers and other like-minded businesses on a promotional party or in-store event,” recommends Allyson.

Bal Harbour Boutique is an example of a retailer that’s found success in events. “Running personal events is a great way to appeal to shoppers,” adds Dena. It’s an added benefit that they don’t get in a big store.”

“We partner with other small retailers, such as bespoke milliners, jewelers, beauticians, and others, to maximize our unique selling point—that we can give them individual attention that is difficult to find in bigger stores.”


Freshen up your store often

You may not be able to churn out fresh styles every week or so, but you can freshen up how you merchandise and present your products.

“From a product standpoint, mannequins and merchandising should be refreshed bi-weekly to compete with fast fashion,” mentions Allyson. “We’re seeing a lot of boutiques pop up in Europe that have stark, modular fixtures, and many are on casters, allowing store displays and merchandising to be quickly changed to provide a fresh new look.”


Educate customers on the benefits of shopping at traditional apparel stores

Sometimes, you need to spell out why shopping at regular apparel stores is actually better than fast fashion. You can, for instance, emphasize that you’re selling higher-quality products that will last longer over time.

Additionally, some fast fashion retailers are known for using unethical and exploitative practices to cut production costs and maximize profits, so educating consumers on these issues can go a long way in converting them to shop at traditional fashion stores.

An informal study of 390 consumers found that “over 75% of respondents agreed that they would be willing to pay more for clothing produced using responsible labor practices.” Similarly, a YouGov poll found that 74% of shoppers “would be happy to pay an extra 5% for their clothes if there was a guarantee that workers were being paid fairly and working in safe conditions.”

That’s why implementing ethical and sustainable business strategies—and being transparent with your practices—can help you compete with fast fashion merchants. If you can show your customers that your products are manufactured by factories that promote fair and safe working conditions, your shoppers will see you in a much better light.


One example of a merchant doing this well is Everlane, which takes the time to build personal relationships with factory owners and requires stringent workplace compliance paperwork to ensure their integrity. To promote transparency, Everlane features all the factories they work with on their website so their customers know exactly where their products are made.


Bottom line

Competing with fast fashion retailers doesn’t always entail that you have to keep up with their speed and prices. As we mentioned above, there are other, more effective strategies you can implement to differentiate your store and convert shoppers.

Do you own or manage an apparel store? How do you compete with fast fashion? Tell us in the comments. 


About Francesca Nicasio

Francesca Nicasio is Vend's Retail Expert and Content Strategist. She writes about trends, tips, and other cool things that enable retailers to increase sales, serve customers better, and be more awesome overall. She's also the author of Retail Survival of the Fittest, a free eBook to help retailers future-proof their stores. Connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Google+.

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