& Other Stories: An Exciting Shift For Retail

Magazine editorials have been showing us for years how to put together outfits. ‘Editor’s Picks’, ‘1 Dress, 5 Looks’, ‘Stylist Recommends’… the list of familiar article headings go on. There are not many shoppers, fashionistas or beauty addicts that do not like seeing how catwalk looks or even celebrity trends can be ‘copied’ or ‘inspired’, particularly those articles that pull together such looks on a high street budget. So why stop at the static publication? Why not bring these to life? And I don’t mean virtual life. Don’t get me wrong, I believe E-Tailers are truly powerful in making online shopping experiences more and more ‘real’ with virtual fitting rooms and video streams of models wearing the outfits, making online clothes shopping easier and more enjoyable than ever before. However, I’m talking about translating this concept into a physical retail store. Why not, place that pillar-box red lipstick by that military jacket, next to a stack of rose gold arm candy? And let’s not forget those suede, over-the-knee boots with that cute, studded, leather satchel to accessorize.

That’s exactly what & Other Stories, the latest venture from Sweden’s retail giant Hennes & Mauritz Group, has done. I can’t express how refreshing I find this. To me, the stagnant retail industry has been crying out for someone to be daring enough to take this risk and put a spin on the traditional retail model. Since the 2008 recession, the government has been trying to revive the UK retail industry with initiatives spear-headed by retail expert Mary Portas herself. I am a huge fan of the Portas myself, but honestly I think what the industry needs, is to see a large enterprise really take the leap and step out of the ‘comfort zone’ first, before making any changes themselves.

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The Regent Street store in London opened in March this year and I can’t believe it has taken me this long to pay my first visit. If you haven’t had the chance to check out & Other Stories yet, you can expect to be quite overwhelmed when you first step in. There are so many ‘concepts’ presented to the shopper upon first glance, I found it rather difficult deciding where to look first! However, as I made my way through the store it became apparent that it is the many individual displays, collections and ‘stories’ with ‘navigation signs’ that made shopping in there such a captivating and exciting experience. What story am I going to stumble upon next? What nail polish does the store recommend I use with this look? Oh, and there’s a his and hers bathroom sink where you can test toiletries and cosmetics. This really is visual merchandising on another level. Displays that invite you to touch, test and team together different pieces. Even the fitting rooms are filled with quirky displays and more ‘stories’ (I guess in case there’s something there you think could go with the maxi dress you’re trying on).

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Think Anthropologie meets Muji with stripped-back Scandinavian cool. The clothing echoes the billowy shapes, clean structures and strong fabrics of top designers such as Phillip Lim, Proenza and Isabel Marant. Imagine Cos classics and minimalism designed through the eyes of a style blogger. It’s how I would imagine Jessica Stein (of Tuula Vintage) would be if she was a pop-up store. Prices aren’t too bad either. Nail polish starts at £5, buttery lipsticks at £12 and a whole range of colours to give Dulux a run for their money too. Leather belts from around £19 and suede jackets go up to around £140. Most knitwear is around the £35-£60 mark, which is not far off from what you would find in Zara or Topshop.

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I would say however, that the general styles are probably not to everyone’s taste. As you can imagine, whilst ‘model-like’ style bloggers can carry off fringed leather boots and make any shift-shaped outfit instantly cool with a floppy fedora – I’m not too sure the design of the clothes will be easy for everyone to wear. Having said that, it’s definitely a haven for finding those unique jewellery pieces that are often only available at expensive, independent boutiques or inaccessible American brands like Anarchy Street. New, up-and-coming young designers are also given their own showcase areas with a short bio on display. It’s great to see a retailer pushing the boundaries on the shopping experience with a bit of re-organisation, good old ‘pen-on-paper’ signs, a few clip-board pegs to pin up fashion looks (just like we did at school for mood boards and now as grown-ups on Pinterest) next to each concept. Whilst other retailers are championing the digital push in-store (i.e. Nike and Burberry) to transform the retail model, & Other Stories is making a shift through more understated means. These ‘stories’ change regularly in the store, which is more than enough incentive for me to visit every time I am in London town. And with H&M’s Isabel Marant collaboration about to launch in November, I predict a nice and steady rise in some Hennes & Mauritz stocks…

Have you been to an & Other Stories store? What do you think?

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Online Fashion Explosion: The Growth of Cheap & Cheerful E-Tailers

Boohoo.com’s recent expansion into menswear under the brand of BoohooMan marks a pivotal point in the industry for low-end, fashion e-commerce. The launch comes only a few months after being named the UK’s second largest ‘online only’ retailer/ ‘e-tailer’ after market leaders ASOS. But it seems Boohoo.com is not the only e-tailer enjoying extremely fast year-on-year growth.

For me personally, it was only in the last 6 months or so did the rise of cheap and cheerful online fashion really start to make some significant inroads. From TV adverts, to blogger endorsements and entertainment sponsorship, these e-tailers are becoming the favoured places to feed the market’s addiction for fast, disposable, but highly on-trend fashion.

Turn back the clock to only about 3 years ago and Primark was perhaps the sole, go-to place for these cheap purchases. Now even Primark is using ASOS for its online channel. The traditional stigma that online shopping can be a hassle due to varying fit of garments and products looking starkly different to its images (a particular issue when it comes to cheaply-made clothes), has certainly made a critical shift in consumer perception. But why has this changed? What has increased buyer’s confidence in online shopping for cheap fashion? Is it the increased marketing and exposure through celebrities and bloggers? Is it because e-tailers are getting better at providing quality online shopping experiences? Well, it’s both. But I must also tout the power of social media in particular as a key driver behind these two factors.

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Above: TV presenter Laura Whitmore posts Instagram photos of herself wearing dresses from Motel and snapped in Motel at a red carpet event.

We only have to look at Instagram to see the hundreds of fashion hashtags and tagging of ‘people’ in posts to see the impact of this. Ingeniously, companies can now be ‘tagged’ in Instagram photos, which means users can be taken directly to a brand’s Instagram account, therefore directing traffic towards the final shopping sites and increasing potential sales. As a fashion and business enthusiast myself, I believe this is only the start of an exciting emerging area of the market. This opens up incredible digital monetization opportunities and the need for new analytics tools to be deployed. RewardStyle for example, has already eyed this concept by offering a digital marketing tool that does exactly this, for top-tier publishers. You can see the tool in action on Olivia Palermo’s blog site.

What companies will have to bear in mind however, is the over use of web tools that could clutter a user’s social media experience. Whilst it’s convenient to provide customers with a way to instantly shop for clothing they like, from the moment they see it on a friend’s/ style blogger’s/ celebrity’s photo; users also like following images and blog posts for the simple reason of appreciating photography. And if photography becomes overcrowded with tags and ‘what-not’, the user experience could potentially be negatively impacted and back fire.

Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how this exciting explosion of cheap and cheerful fashion e-tailers develops in the near future. Whether the fast growth is only for the short-term, I think we can expect a definite change in future shopping habits and social retail media experiences.

Here is a list of the most popular e-tailers and my verdict so far:

  • Boohoo – I have only purchased 3 dresses from here so far. Quality is on par with Primark, but on average the dresses are cheaper and the styles are much better in my opinion. Primark has a knack for making garments too ‘on-trend-heavy’. I love this Paisley ‘Liberty-esque’ printed shift dress (purchased in blue/green):

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  • Missguided – the fabric of most of the dresses and tops are very thin. But their basics collection in particular is very good for stocking up on staple minis, vests, crop tees and those easy-to-wear skater dresses. I particularly like the ‘Sweet Deal’ Missguided is currently running, with items from £2.99.

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  • Pretty Little Thing – this is very similar to Missguided in not just the website feel and layout, but in terms of categorisation of basics and trends. But personally I think it lacks in design and originality (of course all these sites follow the same ‘trends’ but some do manage to design items with a slight twist and less predictability) in comparison.
  • Glamorous – this also sells higher-end dresses from boutique brands, which is great if you are looking for something different but don’t want to risk that high-street, Topshop clash with someone at the party. Dresses and basics here are generally extremely cheap (£4-£15 average) and the trend edits are particularly good. Keeping with the popular cami trend, I recommend some of these cross-back, printed styles:

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  • Motel – this is by far the best in terms of quality, however it is slightly more expensive than the other sites on average (£40 for a dress rather than £20-£25). Motel has actually been around much longer than the majority of these other clothing brands and technically is not an online-only retailer. Its clothing is also sold in boutiques across the UK. My favourite pick of the week:

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And just huge thank you to Millie Mackintosh’s amazing style diary for redirecting me to some of these great e-tailers! If you haven’t discovered Millie’s inspiring fashion blog yet, where have you been? I love how it is testament to my belief that fashion is all about being able to pick out the right pieces – no matter your budget, the brand and where you buy it from. It’s also great to see a style icon mixing high-end with low-end, despite clear financial advantages! Some of my favourite Millie looks, incorporating cheap fashion e-tailers are below:

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Sales sales sales

Like an annual tradition, my mother, sister and I get super excited about the Christmas and January sales and somehow muster the energy on early Boxing Day morning to join the queues outside our favourite stores. Not the extremists however, who queue outside Next at 2am or camp overnight outside Selfridges! We’re not that hardcore. Or insane. However, I have noticed this year that perhaps this queuing craze is starting to die out.

Retailers announced a nose dive in footfall after the initial Boxing Day chaos, with sales tailing off dramatically. By the end of December 2012, stores were noticeably quieter as shoppers realised that better bargains can be obtained online. In fact, one of the best designer discounts I noticed this year came from Mulberry’s very own official site. Slashing tags by 50%, even on the good stuff! Definitely no need to battle it out on the handbag floor with selfish hoggers at Selfridges!

And despite being a little disappointed with Zara’s discounts this time round (£20 off an £80 bag really is not a bargain is it?) I still couldn’t resist snapping up several items, especially as I know smaller sizes are like gold dust in Zara. And yes, I queued an hour inside the store to pay at the till. Only to return half the items… And the funny thing is, I will probably do it again next year!

Here are some of my favourite ‘bargains’. What do you think of sale shopping?

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