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Op-Ed: It’s Not Just Millennials That Aren’t Shopping in Stores

Tara Donaldson wrote a terrific article here the other day when listing a millennial’s beefs about apparel stores.

I read her comments about midtown Manhattan while returning home from a shopping trip to London’s West End that left me just as dispirited, though I’m roughly twice Tara’s age.

The problem with clothes shops today isn’t just about one group of apparel buyers.

I’d known precisely the sweater I wanted, but was unsure how the retailer’s sizes matched my body. The store was chaotically laid out, it was impossible to find the sizes I wanted to try—and the only available assistant claimed the size I was looking for didn’t exist. I knew she was wrong, but the in-store kiosk was broken. As for that damn background music…

I’ve given up trying to make sense of most apparel retailers’ pricing policies any more—and in the convenience store I tried to buy a quick drink in, all the self-service checkouts were down, so the queue at the only attended till stretched out the door.

Our shopping trips would have been dismal for anyone. Actually, I think they’re worse for us oldies: the music’s awfuller, the whippersnappers “serving” us are less understanding and our older bodies keep changing shape in all kinds of unpredictable ways.

Two factors, though, made them particularly dismal.

Christmas is different in a boom.

We both shopped in the busiest weeks of the year in the middle of cities going through a minor economic boom—but at a time chains are under severe financial pressure, because money’s a great deal tighter in most of the country. Recruiting staff is a nightmare in these boomtowns, while central management is cutting store numbers and squeezing inventories. Pre-Christmas, if you’re short-staffed and sales are good, standards inevitably slip.

We’ve not yet grasped the past decade’s shopping revolution.

Brick & mortar shops are where most of us, everywhere, still buy most apparel: more than 80 percent of clothes, even in the most developed e-commerce markets, are bought from them.

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But for almost any considered garment buying, we all probably spend more time browsing online than looking around shops, which are becoming the equivalent of utility rooms.

Shops are the places we go to for the boring chores associated with shopping, like paying and hauling the package home, and they’re arranged round the retailer’s convenience. We control where we do the selection—and when we do it and how we do it. No wonder it’s not just millennials who are losing patience with clothes shops.

Now the need for clothes shops isn’t going to disappear and I don’t have think there’s One Big Insight into how apparel retailers should deal with this revolution.

But I have noticed some retailers in other industries now see how problems caused by healthy economic growth in London, New York and their hinterlands can create positive influences on their shops.

Take the area around my home: a rural idyll, with more or less zero unemployment, in the Cotswold hills just over an hour’s train ride from London.

Sometimes, staff shortages improve customer service.

Every winter sees more bits of my house going wrong and round us you can’t get a tradesman out to fix things for months.

So, whenever something’s not working, I first drive to our nearest home improvement superstore. The only way the store can operate is by hiring pensioners, who’ve all spent half a century living in houses with the same three centuries’ of owner abuse as mine.

They fully understand how to explain to household maintenance nincompoops like me precisely what kit I need this week: the lack of conventional recruits has meant massively better sales staff.

Understanding demographic changes can boost retail profit unpredictably.

While reviving our village artisan food store, we’ve uncovered a new demographic: older millennials moving out of London because they get so much more space for their money.

Top of what they want from us isn’t so much gluten-free pasta or locally crafted cheese: it’s a “really good cup of coffee,” where margins are far higher than on the poshest penne. Networking with similar businesses in the region shows their single most common job vacancy is for – baristas.

Our food shop’s not alone: while apparel chains are slashing store numbers, the number of local food shops in Britain has grown over 20 percent in the past five years.

Not everyone’s closing clothes shops.

Pretty, high-concept, hotels are springing up around us. The Soho House hotel chain has brought an apparel concept, The Store, developed for downtown Berlin, to a resort it’s built in what used to be deserted countryside a brisk walk away from my house, and they’re extending it to central London this coming spring.

Suddenly just about every rural business within ten miles from garden centers to upmarket delis is offering a curated range of high-margin clothing in a calm atmosphere, and the London-based millennials packing our local Soho House every weekend are buying the clothes in cartloads.

I’m certainly not suggesting any of these ideas would solve all the problems Tara and I have been finding in apparel stores lately.

But the grumbles we’ve all got about apparel stores these days don’t mean millennials like Tara or boomers like me will inevitably stop using them. I don’t think grumbles are demographic-specific either: all boomers grumble about different things from other boomers.

For me, the huge challenge for apparel chains to bring to their stores, where thinking is fixated on cost control, the development energy currently concentrated on e-commerce.

Those stores, of course, are the chains’ biggest cost base. If other industries can make them work, so can the garment industry.

Mike Flanagan, CEO Clothesource. Clothesource offers consultancy on the world garment industry using the wide resources of The Clothesource Knowledge Base – the most comprehensive collection of information anywhere about sourcing for the apparel industry. He can be contacted at