Key Brands, Market Challenges, and Consumer Attitudes
The term “fast fashion” originated from the rapid movement of styles from the catwalk to retail shelves nationwide. Today, the rate of new fashion cycles has accelerated to a feverish pace. “It used to be four seasons in a year; now it may be up to 11 or 15 or more,” says Tasha Lewis, a professor at Cornell University’s Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design.
This quick-cycle approach to manufacturing affordable textiles was mastered by brands like Forever 21, Zara and H&M, and their cost-efficient operations allowed them to remain relatively recession-proof throughout the 2000’s. Lately, however, the fast fashion industry has fallen into a cycle of “race to the bottom” pricing and faces consumer scrutiny for their environmental impact and labor practices.
Some fast fashion brands have innovated through these challenges, while others have been caught in the tailspin. In this report we’ll explore current industry market share, leading players and struggling brands, as well as consumer attitudes which brands can either resist, or treat as a competitive opportunity.
There is no doubt that clothing remains a big business, as Americans spend more than $250 billion on apparel every year. Looking at the largest fast fashion brands over the last three years, we see overall industry growth:
However, over the last year, there has been a visit decline of 9.47% between March 2016 and March 2017.
Fast fashion websites also suffered a notable drop in total visits between the last two holiday seasons (November – December), which are the most significant sales periods for the retail industry:
Rebounding luxury brands and flourishing athleisure companies have recently lifted the apparel market, but many fast fashion brands are struggling to keep up in the midst of a downward pricing spiral. However, this shift has affected various fast fashion brands differently — let’s explore.
Market Share of Top Brands
When comparing the top twelve fast fashion brands (apparel brands known for selling low-priced clothing styles in rapid cycles) in the US, we see that Old Navy enjoys a powerful lead with 24% of all visits. Forever 21 sits in second place at 19% visit share, although this was not always the case, as we will explore later.
Fast Fashion Winners
The fast fashion industry may be struggling, but it isn’t all doom and gloom. There are several brands who have managed to grow consistently in recent years:
H&M has experienced steady online market share growth since 2014, although perhaps not quickly enough to compete with rapid risers like Torrid, ASOS and Zara in the long term. The most meteoric rise by far as been UNIQLO, a Japanese brand who first appeared in New York City in 2006 and expanded aggressively across the country over the following decade.
Fast Fashion Flounders
Many retailers, including the once all-powerful Forever 21, have steadily lost market share in the fast fashion industry:
In early 2015 Forever 21 ranked #1 in the fast fashion industry and pulled almost one third of the entire market, while driving Old Navy’s visit share down to only 16%. As significant as this market shift was, no fast fashion brand has collapsed as rapidly as Nasty Gal, who underwent bankruptcy and had to be acquired for a financial lifeline.
H&M vs. Forever 21: Competitive Spotlight
H&M and Forever 21 have long dueled for the Millennial fast fashion market—and their digital competition remains fierce. Forever 21 currently maintains a higher online ranking in America than H&M does, but as we saw earlier H&M’s online presence has been steadily growing while Forever 21’s has slumped. How could H&M use audience data to push ahead in the US market?
One key difference between the two audiences is their age groups. Forever 21 shoppers are 118% more likely than the average person to be younger Millennials, while H&M shoppers are 133% more likely to be older Millennials:
H&M could use this age distinction in several strategic ways. They might double-down on their 25-34 year old customer base, who are loyal to H&M and have more disposable income than young Millennials. It also turns out this age group skews heavily towards men for H&M, while Forever 21 actually struggles to reach older Millennial men; this advantage could present an opportunity for H&M to eclipse Forever 21 by releasing a slightly more upscale male clothing line.
Beyond demographics, understanding major differences in attitudes between H&M and Forever 21 shoppers can help H&M appeal to their own best customers. For example, H&M customers are…
Consumer Concerns & the Future of Fast Fashion
Another key variable in the future of fast fashion is rising consumer concerns surrounding its impact. Hitwise bundled search variations of the term “fast fashion”* and found that 19% of the top fast fashion related searches were about the environment, ethics and sustainability.
Between 2015 and 2016, traffic to the fast fashion industry dropped in step with the release of True Cost, a documentary about the impact of the retail industry on the planet (and which called out brands like H&M and Zara directly).
4th most searched fast fashion term is “fast fashion environmental impact”.
In reaction to growing environmental concern, several brands such as H&M announced take-back programs that collect used clothing to be recycled or re-sold. However, the success of these programs remain in question.
The deaths of textile workers from factory fires and collapses have also led consumers to question whether the demand for cheap clothing is driving corner-cutting in worker safety. This ethical question remains unresolved for the fast fashion industry, and will likely lead to shifts in priorities for many fast fashion brands in the future. For brands willing to innovate in their manufacturing procedures, transparency and sustainability initiatives, this could offer an opportunity to differentiate.
Although the future of fast fashion is uncertain, there is no question the industry will look dramatically different in a decade. Affordable clothing will always have a market, but financial pressures and consumer priorities are undoubtedly casting doubts around the sustainability of fast fashion at its current scale.
As McKinsey & Co. mentioned in their 2016 end-of-the-year report, “While [price lowering] tactics are useful to drive footfall in the short term, they are generally unhealthy for fashion companies, as mark-downs and promotions eventually lead to a ‘race to the bottom’ that shrinks profit margins and eats away at brand value.”
These market challenges are formidable, but also present opportunities for fast fashion brands capitalize on shifting consumer priorities.
Brands who rely on the rapid-cycle release of inexpensive garments, such as Forever 21 and Nasty Gal, will likely continue to struggle producing lower quality products at slimmer margins. Meanwhile brands such as UNIQLO, who innovate textile blends and slow the frequency of their fashion cycles may be able to keep prices low without eroding the quality of their garments.