Last week an email from a friend in the garment industry prompted me to put my thinking cap on with regards to the business of sales and price reductions. It turned out to be a lot more difficult than expected to write something even halfway sensible about, as the more I thought about it, the wider the topic ranged, and what was intended to be a short and sharp post to my blog could easily end up being a full-length and mediocre book. And that’s probably describing it in a kindly manner, given that I’m an engineer, not a master of social economics. Anyway, after a few walks with the dog, and a number of mugs of coffee, this is what I have come up with. I don’t expect it to change your life in any way, but perhaps it will provide some crumbs for thought?
Musings on matters from an uninformed perspective
Again we find our self at one of the many times a year when all the shops are loudly inviting us to attend their sales. Reductions, discounts, prices slashed all over. While I’m certainly no market analyst or even a mediocre economist, I have lately found myself mulling over the mechanisms of the sales, especially in relation to the responses triggered in otherwise sensible humans. I suspect the quickening of the pulse and the rapid eye movements, scanning a full 180 degrees (if you can scan much further than this, you may need an exorcist), is something most of us experience when drawn into an emporium where loot may be hidden. Substitute the scanning movement with intense bookmarking, filtering and paging if you’ve transcended the bricks and mortar shopping to partake in the global scavenger hunt on the Interwebz.
As I see it, we can likely summarize it quite succinctly: Everyone wants a deal. The idea of getting more for less. The greater the discount, the bigger the thrill. Of course we do, the warm fuzzy feeling of having gotten a great deal is part of why shopping is such a compelling experience. Plus you might be taking home something really nice to wear as well. Unless you fall in the sales-trap, that is, where you get so caught up in the deals that you don’t notice you’ve moved from sane, considered purchases into the insane world of binge shopping and end up taking home a bag full of stuff that will never again see the light of day.
Whilst the thrill of the hunt is a vital part of the shopping experience, it is wise to have an idea of what you are after. Ever noticed how long it takes to make that first purchase, compared to how easily it goes from then on? Yes, you do get into the zone, your defences lower, the shopping-fuelled serotonin is released and you turn into the perfect consumer, or money-squandering sales zombie. I’ve often found myself looking around at the sales, not feeling it at all, never finding that first piece that might ease me into the mood of it. It actually feels pretty good. Of course, buying that first piece and then descending into rampant consumerism also feels pretty good. Mostly though at least half of what you buy in the sales is ill-advised and you then have to pass it off on unsuspecting children and friends. Or place it in the drawer of forgotten items and hope it just vanishes.
Here at Well Dressed Mansion there is a certain penchant for the sales, but they have to be Proper Sales. These are defined by Well Dressed Girlfriend as 70% discount, or 50% at the very least. Until the reductions reach the critical level, the retailers are merely toying with us. So it comes down to a waiting game. Like the big cat waiting for the plump, but limping Gnu to pass beneath the tree she’s hidden in. Waiting for the discounts to be sufficient, and hoping no one else caves in before she can pounce. If the strategy fails, she’ll be dining on the rotten carcass with the vultures (Se “The Deep Discount Style” at the end of this piece), if she times it right and is lucky, she’ll come sailing through the door with a bag full of wonderment. Oh, the joy to behold on her pretty face!
Well, it’s not rocket science, is it? It’s a case of a huge oversupply of garments that are clogging up the vendors’ pipeline, standing in the way of fresh supplies and binding up their cash-flow. To keep the tills a’ringing and the customers’ a’coming, they need to clear out all the old stuff to make way for the new. And how do you get rid of all the stuff no one wanted when it was priced at the original price? You start reducing the price until someone takes it, or you toss it away. Toss it away? Nah, nowadays it’s shipped off to an “outlet”, the shopping arena of the truly desperate.
Why this huge oversupply? Is it a case of shops really having no idea of what will sell? Or is it a case of the stock being so cheap to produce and buy that they take the shotgun approach to it, buy a huge amount and reckon they still make a healthy profit even if they have to sell the leftovers at a huge discount? This probably varies wildly from shop to shop, depending on size and profile. The bigger the chain the more they’ll buy and the more surplus there will be.
Given the recent revelations of terrible working conditions in what are commonly referred to as low-cost countries, is it ethically ok for us to continue to support the garment industry as it is today? I know for my own part that walking through an H&M shop, I’ll probably spot the odd shirt or item I think looks ok (although bound to be heavily influenced by a more expensive brand), but a quick glance at the item will show it’s produced somewhere known mostly for exploiting its workers. A total red flag to me. Yes, I will actually pay more for a garment produced in a more regulated country, even more so if it’s produced by a crinkly, heritage-steeped, traditionally-tooled old chap in some Olde English factory (though the latter is less easy justify by logical reasoning, even if utterly compelling on an emotional level) .
So how can you survive the sales, save money and retain your dignity?
Rule 1: Plan your purchases. Have a good, deep think about what you might need before heading into the fray. This will make your search more efficient, and might save you from making terrible buys.
Rule 2: Avoid buying stuff you don’t really want or need. Don’t be sucked into feeling that at this discount it’s a good buy, even if you don’t really like it. It’s an easy trap to fall in.
Rule 3: If you’re care about and are shopping for fashion items, keep in mind that the reason the stuff you’re looking at it on sale, is because it’s on its way out. Buy more timeless stuff and avoid the fashion trap.
Rule 4: Sales are a good time for buying Xmas and birthday presents, as long as you avoid the most obvious fashion traps, and avoid trying to force your own taste and style on the recipient. Trying to force your style on others only really works if the recipient is under 5 years old.
Fair priced goods
How about a different take on things, where supply is more closely matched to an actual demand, where overproduction isn’t the norm? There are two ways I see to do this, the first is to only produce to order, as is the way of Savile Row bespoke. Obviously, for the 99.9% of use that are not independently wealthy or Russian mobsters, this is not a viable way of doing business. That said, I have seen at a couple of places that offer shirts made to order, at prices that were quite similar to regular off-the-peg variants, so it might not be as impossible a way of doing business as it might seem. Compare it to ecologically produced vegetables perhaps? If enough people are actually interested, it might become a business, right? You do need to find a lot of people keen to pay for overpriced and sad looking vegetables though.
The second way is to produce much smaller quantities. I’m working on the presumption now that the articles in question are more singular than bulk necessities, i.e. a fine jacket rather than daily underwear. A couple of companies come to mind that operate in this manner, where each article produced is made in such small numbers that they’re sold out almost immediately, at a price that reflects the true cost of producing it, with the necessary margin for the company built in. This means there is no overstock, no surplus, every link in the chain from bulk material to final wearer has received the remuneration they need, or paid what was appropriate, in a fair and honest manner. As a person that places great value on people behaving themselves and being basically good and sound humans, this strikes me as a fine way of doing business. Sadly, this method of doing business doesn’t scale very well. It depends on a maker making desirable products, and a rapt audience of keen and enthusiastic buyers.
Now, we could of course suggest that the Big Players went about their business in a more ethical and acceptable manner, paying their workers appropriate wages, but that would mean paying more for the cheap clothing people like to buy today. Unless the companies accepted a reduction of their profit margins, but in a society obsessed with profits that is sadly never going to happen.
The Deep Discount Style
One advantage of shopping the sales when discounts have really reached rock bottom is that you can easily and at little cost cultivate your own unique style, call it the “Deep Discount Hipster”. This consists of wearing stuff that in reality no one else has wanted to wear until you came along. I’m not knocking it, don’t get me wrong, a lot of the stuff in my Well Stuffed Closet is from the cheap rack. It’s just a case of seeing the potential, and not flailing blindly in the face of Incredible Bargains. If on the first pass you don’t see any potential on the cheap rack, don’t start reading the tags to find the Miracle Bargains. Even gift horses may turn out to be hideous, worm ridden, barely alive, ugly nags.
Well, if you got this far, well done. You deserve to buy yourself something really nice, whether it’s in the sales or not. I struggled a lot writing this piece, and I almost admitted defeat. I’ll try something a little more manageable next time!