Foreign rivals force local fashion shops to shape up
The early, easy wins that international clothing retailers scored when they entered the South African market are becoming harder to score, as local retailers up their game.
In the past 10 years, H&M, Zara and Cotton On entered the South African market offering fashion at relatively low prices, putting local retailers, which couldn't keep up with their fast-paced fashion changes, under immense pressure.
But Atiyyah Vawda, a retail analyst at Avior Capital Markets, said this week that though it may have taken South African retailers a long time to get on the fast-fashion train, slowly but surely they are getting there. And the market share won by international clothing retailers from local ones may be diminishing, she said.
"You can see it from the performance of H&M; sales for stores are negative. Even [its] global performance isn't great. It's not that South African retailers are slow on fast fashion; it's just that the market is so tough," Vawda said.
Likewise, Cotton On appears to be under strain. "If you look at the level of discounting at Cotton On, it's a clear indication that they're struggling in SA. Also, the rate of store expansion has Lslowed down dramatically. If they were doing well, they would've been expanding in terms of their network," she said.
But local retailers have learnt a thing or two from their global competitors, despite the relatively small store footprint of Zara, Cotton On and H&M in SA.
SA's retailers, which would send buyers to Europe to source design ideas that would then be introduced into the South African market sometimes a season or two later, have had to adjust their lead times.
"That [buying process] has changed, because if Zara is doing it, then your local retailers have to respond. They're improving. I wouldn't say it's ideal, but they're getting there," Vawda said.
But it's not only competition that has forced local retailers to adapt. The weather has also played a part. Art and fashion commentator Mary Corrigall said: "The environment has changed. We no longer have those very set seasons. The weather is very unpredictable and mixed up."
Corrigall said the need for trans-seasonal items of clothing was quickly increasing. "Instead of bringing [in] an entire new collection for summer, you would filter in different pieces that are actually trans-seasonal."
Corrigall said part of Zara's way of maintaining the constant interest of its customers was by "introducing different pieces and smaller ranges rather than large, seasonally driven collections".
"And you know if you see something, you really have to buy it [as] there aren't going to be a huge number of them and it will be gone. Their collections are really trans-seasonal; they seem to work with that awareness," said Corrigall.
Vawda said the no-frills clothing retailer Mr Price was the biggest fast-fashion advancer among local retailers, followed by TFG's The Fix and Sportscene.
"Mr Price definitely would be the best in terms of their product offering despite their weak performance - that's more a function of just the macro [economic environment]. Their product offer is still good, it's still fast fashion," said Vawda.
TFG's The Fix and Sportscene were also leaders in the fast-fashion space because of their "athleisure" offering. "Some of the private-label products at Sportscene [are] more fashion-driven," she said.
Though local retailers may have been hurt by more competition, there has been an unexpected benefit.
As South African retailers have had to adapt their outdated sourcing model to compete with international retailers, they have increased the use of local manufacturers to shorten lead times, and retailers such as Foschini and Mr Price can now churn out merchandise much quicker, Vawda said.
This has enabled local retailers to change their store fronts often "and introduce new products quite efficiently and also create excitement around the product offer", she said.