Life in the retail desert

Spring-summer ranges with VIP parades
July 28, 2011

David Jones and Myer are set to launch their spring-summer ranges with VIP parades - but is this approach relevant today, asks Georgina Safe.

When David Jones ambassador Miranda Kerr stepped off the plane in Sydney yesterday it's a wonder that she was wearing sunglasses - the Australian retail outlook is gloomy to say the least. Premier Retail on Monday announced it will close 50 stores across Australia and our two major department stores reporting poor sales figures.

The owner of fashion brands Just Jeans, Peter Alexander, Portmans, Dotti and Jay Jays would shutter 50 stores and shed staff in response to ''challenging'' conditions in the retail sector, Premier Retail chief executive Mark McInnes said on Monday.

The company is planning to open ''up to 100'' stores in the next three years in higher-performing areas, but Monday's news caused Premier's share price to fall 16 per cent that afternoon.

Jessica Hart and Jennifer Hawkins in Myer's latest campaign.

Two weeks ago, David Jones chief executive Paul Zahra forecast a decline of up to 20 per cent in profit for the first half of the new financial year, and Myer also expects to post an annual net profit below last year's result.

But on the catwalk at least the forecast for the next fortnight is decidedly sunny, as the two department stores prepare to stage extravagant desert-themed collection launches aimed at inspiring shoppers spooked by the economy and jaded by discounting to start spending again.

David Jones will be first cab off the rank when it transforms the Royal Hall of Industries into a luxurious Palm Springs resort complete with cabana boys and bikinis for its show on Wednesday night. Guests will sip on free-flowing gin and tonics and nibble on Mexican tortillas and seafood empanadas before Kerr makes her return to the Australian catwalk, after taking time off to marry Orlando Bloom and give birth to baby Flynn.

Moving forward ... DJ's Samantha Harris wears Therese Rawsthorne.

Myer's group manager of marketing and brand development, Megan Foster, agrees, saying: "It's been a fairly hard winter, retail has been tough, so the inspiration for this season is rejuvenation."

The traditional purpose of a collections launch is to promote new-season clothes.

But this year, in light of the beleaguered retail climate, they also offer a crucial opportunity to wean consumers off a culture of markdowns and excite them about paying full price for desirable brands.

"We are moving away from that constant message of discounting that the market has seen right across retail in the past few months, and what you will see is a significant refocus on our brands," Laing says.

Bassike, Lover, Carl Kapp, Megan Park and Therese Rawsthorne are among a host of new fashion brands DJs will champion on its runway, while the new star of Myer's show will be Sass & Bide, which jumped ship from DJs after Myer acquired the Sydney brand in February as part of a strategy to bolster its fashion stable.

"If we are going to move off this promotional drug we've been on as a result of the economy and as a result of the competition, then we need to have something else on offer, which is loyalty to brand," Foster says.

"You can come to Myer and we have the brands and the trends and we will show you how to wear them."

But will consumers buy them from a bricks-and-mortar department store given the trend of Australians shopping online, particularly from overseas websites, given the strength of our dollar? Would the money spent on collections be better spent bolstering the online presence of department stores, or on staging public launches attended by the consumers who actually buy the clothes?

Laing doesn't think so, pointing out that while the majority of attendees at collections launches are media and industry, they serve a valuable purpose in communicating the new-season fashion direction to the people who actually buy the clothes.

''Obviously it's an industry event in terms of who attends but it's the media that gets the message out there by heralding the new season to our customers and in the same week we launch our brand book (catalogue), which also provides a style guide for them.''

But Laing concedes there is a need to communicate more directly with customers online and to this end DJs launched a Facebook page and Twitter account last month. For this collection launch, the department store is introducing Fashion Hub, an addition to the David Jones website that will showcase looks for people to buy the day after the show, with comprehensive content including the key trends, designer lookbooks and how to assemble a head-to-toe look.

''We will have activity right across all our social media in terms of the fashion launch, to communicate directly with our core customer,'' Laing says. ''Online is just a different channel of communication to get the same message out.''

Last year, Myer live streamed its collection launches for its Myer One customers at cinemas in Sydney and Melbourne and for its coming launch, the store is working towards a live stream on the internet for the public.

''We looked at the success of live streaming fashion events overseas and we're now looking at the collections launch as not just for the journos, the business and the suppliers but for customers to also engage with instantaneously,'' Foster says.

This year Myer will photograph every look on its catwalk before the show, so the department store can post them on its website for customers to ''shop the show'' after they've watched the live stream.

But in terms of driving customers into bricks-and-mortar stores, Laing and Foster emphasise that the way forward in the internet age is by providing tangible experiences that are unavailable online, such as VIP designer shopping nights, styling sessions and front-row seats for valued customers at fashion shows.

''It's about providing them with money-can't-buy experiences and we know from past experience that the customers absolutely love that,'' Laing says.

DJs offers 60 in-store events each season for its customers and in this respect Laing says the twice-yearly DJs collection launches ''are just a different channel of communication to get the same message out there''.

Foster is not so convinced industry collections launches remain relevant, given the flight to cyberspace and need to engage directly with consumers.

"The answer is yes, it's under review,'' she says.

''We have a limited budget, so as things transform you have to question the return on investment [in a collection launch]. With everything we do we have to challenge it and say, 'Is this the best way of getting the message out there?'"