Forever 21 & the Importance of Sustainability & Digital Integration

It is no secret that in the past few years, quite a few retailers, like Sears, Nine West, and Claire’s have closed down. More recently, American retailer Forever21 fell from grace. Marketed as trendy and affordable, the fast-fashion chain sold, accessories, beauty products, home goods and clothing for women, men and children. A firm favorite with the younger generation, the LA-based company announced this September, that they were ceasing operations in 40 countries and closing most of their international and 178 of its US stores. So what went wrong?

Fast-Fashion vs Innovation

Founded in 1984, Forever 21’s appeal has always been to younger shoppers looking for a fashionable bargain. I remember being a regular customer back in the late 90s when I spent the summer in the US. I was attracted to the American mall vibe that the store gave off. Fast forward 20 or so years, and it seemed like the fast-fashion empire was still peddling that same narrative, to a much different audience. Instead, they should have been pivoted away from appealing to my generation, who are all in their late 30s now, to investing in sustainable alternatives, apps and tech integration that appeal to today’s young market.

It is this failure to evolve with the times that researchers at PSFK reported could be one of the reasons that Forever 21 failed. By not keeping up with their more innovative rivals, the globally recognized brand ended up learning a harsh lesson, that technology is vital when it comes to staying in the game. Forever 21 should have at least matched the tech innovation that their rivals were achieving, especially since they were targeting millennials and Gen Z.

PFSK also rightly stated that the downfall of Forever 21 did not happen overnight. That kind of change never does. Many other fashion companies have failed in recent years because like Forever 21, they were a bit too secure in their ‘winning formula’. Although they made an effort toward social responsibility, including switching to 100% recyclable carryout bags, it was a change that came quite late in the game. By underestimating the importance of innovation, they failed to invest in various technologies that could have helped them target a demographic that is more aware of climate change and how it impacts their future. 

When The Conscious Consumer Rules

The young conscious consumer is alive, kicking and losing interest in fast fashion. They are instead demanding well made sustainable alternatives, which means that high street brands can no longer hold onto the run-of-the-mill mall store concept. Today’s customer not only requires a digital experience; they also expect more eco-friendly manufacturing methods from brands. On this Anil Mathews, CEO of analytics firm Near, told Business Insider: “Retailers may think they have Gen Zers pegged, but our data shows that it’s not necessarily fast-fashion brands like Forever 21 attracting young shoppers, but the likes of Target, Adidas, Nike and even brands you might not expect like Lululemon.” 

Fashion businesses offering cheap and generic collections are seen as being “out-of-touch” with their target audience. This is because young consumers not only know how to flex their purchase power, they can also identify the real from the greenwash, which is probably the reason why brands like Patagonia, Everlane, Reformation, Rothy’s, Alternative Apparel, Good and People Tree are becoming more popular with Gen Z. This also includes beauty brands like Love, Beauty & Planet, Burt’s bees, L’Oréal, Lush, Simple and Honest, Sephora, and Alima Pure.

As the retail industry is changing, Gen Z appears to have become more sustainability-minded. They want a product that takes into account things like recycled, sustainable and ethically-sourced materials. MakerSights, a product decision platform for retail, found that 73% of consumers prefer to purchase from environmentally friendly brands. “When consumers think about sustainable apparel, they value the materials above all else,” their report stated. 

Moving Forward To Avoid the Blockbuster Syndrome

Fashion brands take note, MakerSights have reported that 36% of GenZ respondents agreed they would spend at least 25% more for their products to be sustainable and that they are also a generation that values sustainable manufacturing. MakerSights concluded that 73% of consumers prefer to purchase from an environmentally friendly brand, a clear message that high street brands need to listen too.

Lastly, besides sustainability being of importance to most of today’s consumers, PFSK found that many customers are drawn to fashion companies that have not only built a community around their brand but that have also managed to successfully create an in-store experience that connects them to the brand’s digital side. Our Suuchi Grid would have been able to help Forever 21 because of its proprietary technology, which is digitizing the supply chain process with transparency. As a result, the company failed to give shoppers access to user-friendly e-commerce and mobile platform. 

To avoid what I like to call the ‘Blockbuster syndrome’, I think that brands must learn that they need to move forward and continually innovate. Whether it is manufacturing or retail experience, adopting technology as a tool seems to be one of the ways that a fashion company can prosper in today’s market and avoid closing their doors forever.


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