Walking the local mall this past weekend, and going through one store after another, watching customers, and how they were reacting to merchandise, it was hard to escape the thought that fashion apparel retailing is in trouble. Customers passing by stores, looking in windows and doorways, indifferent to what they are seeing. Customers in stores, aimlessly touching garments as they move through the store without purpose. Customers leaving stores empty handed, without making a purchase.

And as I shopped for myself, I felt what I was observing in these customers, men and women, young and old; there’s nothing compelling, there’s no urgency, it’s just… stuff.

Of all the major retail segments, perhaps only jewelry is under more duress than fashion apparel. Nothing except jewelry has seemingly become more discretionary than fashion apparel. Shopping fashion right now feels like witnessing the after affects of a retail bubble having burst.

Fashion ApparelsIn the last 20 to 25 years, fashion apparel retailing exploded with new concepts, segments and retailers. Money was readily available and consumers hopped on the fashion train, and went along for the ride. Shopping these stores now is like experiencing a morning-after hangover. What once looked highly differentiated now looks eerily the same. What once looked exciting and trendy now appears dull and passé. Stores that were once full of merchandise, customers and energy are now devoid of all three.

The last time we saw profound changes in fashion apparel retailing was during the ’81-’82 recession. Customers found department store assortments to be dated and dull, and the stores responded by increasing the number of promotional events they ran a year from three or four to twelve or fifteen, on their way to the permanently-on-sale store. Designer shops-within-a-store emerged as an alternative to category merchandising. New concepts like The Gap and The Limited came on the scene. Nothing came between Brooke Shields and her Calvin’s.

Is this a similar inflection point? Was there a fashion apparel bubble that gradually built up over the past several decades, and has it now burst?

Over the past couple of years, consumers have looked in their closets, and out of necessity have said that’s what there is good enough. They’ve looked in their closets and seen their own… stuff, and many have probably wondered if they really needed to buy all of it in the first place. The unanswered question is whether this is merely a temporary response to the recession, or whether this reflects a more profound shift in consumer’s attitudes and shopping patterns. Clearly, there’s an imbalance at the moment between supply and demand.

One way or another, there can be little doubt that the competition in fashion apparel retailing is likely to be ferocious for the foreseeable future. For independent fashion apparel retailers, the challenge will be to differentiate yourself from the pack and truly distinguish yourself in your customer’s mind. Success will depend upon achieving critical mass with your customer base, upon establishing yourself with your target customer as THE retail fashion destination of choice. The mission will be to become known for the fashion buzz that surrounds your store, rather than being known as just another store that carries indistinguishable stuff.