Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The High Cost of Cheap Fashion (Part I)

Every so often, you find a writer or a blogger who seems to regularly touch on subjects that affect you or you've thought about quite a bit.  Through Twitter, I discovered Bridgette Raes, a Style Consultant.  Her blog is always interesting, to the point, and almost always spot on.  There are days that I feel like she is putting my fashion thoughts into words!

Recently, she interviewed Elizabeth Cline, the author of the book "Overdressed - The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion."  This is a subject near and dear to my heart so I listened to the interview (and purchased Elizabeth's book for my Kindle).

In the interview, Bridgette and Elizabeth talked about the proliferation of cheap fashion and the high cost to society, the environment, and even our own well-being.  The environmental aspect alone is staggering!  Elizabeth said that we've gone from world fiber use in 1950 of just over a million tons to more than 82 million tons today!  She also notes in the book that UK journalist Lucy Siegle found that the natural resources that go into fiber production every year now demand approximately 145 million tons of coal and somewhere between 1.5 and 2 TRILLION gallons of water.  It definitely sounds ominous when you think of those figures.

Elizabeth also notes that seasonal shopping patterns (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter) have given way to continuous consumption at the fast fashion stores.  They are bringing out new trends and merchandise on a weekly (and sometimes, daily) basis!  This, in turn, drives irrational overconsumption of clothing, even when we already have a closetful of those particular items or own very similar styles.

She also highlights a new trend called "shopping haul videos", one of the fastest growing categories on YouTube in 2010.  The "Haulers" unpack their shopping bags on video, providing reviews of each product.  Some attract up to a million hits per video and are courted by fashion brands and retailers who  offer them free products in hopes their stuff will appear in a haul.  Cline notes that haulers are not typically fashion experts - the popularity of their videos lies in what has become a popular pastime in our culture:  Buying a lot of clothes for very little money.

As I continue to read her book, I find myself agreeing with everything she says.  So what does this mean for stores like Zoe?  And for the average consumer?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Fabric Fascination

I will admit it.  I have become completely fascinated by all of the different fabrics used in the construction of clothing.  

The most attention that I used to pay to fabric was to check the tag to see if an item needed to be dry cleaned or could be washed (by hand or in the washer).  Obvious fabrics like suede I paid special attention to since I didn't want to wear them on days when it might rain.  Otherwise, I never thought about the composition of my garments.

Now, I try to understand the composition and care for every one of the garments that I sell at Zoe.  I find that my customers will often ask me questions and I want to make sure that I can answer them without having to look at the label.  One way that I try to learn the make-up is to include it as part of the information that I enter into the point of sale system when I set up a new item.  Somehow, by looking at it and typing it, it helps me remember the content.

Trivia Time - Did you know that in the United States, the generic name of fibers that comprise 5% or more of the total fiber weight of the garment must be included on the label?  Where you see a lot of this is in sweaters that are cashmere blends - quite frequently, a small (maybe 10%) is cashmere and the rest is a combination of other fibers.  I had a couple of sweaters at Zoe last Fall that had 5 different fibers in the make-up!  (No, I could not remember all of them - I was normally able to tell the customers the percentage of cashmere).

When I first started receiving items at Zoe, I had to look up a lot of the fabric types.  I had never heard of fabrics like Viscose!  And I wanted to understand if they were man-made or natural fibers and their purpose (to make garments less wrinkly, to make them softer, to help make them less expensive).  I'm sure that in fashion design schools, there are number classes just on these topics.  

By unpacking and steaming out the items, I can also tell a lot about how they will hold up to wrinkles.  One of my favorite new uses for fabrics is the use of linen.  Don't we all love the initial crisp look of linen and then hate the fact that it looks terrible after we sit down in it for 2 minutes?  Fashion designers are starting to do a lot of linen/rayon blends that give the coolness of linen but help fight the wrinkle factor.  And I have some sweaters at Zoe right now that are made of linen but feel like a knit material.  I tell everyone "It's not your grandmother's linen!"

Fabric care instructions are also something that I make sure to study.  People are always happy to have things they don't have to dry clean!  And I love it when I own a piece and can relay first hand experience to my customers on how to care for the garment.  I get a LOT of requests for non-dry clean items.  It is tough but I definitely try to look for it when it makes sense for the store.

Trivia Time - Did you know that clothing manufacturers and importers (under the Care Labeling Rule) have to provide at least one satisfactory method of care necessary for the ordinary use of the garment?  I think that may be one reason that many put "dry clean only" on the label - they don't have to think too hard about it and it takes any risk away from anything that may happen with washing the garment.

I owe a special thanks to the website FabricLink.  I have learned so much from reading the information contained there (and the two Trivia Time items come directly from their website).   Want to know more about fabrics?  Don't hesitate to ask your local boutique owner!

Next Up:  The High Cost of Cheap Fashion

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Girl Scouts

On Saturday, June 9th, over 250,000 Girl Scouts, friends, family and alumnae gathered on the National Mall in Washington DC to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Girl Scouts!  And I think almost all of them then came to Alexandria on Sunday, June 10th!

Although tour buses are a regular sight around Alexandria, the area was flooded with them on that Sunday.  Lots of women and girls were taking in the sites, dining and shopping in our great town!  I got to meet so many of them at Zoe that day and one thing I noticed is how happy all of them were to be here!  Despite the very hot weather that weekend, the crowded streets, and the knowledge they would be going home soon, they all had fantastic attitudes and smiles!  It definitely made for a fun day at the store.

It brought back lots of memories of my Girl Scout days.  "Back in the day" they had 4 levels of Girl Scouts - Brownies, Juniors, Cadettes, and Seniors.  Now they have an additional younger level, called Daisy.  I participated in Girl Scouts as a Brownie and a Junior.  And there I had my first experience with sales.  The infamous (and highly addictive) Girl Scout cookie sales.  Fortunately (for me) this did not start until I was at the Junior Scout level.

One of the things I realized is that I am not a pure saleswoman by any sense of the word.  The success that I had in Girl Scout Cookie Sales was mainly from the fact that people liked my parents and could not say no when they took my order form to work.  They did insist that I take care of the sales in our neighborhood and, even though I knew these people (and most had known my father his entire life), it was still hard to ask them to buy cookies!  It was obvious what was NOT in my future.

And yet, here I am.  In my own version of sales.  I've found I prefer to take a consultative approach to sales - it is so much more fun (and easy) for me to help someone meet a want or need than to think of it as "selling" something to them.  I think it is easier, also, when you feel passionate about your product and are able to talk about the pluses (and even minuses) of each piece.

I value my time and experiences in Girl Scouts even if it wasn't a good predictor of my future!  It is nice to be able to look back on my cookie sales and smile!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Scout Guide Has Arrived

Back in February, I wrote a post about my fun experience of being "model for a day" during the photo shoot for The Scout Guide.  I'm excited to report that the Alexandria/Arlington/McLean edition of the guide has formally arrived!

The mission of The Scout Guide is to highlight the flavor, passion, and character of small businesses, local artisans, and the communities they serve.  (From their website).  What started in Charlottesville, Virginia has now spread to locales all around the United States.  Each guide is curated by local experts who know and love their cities!

In addition to the beautifully bound and produced guide, the Scout Guide site includes a locally focused blog and online directory of each of the businesses included in the book.  The book is distributed at events, stores, restaurants, and hotels.  Zoe is so delighted to be included in The Scout Guide.

Next up:  The Girl Scouts

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Customer Loyalty Conundrum

First came the "Daily Deal".  You probably remember my blog post on the considerations around committing to one (or more) of these programs.  While these programs still seem to be going strong, anecdotal feedback from businesses is not positive.  Customers use the daily deals but then don't come back again.  Or they use them right after purchase or just before they expire which ends up overwhelming a business.  Unhappy business.  Unhappy customers.  Who wins? (Besides the deal company).

The latest trend seems to be customer loyalty programs.  Customer loyalty programs have been around for a long time and were always traditionally administered by an individual store itself.  Who doesn't remember getting your card stamped at Subway to earn a free Sub?  Or your hosiery card stamped at Ann Taylor or Nordstrom to earn a free pair of panty hose (back when women wore hose!)

As technology became more sophisticated, stores took their loyalty programs digital.  The grocery stores seemed to lead the trend with their discounts linked to customer loyalty cards.  Stores like CVS and Hallmark offered coupons for dollars off after you had spent a certain level in their stores each quarter.  Restaurants like Panera offered a dual gift card/rewards card option in which they place certain rewards on your card at different intervals.  Starbucks allows you to use your gift card/rewards card to earn free drinks and customer status.  The examples are endless.

Perhaps realizing the voids in the "Daily Deal" space, a number of companies are now targeting small businesses with loyalty card offers.  Billed as information gold mines, these programs require a consumer to link their credit card(s) to a particular loyalty program.  The merchant determines what sort of rewards will be given to the consumer and the loyalty card company captures the data and administers the program.  The rewards can be anything from cash back for purchases over a certain level, rewards after x number of visits, a "best customer" reward, or a discount percentage.  The big sell for the loyalty card companies is that they take the administration part out of the hands of the small business and can then provide significant data on a business's customers to that business.

As you can imagine, I have been asking A LOT of questions!  (I are shocked.)  As a merchant, I have to consider what other things the loyalty card company is going to do with all this data.  How vulnerable is it to a data breach?  Will it be sold to a third party(s)?  As a customer, how comfortable can I feel with something that asks me to sign in to/register my account via Facebook and other social media applications?  What might they do with my customer data (much less what sort of hacking vulnerabilities do I create for myself)?  And besides all the privacy concerns, do the merchants and customers end up with a positive experience?  And do the benefits to the merchant outweigh the cost?

I don't have any answers yet that make me feel comfortable!  But I'll continue to share what I find!

Next up:  The Scout Guide Is Here!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Inspiration, Beauty (and Guilty Pleasures)

I have the blessing (or the curse, depending on how you view it) of being entranced by words, sounds and pictures.  My entire life I have loved beauty.  My father was a gifted gardener (how I wish that I had inherited that talent from him) who kept our yard blooming with a variety of eye-pleasing flowers, shrubs, and trees.  My mother had (and continues to have) a keen sense of style and was always elegantly put-together and loved to shop at colorful, creative stores.  I was surrounded by beauty on all sides.

I went through a period of time in my life where I lost touch with beauty.  Over the last two years, I've started to embrace it again and I see what a difference it makes in my well-being.  About a year ago, I was doubting my decision to have located Zoe in Alexandria.  One Sunday during this time, I decided to park several blocks from the store and walk through a residential area of Old Town.  As I passed the unique homes, the brightly colored doors, stately flags, and bright beds of flowers, I felt my spirits lift and felt reassured of my decisions.

In addition to appreciating all the beauty that surrounds me on a daily basis, I also seek out beauty through the power of the web and the incredible digital photography available today.  I will admit that I struggle with all of the options available (and how one can use them appropriately) but I thought I'd share three of my "go to" sites.

I can always depend on Web Designer Mark to get me an invitation to the latest and greatest inspirational sites (normally before they even reach the "cool" factor).  He was the one who introduced me to Pinterest.    I haven't yet decided whether I absolutely love Pinterest and all of the different images and ideas it exposes me to or if it just makes me feel guilty, seeing all of those creative home decorations, kid's activities, and recipes (that I'll probably never get around to trying).  I love the fact that it is a "virtual scrapbook" of things that I like and adding to my boards is as simple as a couple of clicks.  From a business standpoint, it is a way to share a little bit more about my personal likes and style.

My shameful pleasure is a website called The Fancy.  The website says: Fancy is part store, blog, magazine and wishlist. It's a place to discover great stuff, to curate a collection of things you love, to get updates on your favorite brands and stores and to share your discoveries.  I just love looking at the beautiful pictures and innovative creations on the site (even though I can't afford any of it!)  My favorite pictures (besides the fashion ones, of course) are the travel ones.  For example, I really want to go here:

Lake Como, Italy

There are new pictures on the site every day.  You can buy many of the products on the site.  It really is very addictive.  These are the times it is good NOT to have money to spend!

My newest experiment in beauty and inspiration is Instagram, the photo-sharing app available for Smart Phones.  I had often enjoyed looking at Instagram photos from some of the designers that I follow but decided to formally take a plunge a few weeks ago and set up my own account.  My goal is to try to take at least one interesting picture with it each day.  And to continue to find interesting people to follow!  

Love this photo from a new jewelry designer at Zoe - Katie Bartels