The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated changes in consumer attitudes towards fashion and retail, and calls are getting louder for “something to be done,” namely fewer collections, less fast fashion and more attention to sustainability.

However, this does not necessarily mean that all aspects of fashion will hit the brakes. During a webinar titled “2020 Retail Update: New Formats & Spaces,” held by Expo Riva Schuh on Sept. 29, Enrico Cietta, fashion economist and founder of consultancy Diomedea, pointed out that as far as media goes, fashion consumption will continue to move at a fast pace. “In terms of [fashion industry] responsibility, some people - the majority - think that ‘purpose’ in fashion means a slower pace of fashion trends,” Cietta remarked, citing Giorgio Armani’s recent call to slow down the fashion cycle as a way to enhance creativity and products. “It seems to me there is a contradiction here,” Cietta continued. “To me this means that consumers continue to consume fashion; maybe they don’t shop, but they consume fashion trends and fashion images. It’s a sort of ‘consumption of immaterial value’, which is - to my view - faster than it was.” He added that in his view the idea of slowing down the speed of the fashion cycle was “too simplistic.”

According to Maria Eugenia Errobidarte, a senior consultant at WGSN Mindset who participated in the webinar, the fashion industry is facing an irreversible realignment of attitudes: a shift from a shareholder to stakeholder orientation which means the focus has moved from generating profits for shareholders to an attitude “which includes everyone… It’s not about profit-driver, it’s about customers, suppliers, society all coming together.” She added that the majority of consumers now expect decision makers in the fashion industry “to act on pressing global issues, like climate change… As consumers we want to be buying a lot better, we want to know what we are buying into. If we make one purchase, we want to know about it, to buy better and have a positive impact on the environment.”

This change in attitudes has clear implications: “We are changing the way we produce fashion, away from seasons. We will become a little more trendless, opting more towards minimalism and clothes that last more in the wardrobe. People are investing more in luxury items - even used luxury items - and this taps into sustainability which will have an impact on high street retailing, which will slow,” Errobidarte said.

Health concerns are changing the concept of shopping

As a result of the pandemic, consumers are becoming increasingly attentive to other shopping issues, such as hygiene. If in the “old normal” long lines outside stores was a sign of desirability (think about the past debuts of Apple’s iPhone), and made the sought-after products a sort of status symbol, in the “new normal” the opposite is true. Now the last things brands want are lines outside their stores. As Errobidarte explains, stores and brands now want to be “queue-free.” She says that some 87 percent of U.S. consumers say they now prefer to shop in “touch-less” or “robust self-checkout” environments. “Physical hygiene has become a rising concern, so cleanness and protection of staff will reassure the consumer.”

This clearly has implications for how retail locations are developed and laid out. One such change, Errobidarte explained, was recently adopted by luxury accessories brand Cuyana, which - for its new store in Miami’s Design District- “intentionally choose not to put every product on display, so as to create a space that feels cleaner. If space is more open it will feel more hygienic. They curated only a portion of their collection into the store, versus having the entire range.”

One big headache retailers face in the “new normal” is how to handle unsold stock, which has piled up as stores were closed during the lockdown and as shoppers have kept away even after stores have reopened. Some retailers have turned to multi-brand platforms, like Yoox and Zalando, to help shift unsold items, Errobidarte explained. Others have focused on creating more useful online tools. The WGSN expert cites the example of Inditex, the owner of Zara, Stradivarius, Pull&Bear and other brands. “A reason why Inditex has been doing so crucially well is because they have been closing lots of smaller [brands] like Stradivarius and Pull&Bear and they have moved this part of the budget from ‘bricks and mortar’ to online platforms.” She explains how Zara is succeeding in controlling overstock by allowing customers to request being contacted when a specific “coming soon” product will be available. In this manner, the company can measure demand without having to risk overstocking its stores.

Another example of an online platform that is performing well, according to Errobidarte, is StockX, which defines itself as “the world’s first stock market for things” and which is focused on footwear and where consumers can offer for sale and purchase authentic sneakers - without passing through physical shops. StockX “is doing better than ever, unaffected during the pandemic… We’re seeing that consumers are looking for bargains, for cheaper products that are authentic and of better quality,” she added.

For those who miss the shared component of shopping, there are social shopping platforms, like Squadded, on which shoppers can “invite” their friends along for online virtual outings. And e-commerce platforms offering subscription services - where customers regularly receive baskets of goods that meet their profiled needs - are increasing in popularity as people feel uncomfortable leaving their homes.

The pandemic is an opportunity for quality brands, local shops

As consumers become increasingly conscientious about the costs of fashion on the environment, this has created a new opportunity especially for high-end and high-quality brands, by allowing them to - for example - accessorize product components. An example could be that instead of buying a new pair of shoes when the soles wear out, a brand could offer to replace the soles with new ones - perhaps in different colors and designs - thus accessorizing the repair and lengthening the product’s life. All the while creating a more personalized relationship with the consumer.

All of these changes are happening as the global economy struggles to get past the pandemic. No U- or V-shaped recoveries are in sight, according to Cietta, who says the world is looking at a “K-shaped” recovery, with some sectors pulling out of recession even as others sink back in - a situation which, the economist says, has created an opportunity for local shops who he points out may “in some way” be better able to weather the situation than large city retailers and chains. “Local retailers are perceived as safer, from a health point of view, than larger shops.” But it’s not just a hygiene issue; it’s a customer experience one, as well: “Sometimes local retailers are able to strike a more personalized relationship with consumers,” Cietta added. Errobidarte agreed with the idea that local shops are gaining loyalty because “customers are so welcoming to personalization… there is more purpose behind a one-to-one shopping experience.”

Of course, with people once again entering shops - even if in limited numbers - it is important to ensure social distancing and other health measures. And retailers are using technology to make changes. H&M and Footlocker, Errobidarte pointed out, are using technology provided by Philips to create a traffic light system informing shoppers of how many people are in the store at any given moment and telling customers when they can enter and when they have to wait.