In the fashion industry, creative design can fly.
In our current retail environment, observers of e-commerce now embrace the unique idea that Alibaba’s Tmall platform offers a flight opportunity, complete with a set of wings.
History teaches us many lessons with fashion and, of interest at the moment, is the unusual experience of Douglas Corrigan. Eleven years after Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean, Douglas Corrigan wanted to be recognized for the work he did as the flight mechanic on Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis.” Douglas felt ignored by aviation historians, and developed a creative idea to build his own aircraft from discarded airplane parts. Eventually, he decided to cross the Atlantic solo in his homemade airplane, but aviation experts were very worried about mission safety and Douglas was expressly forbidden to make the ocean crossing.
Defeated, but still with a glimmer in his eye, on July 17, 1938 Douglas Corrigan boarded his airplane in New York and told everyone that he was headed back to California. Shortly after take-off, to the amazement of bystanders, he made an aerial U-turn and disappeared into the clouds.
The next day, Corrigan’s junk-yard aircraft safely landed in Dublin, Ireland where stunned airport workers reported his arrival: “I’m Douglas Corrigan. Just got in from New York. Where am I? I intended to fly to California.”
Mr. Corrigan claimed that his compass had malfunctioned, and he really didn’t know where he was. But, clearly, he did know – and had risked it all – to save his dream. The media immediately dubbed him “Wrong Way” and the nickname stuck. The depression was ending, and “Wrong Way Corrigan” instantly became an aviation legend. Even today, when things don’t work in one direction, someone will inevitably bring up “Wrong Way Corrigan” – because often times, going the other way is actually better.
Enter the iconic e-commerce company Alibaba, who totally understands that USA retailers and brands are engaged in a similar struggle. Retailers are definitely searching for new ideas / new directions and Alibaba’s Tmall website opens a unique opportunistic window by allowing USA brands and to sell directly to the Chinese consumer. Keep in mind that America has a population of 328 million people and China has a population of 1.4 billion, so selling into China is a really good idea, especially now.
Tmall comes in three versions: either Classic, Global, or Pavilion – the version you choose depends on your market and how you plan to reach the targeted consumer. Already, there are more than 250,000 brands stationed on Tmall – which includes 80% of the consumer brands that have appeared on the Forbes 2019 Most Valuable Brands list.
When Diane Von Furstenberg soft-launched their company’s Tmall flagship store in September of 2019, Gabby Hirata, Head of Asia-Pacific business development, indicated that they had 10,000 fans. By March 2020, they had 300,000 fans.
On the Tmall Luxury Pavilion you can find Cartier, Prada, Valentino, Burberry, Balenciaga, Versace, Tory Burch, and Michael Kors. Three months ago, Michael Kors opened a customization service on the site which he called “MK My Way.” Michael said: “The Tmall app allows me to style a wide range of people instantly. It’s like a trunk show for modern times.”
In America, it is clear that retail is having a difficult time. Between store closings, limited re-openings, social distancing, mask rules, marked down inventory, too much inventory, and a lack of cash liquidity – times are tough. Frankly, unless a bailout suddenly appears, retail is in a race for survival or for bankruptcy. If a fashion brand were to have the hottest fall line ever created, their suppliers are still asking for cash up front, and many the retailers have developed credit issues, which makes it extremely difficult to finance new orders.
In the world of Tmall, Alibaba handles the marketing, targets the consumers, handles the payments & logistics, and generally makes the relationship a seamless experience. The retailers and brands can now focus on the shopping experience and building relationships with the customers. Alibaba does not pretend to be the retailer and does not compete in any way. With hundreds of millions of potential customers, Alibaba can live stream virtual fashion shows, hold virtual shopping days (like Singles Day 11/11), and even create one-day promotions.
As most in the industry are painfully aware, it is extremely difficult to get credit from financial factors or from banks. Many textile mills are looking to be paid upfront, sewing factories want ten days, and retailers are generally asking to extend their purchase terms because cash liquidity has run seriously short. In desperation mode, many retailers have mortgaged their assets to stay afloat. Buildings have been sold, and retailers are renting their own space. Inventory has been dumped, and cash is being raised to buy fresh inventory or, in some cases, just keep the lights turned on.
While “Wrong Way Corrigan” alternatively went east to go west, his Ireland flight brought the world much closer together. Trade alternatives like Tmall now allow for a bit of magic that many retailers seek. Data indicates that American exports and imports with China have tumbled at alarming rates, and this is especially problematic in the world of fashion retail. For years (and for many reasons), the fashion industry became highly China reliant – while still holding a USA market share of 40% of all apparel and 65% of all footwear. Future growth plans for many retailers and brands are now contingent on opening-up new markets, especially the market in China, where American brands remain quite popular.
The problem for fashion is that success is seasonal, and there is little time available to get more from the existing customer base. Alternative thinking is paramount for retail, and that’s why change paradigms are urgently needed, and also why Alibaba’s Tmall offers a degree of hope for a struggling industry.
When Tapestry’s Coach brand went on the Tmall platform, former CEO Jide Zeitlin explained that “creating strategic partnerships with leaders such as Tmall, help us connect our unique lifestyle brands (with the fashionable) and digitally savvy Chinese consumers.”
When Michael Kors launched on Tmall, (parent company Capri) Chairman and CEO John Idol said: “Consumers are becoming more digitally engaged with luxury shopping (in China) and the Tmall Luxury Pavilion is the perfect venue for us to communicate.”
Tmall is essentially the operator of a digital shopping mall with virtual stores. The brand (not Tmall) completely owns the look (and the feel) of their own storefronts. Alibaba has created a new world order for shopping, and Tmall’s very large consumer base in China has become the target customer.
At the end of the day, “Wrong Way Corrigan” probably had it right. When the world is headed in one direction, maybe a better strategy is to hedge your bets and head off in another. Corrigan’s flight path and aircraft were certainly a risky venture at the time, largely because he took off shortly after the disastrous crash and burn of the dirigible Hindenburg in New Jersey.
However, American retailers are a hardy lot and they eventually figure out what works for them and what does not. If the clever retailer is given an opportunity to choose between a ride on Corrigan’s aircraft, or a seat on the Hindenburg, that clever retailer will know exactly what to do.
Right now, for struggling brands and retailers, Tmall just opens-up a whole new world of opportunity….
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