On Fruit Stalls and Shopping Malls
Some time ago, while shopping for groceries in a street market in the hot neighborhood of Tijuca in Rio de Janeiro, I was struck by the thought of how similarly we treat clothing and fruit. Design theory aside, there are two concepts they clearly share: that of perishability and that of seasonality. As different as clothing and fruit are, there is apparently more being borrowed from the street markets in the (fashion) design industry than meets the eye.
The Market at Tijuca
Every Wednesday the street just behind my apartment in the middleclass neighborhood of Tijuca would see its dark asphalt inundated with colorful and lively clusters of fruit and vegetable stalls. Apart from the colors and density of smells, the market was also loud. The sound evolved steadily throughout the morning, starting with the clanky vans and box trucks coming as early as 5am, followed by the cautious assembling and displaying of goods, accompanied by the focused din of worker chatter. At 6am, the locals would start coming to buy their week’s groceries, socializing over bananas, homemade biscuits, and vegetables. As the morning progressed, and lunchtime approached, however, sellers would start to become more aggressive about selling the goods they still had. They would start combining the less attractive vegetables in clear plastic bags, while, with a wet towel and chalk in-hand, they would adjust the prices of their devaluing produce on their blackboards in-step with their competitors.
And that was when the sound grew louder, soon after midday, as the unpopular fruits and vegetables—marketed as bargains— were called out loud in chants such as “Três mangas, um real!” (“Three mangoes, one dollar!”).
That’s when I would typically arrive.
At that point in the day, amid the increasingly fervid shouting of the sellers, one becomes acutely aware of how perishable these goods truly are. The fruit and vegetables had been wilting all morning in the heat, the hands, and the passing of time. At 2pm the grocers would start packing, and most likely the unsold goods would turn into trash. In an attempt to reduce profit losses, prices would begin to free fall, reaching discounts of up to seventy percent. In the end, however, everyone was happy. The grocer would go home with a lighter truck and a fuller pocket, the customers could cook an affordable, fresh meal, and the world would meet less food waste.
The Shopping Mall
A few months before encountering this market, I had left my job as a commercial fashion designer. At that time, I had never thought of what I was designing as perishable. The clothes we were making were made to last. Sometimes a piece would take more than seven fittings before we agreed it was good to go. Production was carefully and thoughtfully outsourced, and a very, very experienced director was overseeing all of our choices. Three collections a year, eighty designs per collection, reproduced between sixty and five-hundred times.
Our releases in late February, August, and November were usually celebrated with a proper launch event at the shopping malls. Our loyal clientele would curiously arrive to check the new designs, when we, the designers, could also do some on the ground research, mingling with the curious customers, mining them for their opinions. We charged full prices for the early birds, just like at the fruit stalls. As the weeks passed, and as we designers reviewed the production for the next collection, sales would begin at the stores. In late June (after Brazilian Valentine’s Day) and in January (soon after the New Year) prices for the pieces into which we had invested so much time and labor only a couple months prior would start dropping, first at discounts of twenty to thirty percent. When the next collection release approached, the discounts would reach up to seventy percent, just like the fruits at the street market.
I would say most of the clients in the shop’s mailing list would come around then. We would make a small profit, and the customers could dress well at bargain prices, and the world’s landfills would be less one garment.
The rationale behind this pricing strategy can be attributed to the simple fact that production exceeded sales; by gradually cutting our prices, we could cut our losses, but also make room for the new collection to come. Even as some companies have proposed differing pricing strategies (such as Everlane’s “Choose What You Pay” scheme, branded with the tagline, "It's not a sale—it's better."), this is what most fashion firms end up doing. The idea that every season has to end with a sale is a mainstream one, embraced by the industry and expected by consumers. In a way, however, or perhaps in many ways, we were dealing with the clothes just as the fruit vendors were dealing with their products: While these clothes were not trend-focused, and therefore didn’t have an expiration date, we still had to make room for the new fashions…for the fruits of our labor.
But I had begun to wonder, what would happen if we inverted this system? What if sales were offered at the launch of a collection, with higher prices near the end of selling season?
Confronting the idea of clothes as perishable goods I started proposing an inverted sales season at my own little shop back in 2013. Early birds, the very loyal clients, would get the best of the deals. Thirty percent discount on the first week, going down to ten percent around the end of the first month of sales. A bit like how concert halls sell tickets to concerts or airlines sell flight seats, with the value of tickets going up as the event grew closer, and less like how fruit vendors sell fruits. After four years in practice, it appeared that the strategy didn’t much affect the average profit I made on the pieces. Instead, it reckoned with a flawed system and rewarded customers who truly valued the production. It regarded clothes as cultural products, not as perishable as a pack of ice cream.