Don't underestimate the power of 1.8 billion young people
Looking back, I remember the days when I was in college and was slowly transitioning into life with independence, freedom and decision making.
One of the fun aspects of making your own decisions involved shopping - and one of the first places to go to - as a teenager or twenty-something - was Forever 21. For that age, it came with a sense of achievement and was considered synonymous to your entry into the world of fashion.
Shortly after, I got my first job and my shopping sprees at Forever 21 continued - that was the beauty of the retail chain, they had everything from casual to work wear to playful accessories - all designed for the young, new-age woman looking to express themselves via their clothes. The icing on the top was its low-end, affordable (and attractive) pricing. At its peak, in 2013, Forever 21 operated over 480 stores and generated a revenue of US$3.7 billion.
Forever 21 epitomized teenage fast-fashion. Fast forward to date and its once most lucrative demographic is now its biggest problem.
After several months of rumors and news doing the rounds, the retailer has just officially announced its bankruptcy and its plan to shut down 350 stores worldwide and pull out from 4 countries.
So, what went wrong?
It’s difficult to pinpoint to one single reason that led to the brand undergoing the challenges that it is today. The retail sector all around the world is facing a tough time with online shopping ballooning and commerce brands gaining popularity.
The majority of the problem, however, was simply the fact that the retailer didn’t keep up with the speed of its demographic. As teenagers became increasingly glued to their smartphones, they started exploring options that were available to them instanteously. And it wasn’t just about convenience, teenagers were now able to shop at faster speeds and at more competitive prices than ever before.
One of the other reasons was that today’s teenagers aren’t brand conscious; it’s not lack of brand loyalty, they don’t care about brands at all. This throwaway attitude is actually quite surprising given that they are the ‘Instagram generation’ and are heavily exposed to content by brand-focussed influencers. So perhaps it’s an overdose of brand exposure? On the flip side, it’s also interesting to note that a lot of the trends are created on Instagram itself by young users and by the time a fashion retailer can catch on to them, the users have moved on the next big trend.
While there is a lot to learn from Forever 21’s retail journey, the biggest lesson for me is that we constantly underestimate the influence, speed - most importantly - resourcefulness of the current generation.
From the recent Climate Change movement started by Greta Thunberg and led by youth around the world to the likes of Kylie Jenner being coined the youngest billionaire, it’s clear that today’s youth is here to stand out and not to fit in. And therein lies the biggest lesson for any business looking to sell anything to these 1.8 billion young people.