This is a guest post written by Jeroen de Wal, owner of Store Du Nord. It discusses how premium retailers experience and deal with COVID-19.

5 denim retailers discuss the surprising positive side of COVID-19

When I contacted Thomas to do a guest post on how the COVID-19 pandemic is influencing premium retail, I realised this would be my first post for Denimhunters since 2017. A transition from guest blogger and working for retail chains stores to an independent business owner with Store Du Nord, much has changed over the course of the years.

Building a steady ground as a retailer is a challenge in itself, dealing with a pandemic is a whole other ballgame. However, despite suffering a heavy drop in turnover I am seeing quite some positives. Specifically the rise in sales of the premium brands I carry at Store Du Nord, such as Companion Denim, Japan Blue, Motiv.

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I firmly believe that this exceptional growth is largely due to the fact that consumer awareness is even more on the rise now, a development that has been taking place for the last few years already.

Might this pandemic push consumerism to a new, more sustainable level? Is there a renewed appreciation for honestly made premium garments? And how can retailers deal with all the challenges now and act on the opportunity?

I decided to share my thoughts and views with Denimhunters and also check my experiences with reputed retailers Thomas Oeben from Oeben’s Mercantile, Danny Hodgson of Rivet and Hide, Christopher Åkesson who owns Meadow, and Merv Sethi of Okayama Denim.

Facing and dealing with challenges head-on

Retail is taking hits. We all suffer in this pandemic, but there are ways to come out swinging, and that’s what most premium retailers appear to be doing: Being positive and exploring opportunities.

Personally, I find challenges like these very enjoyable despite the massive turnover drop it brings at the moment. It allows me to rethink current strategies for Store Du Nord and walk a certain path I might not have taken before.

Speaking as a ‘newcomer,’ I realise I don’t have the burden of a huge stock but I also don’t have the strong foundation yet that others do have. So I went out and checked with a few colleagues in the business to hear how they experience this challenge and deal with it.

Thomas Oeben, Oeben's Mercantile, COVID-19 retail, denim retailer,
Thomas Oeben

Speaking to Thomas Oeben, who owns Oeben’s Mercantile, he told me he sees a silver lining despite the difficult times now.

At Oeben’s, they’ve fully rebuild their webshop and website, something they normally wouldn’t have the time for. They’ve also added private shopping on appointment, which has enabled them to cater even better to the needs of their clientele and push net sales per transaction to a higher level.

The other upside is that I’m home more often now, so Mrs. Oeben and my daughter are very happy with that too.”

Thomas Oeben

Focusing on further improving their customer service and being even more transparent seems to be a shared set of beliefs amongst all retailers, as Christoper Åkesson of Meadow is very open about:

People got scared, and our stores took a massive hit. It made me open up completely, with full transparency both personally and business-wise.”

Christoper Åkesson

“I wanted to show the world that we are real people with real problems. I never played the victim, because I’m not. We all are, we’re in this together and we will get through this together. It has really connected me even better with customers, who are actually becoming friends now.”

Danny Hodgson of Rivet and Hide tells me they’ve been able to maintain their online operation without too much disruption:

I think everyone went into shock at first, employees and customers alike, and we had to assess the situation and set priorities.”

Danny Hodgson

They soon realised that the main importance was to keep customer service at its highest level and assure their customers that online operation was and is still up and running.

We were also able to access our stores without using public transport, with one of our employees going to the store 3 days a week to dispatch all orders,” Danny adds.

Danny Hogdson

The pandemic propels consumer awareness

Over the past years, it has been evident that consumers are becoming more and more aware of how fashion is produced, with a huge shift in buying sustainable brands and look into the transparency of companies.

With most premium retailers already running a sustainable operation, they sit at the root of educating consumers on well-made garments such as raw denim brands, artisanal products and innovative production methods that are better for the planet we live on.

So for me, it raised the question whether their stores see an even further rise in sales of these premium garments?

Despite overall turnover dropping, I’ve noticed a significant increase in sales of luxury brands at Store Du Nord, especially in raw denim being (re)appreciated by local buyers. So I wondered if reputed retailers experience this shift as well.

Merv Sethi, Okayama Denim, shares the following insight:

Overall, our sales have been fairly steady which we’re very grateful for and humbled by during such an uncertain time.”

He adds that online sales, in general across industries, seem to be up substantially as many people have no other option of attaining goods.

Danny adds, which is a very valid explanation as well, that it could also be the likelihood of people cheering themselves up:

It might be more of a reflection of people’s behaviour during the lockdown, buying a great new pair of jeans instead of any Damascene conversions to sustainable living.”

Danny Hodgson

Apparently, a very open discussion for the foreseeable future, yet I can’t help myself to believe that all these recent developments will aid consumer behaviour and that we’ll slowly but surely grow towards a reevaluation of how we live, a consent that is shared by all the retailers in this post. 

So how can this possible reevaluation of how we live lead to new markets to endeavour for premium retailers?

Rivet & Hide in London
Rivet and Hide in London

You either go forward or backward

Imagine yourself wandering around town, with all the precautions of course, and noticing a retailer that clearly communicates how he works with sustainable premium brands. And then another one, showcasing how well-made garments are truly made. And another, and so on and so on.

There was a time that this would have been a strictly idealistic thought, or dream if you will, but as times are changing so is the retail market for both consumers and retailers alike.

Of course, this will not be the same for every retailer, we all need to adopt a strategy that aligns with our vision yet also concurs with market developments.

Some retailers might expand their brand portfolio with even more niche, premium brands, or further improve the customer experience online and offline. Retailers might have to change tactics to cater to everyone’s needs, something that is the case for Store Du Nord where I need to connect more with native buyers now that expats and tourists visiting the store is low key, a group that accounts for about 80% of my turnover usually.

Meadow, denim retail, COVID-19, COVID-19 retail,

Bringing the question to the other retailers, you can already see there’s a lot of thought in the next steps to take and the new markets that might arise, something which Christopher of Meadow clearly sees happening:

I believe new markets will open up and current markets will expand. Post-COVID-19 there’ll be some financial problems, but there will also be more awareness amongst people.”

Christoper Åkesson

He believes well-produced brands will get a larger market, which is why he’s in fact expanding right now, with a new webshop and also his own premium quality denim production. “You either go forward or backwards, nothing is static. I’m putting Meadow in overdrive and only the future will tell if I crash or succeed”

For Merv at Okayama Denim, widening up their current market is a path they’ll keep walking:

“We’re really excited to continue our journey on this path we’re on. With a new approach to premium selvedge, we’ve been exploring natural dyes such as Kakishibi & Matcha and also producing Japan’s first Bamboo Jeans together with Big John. We look forward to keep exploring this space and see what we can do to keep creating highly textured yet environmentally friendly selvedge.”

So the pandemic is not all bad news for retailers. There are plenty of opportunities arising and the main important thing is to keep your boat afloat now, to be able to reap the rewards later. The way you act is what guides you towards the success you aim for.

Keeping that in mind, a final piece of advice from these industry experts might help you push through this pandemic just as it helps them.

Meadow, denim retail, COVID-19, COVID-19 retail,

Big or small, there’s a future for us all

“Stay humble and financially intelligent,” Merv at Okayama Denim points out. “In our opinion, the best way to get through this pandemic is to be a community member. Help others where you can, there is no greater reward in this world than lending a helping hand to someone in need.”

Pure thoughts that find a companion in the mindset of Christopher of Meadow as well:

“Find ways to help each other out. Stores and brands alike. I’m already preparing a collaboration with other stores. If we spread the word of our colleagues as well, the community as a whole grows stronger. It’s the only way to go. It was always like this, but we need it now more than ever.”

Spirited words that will help most of us in terms of mindset, but there are also a few tactical plays to keep in mind as this business does not only survive based on positive vibes but also good management, pointed out clearly by Thomas of Oeben’s Mercantile:

“Stay true to yourself and use the strengths that you already have, and develop them further. This is not the time for panic-play.”

Rivet & Hide Manchester
Rivet and Hide in Manchester

One of the best ways to prevent panic-play, might just be the advice Danny of Rivet and Hide gives:

Talk to your suppliers! In our world of premium retail, many of them are also small independent businesses so we literally are all in this together.”

Danny Hogdson

His priority is to honour already placed orders as he doesn’t want his suppliers to go out of business. “It has taken us years of careful building to get where we are now with the brands we have. They are crucial to our survival as we are to theirs so keep the dialogue open to see where you can help each other out.”

Store Du Nord

For myself, with Store Du Nord as a ‘rookie’ retailer during these uncertain times, the best piece of advice I can give is this:

Put things in perspective, be patient and be innovative.

It’s the perfect time to share knowledge on premium garments, how it is made and to grow this niche community to a widely accepted and appreciated part of the industry.

I believe now is the time to connect consumers even more with brands and retailers, educate each other and grow together. There are so many opportunities out there that will help shift the business into the next gear, so get your balls out and go for it, 100%!

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Jeroen is the owner and founder of Store Du Nord, a menswear specialty store focused on storytelling. With a high appreciation of artisanal garments and obscure craftsmanship, Jeroen is on an infinite journey to make consumers reappreciate extremely well made garments. He runs his eclectic boutique in the coastal city of The Hague, in The Netherlands.

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