By Alan Behr
Fashion is about nothing if not what comes next, and we are already being questioned at the firm about what are the best options for when this terrible scourge at last subsides and we can go to work without fear for the health of ourselves, friends, coworkers, and families. In other words, what will we do when normalcy returns, and will things ever be normal, at least in the way we once saw it, again?
The first point to note is that COVID-19 will likely accelerate the trend, moving along an ascending line throughout the century, of the replacement of tangible experience with digital access. The world went to remote working and learning because it could. We have to remember that, a generation ago, those options were not all but universally available to those who could benefit from them. Online buying now being nearly the only way to get what you need, we expect that the trend toward shopping online will only continue. And because online buying is dominated by a handful of retailers—starting with Amazon—the pressure to limit their market dominance or even to break them up will also likely grow.
Another trend, one that is less-often written about but also significant, is that electronics have helped bring down the cost of made-to-measure and other forms of garment customization. You can (as I have) pick a fabric online, inform your shirt maker and have it delivered from, depending on price point and style, Britain, Italy, or China at what has increasingly become a smaller marginal cost over off-the rack. We can expect that trend to continue as well.
Those are conveniences that benefit retail customers, but retailers and, to put a human face on it, the people who work for retailers, will have different lives. It is a different kind of employment from helping a customer who comes into your shop to buy her wedding dress to working at the computer five states away that takes the order and verifies with the warehouse that the piece is in stock and ready for shipment. There are ample satisfactions offered by the latter job, but they are not quite the same as seeing the bride leave the shop in the dress that you helped assure will be right for her.
For retailers, integrating their online and their physical presence will likely grow only more challenging—because customers will expect a seamless experience. That means a commitment of financial and human resources immediately following a sustained moment of financial terror. It is that part of it that we expect to focus on with our clients: helping them adjust by helping rework their existing agreements to fit the new, more complex and layered intake and distribution system that has gone by the name of “omni-channel” and may now simply be called business as usual. Real estate attorneys will be needed to help with that, along with attorneys able to assist with new sourcing and distribution relationships, trademark attorneys will need to make the necessary filings to protect marks for a broader range of services given in connection with sales and purchases and, as often happens after a downturn, litigators will be needed to help work through the disputes that arise whenever markets decline.
It may seem premature now, but it is never too early to plan and, while you are discussing with your attorney how to renegotiate the lease and work out a deal with the unions following layoffs, to consider what to do when, as they will, things again go right for the world.
Alan Behr is a partner in the corporate and business law department and intellectual property practice, and chairman of the fashion practice at Phillips Nizer LLP.