Vintage VM: It’s worth its weight

In this months Retail Focus column, I discuss how the vintage sector is shaking off its ‘shabby’ label.

The start of every New Year invariably offers a time for reflection, introspection and re-evaluation. And January 2018 will be no exception. But while many resolutions are often short-lived, increasingly, as a society, we are seeking new ways to achieve a more permanent solution when it comes to reducing consumption levels, in all aspects of our lives. Recycling more, eating less, cutting down on social media, and reducing spending. Thankfully, despite some predicting we are close to some kind of retail apocalypse, it appears we are not ready to shop less – just differently.

You may immediately think I’m referring to the on-going tussle between online and physical retail: I’m not.

In recent years, there has been a noticeable growth in thrift and vintage store concepts, driven by demand from the Generation Z and Millennials. While upcycling and recycling are far from new watchwords, the trend for buying ‘seconds’ continues apace. The difference is that, increasingly, the vintage sector is shaking off the ‘shabby’ and ‘scruffy’ label, with more and more sophisticated vintage concepts to be found.

For me, German retailer Pick N Weight is one of the best examples around. It is by no means a unique concept – there are a plethora of vintage stores in every city these days. The retailer itself isn’t new either – in fact, it’s been around since 1989, with stores in Hamburg, Berlin, Cologne and Munich. But when I visited its Cologne store over the festive break, I was struck once again by its commanding presence and distinctive offering to shoppers.

Its product range can only be described as eclectic, covering everything from disco to military to drag, a heady choice for the discerning vintage shopper. Not here a vintage store that resembles a jumble sale, either. Make no mistake: this is a true store, with products grouped into categories and sub categories – easy to browse and enjoyable to shop, in spite of the volume of product. And believe me, there is volume.

But the key and most unique feature of Pick N Weight’s concept is that the price that shoppers pay for the products they buy is determined by their weight. Meaning those looking for lightweight fabric items can discover some real bargains.

This type of concept isn’t new, nor is it reserved for the vintage market. Vegan restaurant Titbits is a stylish self-service diner and takeaway which charges for its homemade food by weight. With restaurants in London, Basel and Zurich – by no means places associated with thrift – it is proof if needed that this type of concept has legs.

Is there demand for this type of concept in fashion retail? I can categorically, definitively answer this with a resounding YES. The store was bursting at the seams, not just with its product but with eager shoppers seeking to discover their ‘one of a kind’ great buy.

Nasty Gal, which recently opened in London’s Carnaby Street, is another fine example of redefining the standard approach to vintage. A brand with a colourful past, it was bought out from bankruptcy last year by BooHoo. Established in 2006, it started life fairly traditionally, buying and selling old clothes, but developed its own, original label range in 2012. Its latest London store focuses very much on these ranges, while playing heavily on the vintage aesthetic.

Compared with Pick N Weight, It’s significantly light on product volume – offering a much more pared-back selection evocative of Urban Outfitters. But overall, it’s a hugely clever concept – shoppers feel they are buying vintage, supported by the store’s deliberately mismatched theme and vintage propping. Think Spice Girls vinyl albums and VHS copies of classic chick flicks and you’ll get the idea.

These two stores have one important thing in common: the sense of discovery that is integral to a successful retail environment. It’s the feeling of excitement in finding a must-have, uniquely individual piece. And interestingly, both retailers deliver bags of that seemingly illusive experiential magic, with zero added technology. You could say it’s emotional intelligence rather than the headline-hogging artificial kind.

Both Pick N Weight and Nasty Gal reinforce the fact that there is a serious commercial opportunity for retailers to capitalise in this sector. They also offer some good examples of retail best practice within their walls. It’s no longer about jumble-sale piles of scrambled product. Visual merchandising is clearly thought out and well executed.

What’s more, they are casual and unpretentious when compared with some of their mainstream counterparts. Most importantly, however, these stores are increasingly where shoppers are flocking.

Many conventional retailers look dowdy by comparison, even with the weight of technology behind them. As we move further into the New Year, no doubt many will be hoping they can resurrect past glories and, like the products to be found in Pick N Weight, re-discover their enduring appeal to once again become an indispensable part of shoppers’ lives.