Forever 21's business model was way out of fashion

Consumers — especially young ones — don’t spend as much on clothes today, and prioritize experiences and entertainment instead.

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By Martha C. White

Forever 21's financial troubles that prompted the fast-fashion stalwart to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Sunday stemmed from a combination of an overextended retail footprint and growing competition, retail analysts said.

“Expanding too much, too soon and primarily in mall locations contributed to Forever 21's problems,” said Alexis DeSalva, senior analyst for retail and e-commerce at market research firm Mintel.


Although there were some suggestions that shoppers, particularly younger ones, have been gravitating away from fast-fashion chains and prioritizing brands that promote images of social consciousness, Mark A. Cohen, director of retail studies and adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business, argued that the success of competitors like Zara suggested that changing consumer tastes weren’t at the forefront of Forever 21’s challenges. “There’s nothing wrong with the ‘fast-fashion’ and ‘value pricing’ genres in customers’ eyes,” he said.

“Women still want affordable fashion, but many are focused on practicality, something that isn't necessarily associated with trips to the mall anymore,” DeSalva said.

When shopper trends started shifting towards a model that benefited smaller stores, Forever 21 went in the opposite direction, expanding the size of its brick-and-mortar footprint. The company, which has 815 stores globally, said it planned to close most of those in Asia and Europe, and as many as 178 of its more than 500 stores in the U.S.

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“[There were] too many stores in too many increasingly weak malls that were increasingly larger in size than Forever 21 could productively manage,” Cohen said. “Taking advantage of a surplus of cheap oversize real estate lead them to begin to merchandise categories in which they had little to no expertise,” he said.

“That whole industry was all about who could do it bigger, so they ended up being over-leveraged,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at The NPD Group, a market research firm. “They had an abundance of locations, they had oversized locations,” he said.

Consumers — especially young ones — just don’t spend as much on clothes today, preferring experiences and entertainment.

By rent, Forever 21 is the seventh-largest tenant of mall owner Simon Property Group, and real estate is likely to be a key focus of its restructuring. The company said it would use the $350 million in financing it obtained in advance of its Chapter 11 filing to “right size its store base.”


“Maybe this is the extreme measure they needed to take to get out of bad leases and renegotiate existing ones,” said Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst at Forrester Research.

Today, shoppers don’t need a glitzy mall storefront to discover new brands. “The customer’s migration from shopping in brick-and-mortar, mall-based stores over to the Internet hasn’t helped them,” Columbia’s Cohen said.

While Amazon has played a huge role in changing how Americans shop overall, it actually has had less of an impact in fashion than other categories of merchandise, Kodali said, adding that smaller online startups today are using social media to connect directly with a customer base in a way that wasn’t possible in Forever 21’s heyday of the big mall era. “There are other online fashion stores with big Instagram presences that may have played a bigger role,” she said.

What’s more, consumers — especially young ones — just don’t spend as much on clothes today. “The younger generation would rather be seen at the right place than wearing the right outfit,” NPD’s Cohen said, adding that younger shoppers tend to spend more on experiences and entertainment.

“Shoppers just don’t appear to be growing their apparel spend. They are spending on phones, digital goods, beauty products and streetwear,” Kodali said.

“Consumers are still visiting malls, but not always to shop,” DeSalva said. “The women who shopped fast-fashion retailers like Forever 21 when they were younger and when the retailer was at its peak now have different priorities.”