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From Artificial to Authentic: the Gen Z Approach to Retail


As an executive recruiter, I get to introduce people to our fantastic retail property world every week. I love making new connections with candidates and I find that interviewing a diverse range of people is always a fascinating experience, because the responses I receive constantly surprise me.

Just this week, I asked a candidate one of my standard questions: Which brands do you most admire?

I’m used to people responding with Apple, or H&M, or Michael Kors, but increasingly candidates have been mentioning e-commerce marketplaces rather than physical stores. This candidate said, without any hesitation, “Amazon” and then followed it with “ASOS”.

It’s an interesting insight that people are increasing seeing these companies as brands in themselves, rather than simply marketplaces – but then, with revenue in the hundreds of billions and being the 5th largest retailer in the UK it’s perhaps not surprising that Amazon is becoming a brand all of its own.

I wasn’t going to give up there – after all, our industry is primarily made of bricks and mortar – so I asked, “What about physical stores?” His first choice of brand was Arket. Owned by H&M, Arket prioritises sustainability, durability and accessibility in its products: perfectly in tune with a Gen Z’s values.

My candidate’s next choice was By Walid, a brand created by British-Iraqi designer Walid Damirji who creates modern pieces out of antique 18th century fabrics. This was easily the first time such a brand had ever been mentioned in one of my interviews, but again, with values such as authenticity, originality and again sustainability, it makes sense that By Walid is in the consciousness of candidates in their twenties.

This brand has been making quite the impact on the fashion industry for Damirji’s unconventional approach: no PR, no financial incentivising cocktail parties, and using only upcycled fabrics. It has also recently been taken on by Matches Fashion.

Here, in this brief conversation, we can see one of the biggest challenges for our sector: how to fully embrace these values while retaining a high margin and turnover? These stores certainly won’t be able to afford the rent or business rates applicable on most UK city high streets, and the retailers who can may struggle to implement costly features to ensure they meet these Gen Z values.

One solution for sustainable brands would be to bring together many of them under one roof, providing them with a central location at a rent they can afford.

They could call it House of Fraser, perhaps!

As for the brands who are not yet able to self-style as sustainable, authentic or accessible, the growth of interest in such values should be an early wake-up call. By acting sooner rather than later, these brands could prevent a tank in sales as their buyers trend younger and stop shopping at brands who have failed to evolve and only offer artificial, short-lived fabrics (or even worse, products built with planned obsolescence – looking at you, Apple).

What “Gen Z” brand do you most admire, and what values does it share with you? Have you also noticed an uptick in sustainable businesses lately?


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