Susannah Frankel: Times have changed for shoppers, not just seasons

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The Independent Online

Moaning about the weather may be a typically British characteristic but Philip Green is perhaps clutching at straws blaming the so far unusually mild winter for flagging high-street sales. "It's been the hottest October and November in history. Nobody can deal with that," he told journalists this week. "Winter goods are tough."

While it is true that winter fashion is generally more expensive than its summer counterpart and may therefore be more difficult to shift, consumer reluctance to part with any hard-earned cash surely runs deeper than that.

In general, the fashion system – and the high-end fashion system in particular – has never been entirely co-operative where the elements are concerned. Anyone who prides themselves in up-to-the-minute fashion awareness understands that buying a coat in August and a bikini in January may seem perverse at the time, but it remains the most effective way to shop. By the time the elements are so good as to fall into line, the most wanted garments will have sold out.

More importantly, the concept of fast fashion – principally a high-street concern – and nipping into Topshop, say, to buy a winter coat in one's lunchbreak because the temperature has suddenly plummeted or a wear-once dress for a spontaneous Saturday night out, is by now redundant. The rise in price of both VAT and raw materials – and cotton most significantly – dictates that budget fashion is no longer anywhere near as reasonably priced as it used to be.

Increased ethical awareness, too, finally seems to have set in. The intelligent consumer – and make no mistake, consumers are more intelligent than they ever have been – today thinks twice about filling his or her wardrobe with piles of cheap clothing that they bought because it was a bargain but which they never actually needed or wore.

Now, the vast majority of shoppers in the Western world are buying less and more carefully, and that applies to everything from fashion to food. The economic climate – not the climate per se – decrees that conspicuous consumption is as outmoded as power shoulders and boot-cut jeans. And that may not be such a terrible thing. There is too much product in the world and it is ultimately only those who choose to buy it – or not – who have the power to change that.