The Outside View: Fashion’s Suicidal Path – why fashion should be careful to not undervalue anticipation even in the digital age

If you’re old enough, you may remember that sense of anticipation before your favorite band released their newest album, the excitement before the movie you so-couldn’t wait-to-see hit the cinemas, or even — if you’re a fashionista — the seemingly endless six-month wait between the sneak peaks at the Parisian and Milanese fashion shows and the arrival of ready-to-wear in stores.

Technology has condensed those agonizing days into the blink of an eye. Not having to wait for what we want is great, isn’t it?

Well, it turns out that consumers, whether they quite recognize it or not, miss the wait. Companies have learned, the hard way, that assuming this generation of customers insists on instant gratification may be a costly mistake.

For Lego, it was nearly a fatal mistake.

The year was 2004. The Lego Company’s extensive Big Data research had “proven” that their customers were fading away. The reason? The arrival of the ‘no-patience generation.’ If true, this would be an enormous blow to the iconic toy company, since its kits took hours to construct.

In a desperate attempt to buck the trend that Big Data had identified and circumvent disaster, Lego reinvented their product. Instead of the traditional tiny bricks, they began offering kits with fewer, gigantic blocks. This reduced construction time to mere minutes. At first, everyone thought it was a stroke of genius. But then something unexpected happened: Christmas sales plummeted an astounding 31 percent, enough to put the entire future of the company in jeopardy.

A small maverick group at Lego set out to explore why Big Data’s conclusions had gone so wrong. They visited consumers’ homes across Europe to pick up ‘small data,’ seemingly insignificant observations ‘in the field.’ During the last leg of their trip, they ended up in an 11-year-old German boy’s bedroom. “What are you most proud of?” one of the Lego executives asked the kid. The Lego execs expected the boy to show them a Sony PlayStation or a Nintendo game, but to everyone’s surprise, he proudly displayed a pair of smelly, stained, worn-out sneakers. “Why?” asked the Lego executives. The kid answered, “Every hardcore skater knows sliding down the board grinds a groove in the sole.” He showed the executives the soles of his shoes. “If the angle is just perfect,” he said, “it shows you’re talking with a real pro.” After hundreds of hours of practice, the boy had worn exactly that groove into his sneakers.

This was the eureka moment for the Lego team. If a kid was willing to spend hundreds or even thousands of hours acquiring that perfect groove on a pair of sneakers, why wouldn’t his generation spend hundreds or even thousands of hours playing with Lego?

Based on a single wrong assumption — the essential nature of instant gratification — Lego had nearly derailed a 100-year-old company. But, based on one bit of small data, that boy’s willingness to devote himself to a worthy goal, Lego brought itself back from the brink. The rest is history. Lego returned to its traditional tiny bricks, teamed up with iconic movie characters, and released the first Lego movie. Fourteen years after that disastrous Christmas of 2004, Lego is today the world’s largest toy company, owner of one of the world’s 10 most valuable brands.

Let’s look at another relevant study, conducted by Dutch researchers. They gave their first group of subjects six weeks’ notice, plenty of time to make preparations and build anticipation, before an all-expenses-paid bicycle trip across Holland. They gave their second group of subjects just two days’ notice.

Upon their return, when the participants were asked to share their experiences, two remarkably different pictures emerged. The first group had rich memories from the trip and rated it as emotionally rewarding; the second group, which had not been allowed to build anticipation, reported only half as much emotional success. Apparently, anticipation had played a major role in their perception of the experience.

So, what does all this have to do with fashion’s current suicidal trajectory? How has a fundamentally flawed theory, ‘proven’ by Big Data, led to the death of anticipation?

With the disappearance of the long wait between the runway and the high street, with e-commerce eliminating the customer’s expedition from one store to another, the fashion industry has unknowingly lost one of its strongest assets: that sense of anticipation.

From a rational point of view, anticipation is nothing more than an illusion, a myth, a chimera; but from a subconscious, storytelling, and emotional point-of-view, anticipation makes all the difference. It is the bride’s months–long excitement as she chooses her gown, the anxious lead-up to graduation day, the indescribable feeling as the newborn baby finally arrives home and settles into its beautifully decorated bedroom.

In a desperate attempt to compete with online on its own terms, the fashion industry has settled on a model in which clothing items are displayed on an anonymous white background (with a scroll bar on the right) as the one and only vehicle for selling dreams, hope, aspiration and self-confidence. And yet it’s apparent that something vital is disappearing from the fashion industry’s playbook. It’s something that has defined fashion for nearly a century. It’s the very concept of anticipation.

So next time you’re planning your collection release, designing your store, training your staff, or advertising your new release, don’t forget one simple, less trendy word: anticipation. At the end of the day, it has the power to make the wait so much more rewarding than just lost time. It may make all the difference.


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