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Gender Neutral Shopping: PR Puff or a New Retailing Trend?

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The first quarter of the year is a challenging time for fashion retailers in the UK. The January ‘sales’, which used to give a big boost to footfall, are now widely seen as gratuitous in a climate of year-round discounting. People are also feeling cash-strapped. It’s not only the hangover from Christmas spending. It’s the endless stream of bills that arrive at the start of the year (utilities, credit cards, tax). This is why, for many British consumers, the post-festive winter period is a time to hunker down and tighten discretionary spending. Small wonder, perhaps, that big name retailers, like Marks & Spencer, have been struggling with their apparel sales.

Tough times call for an innovative marketing agenda. Or, in the case of upmarket department store Selfridges, an innovative marketing ‘Agender’. That is the term the store has coined for its latest ploy to liven up, liberate even, the shopping experience. Here's how it works: For six weeks (during March and April) the store will merge its womenswear and menswear departments over three floors, doing away with what it calls the “limitations and stereotypes” of shopping. Out go the male and female mannequins and in come androgynous ones dressed in non-gender specific clothes. Think David Bowie meets Grace Jones, but in a modern retail setting.

Good idea, or a farce in the making?

Retail desegregation

There is nothing new about unisex clothes. T-shirts, jeans, jumpers, biker jackets, even boxer shorts, have long been worn (or shared) by both sexes. So, what does gender neutral clothing actually mean? In its current incarnation, it seems to mean that everything in apparel is potentially genderless. And at its most cutting edge, it is about taking men’s shapes and adapting them for womenswear, and vice-versa.

But, there is something more tangential about it. There is an argument, indeed, that gender neutrality in retailing is also about desegregating products designed specifically for men and women. This bears out in the latest trends of luxury fashion. At a recent Prada show, for example, menswear and womenswear collections were deliberately brought together on one gender-neutral catwalk.

“I think the combination is more real. It’s more ‘today’, otherwise it looks like we are in the time of my grandfather, when women were divided from men”, said Miuccia Prada (the designer behind the brand) in a recent interview with Vogue.

This merging of womenswear and menswear is at the core of Selfridges’ pop up idea. Yes, there will be a handful of unisex (sorry, gender neutral) capsule collections from niche designers. But, mostly it is about displaying men’s clothes in the same retail space as women’s clothes. Beauty care and pampering products will get the same treatment, which means women’s perfumes will sit alongside men’s aftershaves.

Equal rights

The concept begs some key questions: Does the male and female shopping experience need desegregating in this way? And, if so, is there a freedom of expression (or equal rights) issue at stake here? Should we be camping out in rival department stores to protest at the segregation of womenswear and menswear?

Some people will argue that the world would be a better place if retailers and selling spaces were less gender specific. For most consumers, though, it is not a big issue at all. There are plenty of women, for example, who prefer to have a space where they can look at and try on clothes without men snooping around. There are plenty of men who would rather have their own gender-specific retail space too.

Furthermore, if gender neutrality in retailing were such a big issue then presumably Selfridges would want to de-segregate its menswear and womenswear on a more permanent basis, and not for a six-week stretch only.

The risk of alienating shoppers

Ultimately, the whole Agender concept is probably more about generating a bit of a buzz around Selfridges at a time of year when footfall tends to be sluggish. And there is nothing wrong with that. Marks & Spencer should take heed.

There is a risk, though, that ‘Agender’ could actually weaken rather than boost sales. Keep in mind that luxury retailers, like Selfridges, are increasingly reliant on international tourists to drive up their revenues (why else would staff at both Selfridges and Harrods be taking Mandarin classes?). But, shoppers from China and the Middle East – two key consumer bases for Selfridges - tend to be conservative about gender boundaries. Some might find the Agender concept quirky, but many might be put off altogether.

There are other potential pitfalls too. On a busy Saturday, is there not a risk that the merging of womenswear and menswear could lead to confusion, shopping mayhem even? And what about the changing rooms? Are they going to be gender neutral as well? If you follow the concept’s logic, they probably should be. Anything goes, right?



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