Sustainable Fashion: The Mystery Box

Welcome to this column within our broader sustainability section which focuses on what fashion retailing is doing to address the issues in its industry.

Brought to you by Retail Insider, Clipper Group and Give Back Box

This month’s column asks if the magic box phenomena could be harnessed to unsold stock. Brought to you by Retail Insider with Clipper and Give Back Box.

Everyone loves a gift box don’t they? The unwrapping, the tissue paper, the ribbon, the big reveal. Unboxing videos of all kinds are an internet sensation watched by millions so the rise in popularity of the subscription box model, where the user gets this very pleasurable experience on a regular basis, is no real surprise.

A slightly more recent twist, however, is a much larger element of surprise around the box’s contents. And it is this feature that is generating interest in the world of fashion at the moment because these boxes are heavily discounted. And second only to loving a gift box is loving a bargain. To cater for shoppers who want both at the same time a whole new breed of mystery boxes are coming to the fore.

Additionally, during Covid-19 the whole idea of self-gifting or treating yourself to something nice underwent a pivotal change so that it stopped being something consumers had to justify to themselves or only do at birthdays and became an accepted way to lift the spirits and improve mental health.

Selling like hot cakes: Mystery boxes from Heat

So there are discounted boxes focused on just one item from a range of say handbags or skirts, there are other boxes where stylists choose from a wide variety of different designers and there are others where the end user gets to preview the box before it is shipped. And then there are the specialised boxes for the luxury market, a sector which is traditionally very poor at disposing of its goods at anything other than the full-price because of fears of tarnishing the hard won brand reputation.

These boxes are sold with a distinctly positive sustainable spin. But are any of them actually sustainable or helping the fashion industry do anything better in the long term?

Well, the jury is still out because one positive then paves the way for another negative. The high-worth designer boxes from companies such as Heat and Hybe retail at a fairly hefty price tag but do allow brands a premium outlet for their unsellable stock – options for these brands to shift awkward merchandise are much more limited as they do not like to use discounted stores and, as we all know, have in the past resorted to unpopular methods to keep the scarcity value of their products up such as incineration.

A box from these third-party operators will have the trappings and wrappings of a full-price retail buy and the requisite ‘grammable’ look, which means they sell out in hours. In addition, for the brands these boxes introduce their goods to an audience who might well progress onto the full-price version as funds later allow.

On the negative side, despite all the claims that such boxes are a way to sell unsellable stock, there is no answer to the argument that the best way not to have stock left over is not to produce so much in the first place. Mystery boxes provide no incentive for brands at all to think about how much they are producing and merely provide another channel to sell through. In this day and age when technology increasingly enables on-demand production and personalisation the days of blindly over-producing must surely be numbered for any company intelligently using its customer data.

A Curated Thrift sends users a mystery box of designer charity shop items

There are however examples of some companies bringing a more overtly sustainable ethos to the mystery box market. Examples of these include Lost Stock (previously featured on Retail Insider), which at the height of Covid-19 offered customers a box of already manufactured garments from Far East factories where the retailer order had been cancelled because of pandemic lockdowns but workers still needed to be paid.

This very successfully tapped into an altruistic feeling for the factory workers along with a horror of sending absolutely new and unworn clothes straight to landfill or incinerators. Another instance is the US-based A Curated Thrift, which does exactly what it says on the tin and involves specialist buying from charity shops around a key range of themed looks such as Hollywood Regency, Minimal and Boho. The boxes are then sent out to customers obviously not at the full designer premium prices but with a social cachet for the styling that is also attractive to the Depop users.

Overall, for the label junkies, sustainability is probably the last thing on their minds and despite their Gen Z youthfulness they are fully prepared to spend eye-watering amounts on three unknown items as long as the logo is all over it. But on the upside they will assuredly wear this stuff for longer and more often than other fast fashion items in their wardrobes.

For the brands too this is far more about acquiring new, young customers and the data they generate on what does and doesn’t sell, but if that data can be used effectively to target audiences to buy smarter then it could still have a positive purpose.

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