The enterprise of the highstreet giant, Zara, is impressive in many ways –from how they make at least $19.7-billion each year between their 7,000+ locations worldwide to how they disregard the artists from whom they steal designs. Above all, what has caught my eye is the physical state of their shops, the face of Zara itself.
There are coffee cups strewn everywhere, hidden in obscure places next to sunglasses and perfumes. We’re all too familiar with their sales seasons when the racks and the tables resemble a yard sale. This is based solely on my observations of the women’s department. I hope that the men’s and children’s departments show better conditions. As a customer, all I see when I walk into Zara is how little they respect their brand, shop and clothes -at least that’s how it comes across.*
I have always shopped at Zara, since my by gone days, and when exploring smaller or local brands was still a foreign concept. I have found them to be a creative alternative to its other mass-produced and sweatshop contemporaries like H&M and Forever 21. The Spanish retail giant’s business strategy is evidently impressive compared to other high street brands who struggle in trying to compete and re-attract their customers. Zara works in a vertical, bottom-up business model where their foot soldiers roam the streets researching what is trending, take a quick note and sketch, send it off to HQ and the resulting product will be on a hanger before that original muse has had the chance to even do their laundry. Unlike its competitors, the Spanish conglomerate is able to bring factory to rack within a 4-6 week turnaround time —that is probably why we find ourselves periodically returning to their shops, as often as I open the fridge door for snacks.
Growing up in Japan where the fashion industry catered to its women who are half my size, I was forced to shop at vintage boutiques stocking awry purchases by Japanese tourists and abandoned wardrobes of expats. Zara was able to provide me with everything in between, from neutrals and workwear, to bold items and contemporary statement pieces. But the anxiety I feel walking into a Zara at any point -especially their sale season- has always existed. As a fashionably curious traveller, I am basing this observation and opinion on the Zaras I have been to in my life: US, Canada, Italy, Japan, UK, France, Japan, Germany, Taiwan.
This “revelation” came at an opportune moment when I was trying to make more conscious decisions in what I was buying and why. If I was able to live out of my backpack for 4 months in the same clothes and exercise relative self-control in what was worth purchasing, I can apply the same improvement to my life back home. I decided to completely exclude Zara from my line of sight when it came to my retail pleasures. But being broke and not knowing where to shop in my new city that wasn’t a boutique with unique and local pieces with out of budget prices, I started veering back towards what I knew and felt comfortable in.
Walking back into Zara during this period I actually felt ashamed crossing the threshold into their cluttered interior. The employees look like they’re fed up of folding clothes and picking up after our Starbucks and strewn shoes. By observation, some treat the clothes with the same blasé attitude that they’ve adopted from witnessing others before and around them. All the while, the ravenous eyes of its consumers are hungry to find anything to feed their consumerist itch.
You could make the chicken or egg argument, that it’s the customers who wreak a haughty havoc or it’s the shop workers who have no respect. To those of you reading who work or have worked at Zara (or anywhere else with a similar environment), my apologies if I offend you, but hear me out. Retail workers can be split within four categories: People looking for something to do, self entitled adults looking for something more, youths looking for a fun place to work, people destined for management. Within those categories and caught up in their own circumstances for why they have that job, there are those who have no regard for the merchandise they sell. You see them notice a ripped shirt or one stained with makeup but don’t want to deal with it so they simply leave it or even hide it.
Then there are the customers. Take note that I am not accusing Zara’s customers as horrible people in general; I shop at Zara and I’d like to think I’m not too bad. I do, however, believe that there is a “shopping syndrome” or “mall mentality”, where as soon as you walk into a shop or a mall, you drop your sense for spatial awareness, morals of behaviour and code of conduct.The foundations of retail of ensuring a high quality customer service goes directly to the shoppers head, like a cupid’s arrow, as soon as you walk into Zara, making you feel ‘entitled’ to the shop like the way Apollo felt entitled to have Daphne. You behave in a haughty manner as if the clothes, the space and the people are there at your disposal.
If I’m going to point fingers at us and them, then it’s also important to consider that the root of the problem could be this “impressive” brand and its management. Zara is a private company and so we don’t know what their annual sales are, but it is common knowledge that they’re fucking rich. Yet they feel the need to try and cram as many styles and stock on the floor as possible, creating an incapable workload and strain on employees.
It is said that only 15-25 per cent of the next season’s range is available pre-season at Zara. This means that over half of your purchases for the season is being made and introduced while you’re still in the changing room –do you know how much work that is for a retail employee who is expected to keep up with only having 3 jackets in their section to 13 within a few weeks? If Zara wants their shops to hold as many styles and products as possible, then the space in which they are housed should reflect the large amount and variety that its customers can expect. The number of staff employed should also be proportionate to the size of space and inventory.
Dr. Zeynep Ton from the MIT Sloan School of Management emphasises a brand’s attention to its employees in her book The Good Jobs Strategy: How the Smartest Companies Invest in Employees to Lower Costs and Boost Profits. If you invest in those at the ground level of your company and treat them accordingly, hire enough staff for the work, and focus quality over quantity, you are guaranteed an improvement in profits, customer service and employee attitude.
But who am I, except an active shopper who has been irked enough times to make my comments and complaints to this megabrand. To be honest, at this point, I don’t really care for what came first and in investigating the “true culprit”. We and they and you are all guilty for the disarray that is Zara.
I feel like I’m in a position where I can be critical because I was fortunate enough to work for a brand that prioritised the product and the client’s need and experience first.* One thing that has resonated me since my retail days, is that each and every piece of clothing deserves to be treated like gold. Isn’t that what we and the clients are all here for? Give it as much care and respect that all the people who were involved in it’s creation deserve. None of this should depend on the price tag, the brand’s reputation, the target clientele, and above all, your mood. They were made using Earth’s scarce resources, through hours of work and labour at each stage -sometimes costing lives. None of this gives anyone the right to behave like barbarians during a sale, tossing the merchandise around as you would a salad, or sticking chewing gum on changing room walls.
Zara recently launched a new fashion-line, Join Life, which claims to be more sustainable and eco-conscious: “We carry out quality controls at every stage of the supply chain to ensure our products are good for people and the environment.” Let’s hope that in seeing Zara make an effort –slowly but surely– in cleaning up their “fast fashion” mantra through Join Life, their mission will spread to its customers and perhaps to other brands. If we can’t respect this collection that bears Mother Earth in mind, then there’s no hope for any of you or us.
Now, you’ve just read me shit on Zara and all that surrounds it, so where are you supposed to shop now you may ask. If you’re poor, like myself, and exploring other unique brands isn’t always an option then shopping at places like Zara sometimes can’t be helped. But there are other ways to revitalise your wardrobe:
- Refurbish and edit pieces you already own. Think embroidery, patches, ribbons and a pair of scissors.
- Clothing swap.
- Vintage shops and the likes of Oxfam, Salvation Army.
- Your parents or siblings wardrobes.
In the future, the next time you feel compelled to shop, ask yourself: Why am I shopping here? Do I really need this, or do I actually need some Netflix alone or with cuddles? Will my new outfit from this piece of clothing gain as many Instagram likes if I post today or next year? Remove the brand name. Look at the clothing on its own: the material, the cut, the accessorising detail, the fit, etc. –is that worth the price? And other such questions…
Just something to think about. You know that I will be too.
* I am aware that there are other brands that have equally as if not more unorganised shops with employees who behave like they couldn’t give a second thought to customer service or what they’re selling. This article is specific to Zara and only Zara. Why? Because this is the shop that I walked into and provoked such a reaction. This article is not meant to compare Zara to other brands, because in that case there will always be others who are better or worse.
** I hope that this piece does not offend those who work in retail as criticising their customer service. You’re all doing a great job and I’m sorry that we create so much hard work for you all when the pressure to uphold your brand’s name and do well to make a living is already enough.