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The Covid-19 era is leaving retail exposed. It is clear that consumers still want to visit physical stores, but the role stores play in the cycle of purchasing has been changing for some time. Now what we call the ‘High Street’ has been transformed by the three months of closure, consumer confinement and fear.
Today we have a chance to put leather back into the centre of things by reclaiming the high street. High Streets need to move from merely transactional to much more experiential and dynamic. Leather is the perfect experiential material. It plays to the senses, and its patination tells a story month after month and year after year. Our ability to sell leather against the competition lies in its handling and use. It requires a much deeper consumer appreciation of the origins, the value and the longevity of leather than they get from the regular marketing of consumer goods by the big brands and retailers.
Two types of store are needed back on the high street by the leather industry – the Leather Concept Store and the Repair Shop. New spaces will come available as we see gaps being left in the retail store space by so many companies that have not made the transition into the present, and these should offer affordable rentals and perhaps great experimental pop-up opportunities for tanners and leather merchants.
During the pandemic, the relationship between tanneries and their major customers has been vital for many tanneries as they plan their recovery, and there is a lot of evidence of that working well. Sadly, there is an equal number of negative stories where tanners and other suppliers are being abandoned or left without payment or orders. Tanners now need to have a more direct line to consumers and this can take a wide variety of forms. Increasingly, tanneries have started making and direct selling some articles to customers, even if it is only very limited ranges from some of their lower priced leathers which are harder to move. This establishes a direct feedback loop and small but possibly significant cash flow for future flexibility.
As well as publishing and being open about all matters to do with sustainability, it is clear that more tanners need direct contact with consumers to do this education in person, supported by accessible information on-line. Those who remember the Hermès Leather Forever exhibition as it toured the world in 2012 were shown an idea of how to do this in one of the 12 rooms they filled so beautifully. Here they had a mini-warehouse with rolls of leather and a wooden horse with more: on the large table they laid out leather to show how it was cut, demonstrating this in action certain days in the day.
More recently, the company Maison Fichet has done something similar with its concept store in the Canal Saint-Martin district of Paris, targeting a wide range of artisans and designers right down to an individual thinking to work with leather. With no minimum, customers can walk out with one skin or have large quantities shipped direct. They also sell a small range of leather goods.
The opportunities for creative approaches like this are endless: blending different elements depending on location, target clientele and the tannery’s capabilities. Posters and handouts making use of the freely available Leather Naturally information and promotional material can help give a unified branding to leather anywhere in the world that would work well with the tannery’s own branding.
More stores which can repair all things leather
Grabbing the post Covid-19 moment to create more stores which can repair all things leather would also make an outstanding statement about the environmental credentials of leather. It is now being recognised that circularity must not be about an early end of life of an article with it being collected and sent off to be dismantled, and new articles built for resale. Collection levels remain very poor and all the rest requires large amounts of transportation, energy, virgin material and repackaging. It is much better to use things longer. Repairing a pair of shoes or a handbag and a little refurbishment is far better than disposal. Every year of extra usage makes a huge environmental difference, and almost all leather items offer that possibility.
Not so long ago, tanneries were big features in everyday lives. Tanneries and leather using industries were in the top three in the world as employers until well into the 20th century. One of the original twelve companies in the Dow Jones Industrial Average when it was founded in 1896 was the United States Leather Company. At one stage it was the largest by value. Leather was an essential material, strategically important for military uses, for industry, for agriculture, for transport and almost every other aspect of life. Every citizen, everywhere, understood and appreciated its value. Shoes were polished once a week and metal studs were hammered into heels and toes so the soles would last longer.
It is our job to persuade the consumer of the value of considered consumption, instead of endless waste from buying cheap disposable articles.
June 17, 2020
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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