Everything happens faster in the fashion world. Fashion houses and retailers have to deal with an increasingly turbulent market wherein trends and tastes fluctuate all the time and design styles replace each other in ever shorter cycles. This instability means greater uncertainty for firms, which makes it harder for them to plan and operate through the year. Attempting to curb the motion and introduce more stability can be a serious challenge for the fashion designers, marketers and retailers; the stream is strong, and more often it seems that everyone has to continue flowing to the next fashion style. Retailers with physical stores face an additional challenge from strengthening e-commerce — consumers prefer to buy more clothing items online, especially from whatever source and channel they can find them at lower prices.
Castro is a leading fashion house and retailer in Israel with over 130 stores carrying its name (i.e., Castro, Castro Men, and Castro Kids) across the country. The Castro company was established by Aharon Castro in 1950. Its retail start was modest, and the business continued to be primarily a fashion house, designing and making garments (for women only), until the late 1980s. In 1985 the founder opened a flagship store on the modern Dizengof shopping street of Tel-Aviv; that may be considered a first brave move to lift-up the image of the Castro fashion brand and earn it more publicity.
In the early 1990s Aharon Castro passed the realm of the company to his son-in-law Gabriel (Gaby) Rotter, joined later by his daughter Esther (Etty) Rotter, and they have been serving as co-CEOs since then. The second period of Castro is marked by the great expansion of the retail arm of the business. More and more stores were opened in the 1990s and 2000s (Castro also made a venture abroad, mainly in Germany, but it was unsuccessful and largely cut-off). In this period the prevailing brand image of Castro was also invented, which gave it fame and appreciation. The last decade has seen more acquisitions of fashion enterprises (clothing and accessories) made by the company, but these do not carry the Castro name and therefore have less bearing on the Castro brand. In summer 2018 Castro merged with the fashion group Hoodies, and the repercussion of this move is yet to be seen, whether the brands mix or remain separated.
Listed below are selected actions that contributed more significantly to establish the prime attributes associated with Castro, exciting and daring, since the 1990s:
Castro aired a famed TV commercial in 1993 that was daring, playful and igniting the imagination — it is best simply to watch it. Two more facts make this commercial special: (a) It was aired in the beginning of commercial TV in Israel, when the audience was highly curious and interested in advertising in this medium, which helped the commercial to become a “hit”; (b) The song featuring in the commercial was Creep by Radiohead, during the early stage of its musical career, so the commercial gave a unique exposure to Radiohead in Israel. Definitely in those days this Castro commercial was unusual and exciting (until today it is the most loved commercial in the country); it drove great attention and interest in the coats and other clothing products of Castro, and put it on a trail of growth.
In the early 1990s Castro moved into the pivotal shopping centre of Tel-Aviv (Dizengof Centre). Moreover, Castro situated its store near the entrance to the major department store of that time (HaMashbir), a sound call of challenge. A decade later, in 2003, Castro relocated within the shopping centre and opened its flagship store Castro Tel-Aviv, occupying three floors, with an external façade that turns to a strategic corner of streets with high exposure — a strong declaration of their presence. At least for several years it was an important anchor in the shopping centre.
Castro gradually started to enter clothes for men into its stores. Over time the fashion house expanded the scope of its target segments to become a marketer and retailer of clothing for men and women, youth and kids. On the retail side, Castro made two key moves: in 2000 it launched its sub-chain of Castro Men stores, and in 2013 the Castro Kids sub-chain of stores came to life. Perhaps already less exciting to consumers, but they are still daring moves (a demonstration of force).
However, the expansion of Castro’s activities, particularly adding stores to its retail chain, seems to have taken a toll from the company. It is hard to put a finger on a single factor as the cause of recent troubles at Castro. It appears, yet, that the toll has hit primarily Castro as a fashion house. From some point in the passing decade, consumers have been losing interest in the garments of Castro. In earlier decades, Castro led by its founder gained a reputation for creativity, for bringing new designs and quality fabrics (important especially in the 1960s and 1970s, credit going also to Aharon’s mother Nina). Consumers may have stopped believing that Castro’s clothing expresses creativity, novelty and ingenuity. Nonetheless, the needs and tastes of Israeli consumers apparently have changed, and they are looking for something different in fashion and clothing, which also happens to be less original and less expensive clothing.
Firstly, consumers buy more frequently from a variety of online retailers (‘e-tailers’), on top of them is Amazon.com, while getting easy access to broad selections of clothing from abroad at affordable prices. Consumers also are willing to pay less for garments, shoes and accessories of lower quality even if they would have to replace them more frequently. They further tend to inspect garments in physical stores and then buy the same or similar items from online stores. Yet another threatening competition to Castro comes from quick-movers, discount retailers like Zara and H&M that produce and sell garments of similar designs as those of known fashion houses (though they may have some original clothes). A more discomforting revelation of recent years is that a low cost retailer (Fox) is gaining in popularity while Castro is sliding down. The stores of Castro see less traffic of visitors (footfall), thus stores are too quiet for extended periods, and the sellers have too much ‘free time’ to arrange merchandise; a special report on public TV (Kan News, 4 May 2019, Hebrew) indicates that a growing pressure is put on sellers and other staff (e.g., visual merchandisers) to contribute to better results . Could it be that Israeli consumers find the design of stores less attractive; is the visual merchandising in-store less appealing to them; or is it the merchandise itself losing its appeal? We should not overlook the influence of background factors such as changes in the code of dressing (more casual, ‘dressing-down’, sportive) and economic constraints on consumers’ shopping behaviour in clothing and fashion.
- In 2018 Castro saw overall a loss of 59 million shekels (~$16m), after a net gain of 48m shekels in 2017 and in 2016, and operating profit on clothing has dropped 66%. Additionally, sales of clothing in same stores of Castro+Hoodies fell 7.7% in 2018, above average rate in this sector (Globes, 5 May 2019, Hebrew — this article follows the report on Kan News).
A few ideas may be learned from the American department store chain Kohl’s that is taking dramatic measures in its effort for resurgence, led by CEO Michelle Gass [A]. Some of these measures may be relevant also to Castro, and could suggest directions for the transformation it may also be required of:
Kohl’s is reducing the amount of merchandise displayed in its stores, and is also decreasing the selling space of stores. On the other hand, the retailer installed an advanced inventory technology that allows it to track its merchandise on display at any time (by using RFID tags on product items), and follow purchase data (including online) and analyse it. Hence staff at Kohl’s can predict what products are in greater demand and what merchandise is in need of replenishing in real time, enabling to display less merchandise with no disadvantage.
Furthermore, Kohl’s developed a capability to trace changes in market trends faster and cut the time needed to deliver new designs to stores (i.e., shorter time-to-market).
Kohl’s introduces new technologies in its stores to improve the service to shoppers and their in-store experience overall, including handheld checkout devices to cut waiting lines at cashiers, and digital price screens that can be updated with less hassle for staff; in addition, the RFID tags aforementioned enable staff to help customers quickly find products they seek (mirrors with holograms or augmented reality may come later).
- Kohl’s has taken another intriguing step: orders from Amazon can be returned at desks in a hundred of its stores (out of 1,100+ stores). Critics and skeptics regarded this co-operation akin to “sleeping with the enemy” or “bringing a fox into the henhouse”. However, Gass sees in providing this service at Kohl’s stores an opportunity whereby Amazon’s customers already in a store may choose to buy some products they see around, similar to the case when Kohl’s customers who use its “click & collect” scheme at Kohls.com online store later come to pick-up the order at a physical store.
Castro announced recently that it plans to enlarge and redesign some of its stores. Perhaps its management should re-consider enlarging stores. Does Castro really need to have stores as large as those of Zara and H&M (1000sqm+)? This may not be effective in terms of (lower) revenue per squared metre [B]. The stores can also be arranged to be more spacious between display exhibits and hold less merchandise, provided that information technology can be used to monitor it cleverly. Redesigning stores may indeed be welcome — current stores could feel too dark-toned with selective spot lights, which may be perceived more elegant but less convenient. Existing large stores may be reduced somewhat, or perhaps may better allocate space to other purposes like special projects (e.g., gallery of new art designs in fashion), a coffee bar or hosting events that may be more interesting than a space loaded with more products [cf. A]. Greater attention should be drawn to the experience that can be generated for visitors in-store.
Another issue concerns the image and experience delivered by the website and online store of Castro. Is the online store not advanced and rich enough? Will more exclusive online offers make the difference? [cf. B] What kind of experience should the website and online store present to visitors? Entering the e-commerce website overly feels like entering a catalogue. The e-store has some nice features like a model’s image changing position when hovering above with the mouse to show the garment from another angle, or being able to see the same garment in different colours. Yet the website appears nothing more than an e-commerce website; it misses something more important — it obscures Castro as a fashion house. The story of Castro and its creations is practically hidden, hard to find. When entering the website, it should communicate the image of the brand Castro — show original designs of the fashion house before start selling. The website should clearly show the “door” to the online store but right next to it should appear the “door” to Castro the fashion house and its story.
Eventually, the garments designed and created by Castro are the main issue to address. This should be an important point of differentiation for Castro from other retailers on which it should make its voice loud and clear. For example, prior to her role as CEO of Kohl’s, Gass identified the rise of the trend of activewear (sportive-energy) style in clothing; she gave it more emphasis in stores with the help of national brands like Nike and Adidas. Castro has a category (online) of Activewear. On the one hand, it can make its voice by introducing its own designs in this category. On the other hand, it should not go only after what seems popular at a time but suggest other modes or styles to the market.
Castro seems to lack sub-brands or endorsed brands up front that consumers can easily identify and associate certain styles or attributes with them (e.g., more daring or novel vs. more conservative, more artful vs. more functional). Castro is said to hire top-of-class young designers. Yet it does not elevate anyone as house designers by name, perhaps to encourage more collegiality and teamwork. An alternative approach would be to build a brand around a team of designers (like a “centre of excellence”) who share a certain vision and approach in fashion styles. Actually Castro already has three sub-brands: “Red” for casual dressing; “Blue” for more elegant, quasi-formal dressing; and “Black” for jeans wear. Castro can develop and enrich any of these sub-brands; create another brand with a specific style or tone of design as a secondary “specialisation” under any of those above; or build a new brand endorsed directly by the Castro name that will express new forms of art, novelty or elegance, etc. Whatever course taken, the leading idea is to give consumers a ‘name & face’ they can cling to, to follow how it evolves, and to identify with.
There are multiple avenues for Castro to reinvent and revive its brand and business as a whole. The expansion of its retailing activities may have led to the weakening of its fashion house and dilution of its brand. Some of the enterprises Castro acquired or merged with could hurt the brand to the extent that they are stopping Castro from developing answers in-house to gaps in the market. Therefore, it is perhaps the time now to return to increase the focus on Castro the fashion house as in earlier times, and let the retail arm serve it, not the other way round. Castro should be ready to enter its third period; the challenge will likely be assigned to the new Deputy CEO lately nominated, Ron Rotter (son of Etty and Gaby Rotter and former CFO), to reinvent Castro and put the brand on a new course.
Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)
[A] “Michelle Gass Is Cracking the Code at Kohl’s”, Phil Wahba, Fortune (Europe Edition), December 2018, pp. 104-112.
[B] “Castro Once Was the Most Sexy Brand in Israel, But These Days Are Gone” (origin in Hebrew), TheMarker, 12 April 2019 (MarkerWeek edition), pp. 14-16