Catharsis: What happens to items that don't sell?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

NOTE: This post was written in 2008...hardly up-to-date information. For anyone reading this now...please know that this is not current store policy.

Before I begin, a disclaimer: the following is a policy of MANY retail stores (not just Anthropologie). I debated whether or not to post the following at all. Please note my intention is not to make anyone feel bad about shopping at any store. It is simply to expose some lesser-known practices.

A friend of mine is working at Anthropologie for the holiday season. So far she has loved it -- the people she works with are nice, she gets to hang out at her favorite store all day and she gets a discount. Over the weekend she and I were talking about past season items that we wish stores would carry again so we could buy them (like the Bloom Sweater -- the photo at the top of this post).

Then my friend related some this story. To paraphrase her:
I was on stock and we were clearing out a bunch of sale items that hadn't sold. I asked the manager what I should do with the clothing and she said "destroy it." Destroy it? I asked. Shouldn't we donate it? 'No,' the manager replied, 'we are only allowed to donate certain items. Corporate policy is to destroy everything else.'

I didn't have a choice so I did it. Perfectly good shirts, sweaters and pants got ripped, torn and generally wrecked. It was really depressing! Another associate told me they destroy furniture too -- almost everything that doesn't sell. We couldn't figure out why. Later on another manager told me that Anthro does it to maintain their brand integrity. They don't want their brands at discount stores or anywhere that would cheapen the brand. Nothing is too common and they want to keep it that way.

Another anecdote: I occasionally moonlight as a personal shopper. One time a client was in a very high-end store in SoHo. She found a top that she liked and asked the store how many other locations were carrying the shirt. We found out it was a store exclusive. She then proceeded to grab every shirt off the display table and asked if there were any more in the back. Then she proceeded to buy every single one of the shirts, even ones that were not her size. In total she paid thousands of dollars.

When we left the store I had to ask why she did it. She looked at me and said "I don't want anyone else to have this shirt." She said it as if that was totally normal and almost seemed surprised and angry at me when I recoiled at that idea. We stopped at her apartment so she could pay me. I watched as she threw every extra shirt she had bought into the trash compactor. Shredded to bits.

Unfortunately this mindset is not unique. It is an extreme take but there are people who want to be the only. In many ways I shop at the store because I myself want to be a bit different and find looks that aren't so cookie cutter. Certainly I don't think you or I would take to buying our Anthro out of stock on something to purposely deny others the enjoyment of a shirt, sweater or necklace. But in destroying their extra stock this is effectively what Anthropologie as a brand is doing.

On a very selfish level it's depressing because it means the only way I'd get an item from a past season is if an owner posts it on eBay. Or if I happen to see it in a thrift. I think Anthropologie could keep the items and still convert sales off them. Many high-end stores keep items in storage for years and then re-present them as 'classics.' Just knowing an item is no longer being produced automatically raises its profile and prestige in consumers' minds. And there are always sample sales. But maybe this misses the forest for the trees. Really it's just such a shame that the clothing isn't recycled or donated.

As I said at the top this is the policy for many retail stores. I worked for Pottery Barn one year and at the time they did the same with many of their items. This doesn't stop me from shopping at Anthropologie but I do wish they'd change this policy. I often wondered what happened to their overstock (I was kind of hoping they'd open outlets or something). The truth is often stranger than fiction.

What do you think? Had you ever heard of this type of policy before?