Op-ed: The Warehouse head buyer on dressing New Zealanders in a cost-of-living crisis

Marina De Wet, head buyer at The Warehouse Group, shares her experience in retail, dressing Kiwi families,
and her commitment to everyone having access to great value clothing.

The Red Shed. Te Warewhare. Where everyone gets a bargain. Some of you may even be able to hear our jingle in your head. I can appreciate that we are perhaps a somewhat unlikely fashion destination in New Zealand, but we’ve been helping dress Kiwis for more than 40 years and our apparel range is an important part of The Warehouse offer.

As a retailer, we focus on having great prices on great products. Quality plus affordability, alongside value, is a challenging combination to get right and it’s something my team and I work very hard to deliver to the millions of Kiwis that shop with us each year.

At The Warehouse, our womenswear, kids and men’s ranges are grounded in everyday essentials, and we layer (figuratively and literally) seasonal styles on top of that. Looking good helps you feel good and we believe that’s something everyone has a right to enjoy. At the same time, every dollar counts and this is especially true at Christmas in 2023, so value is also a key consideration.

Value, affordability, quality, sustainability – these are words our apparel team are constantly thinking and talking about. Personally, affordability and sustainability are ‘my why’. I am so passionate about this space, having worked in retail for nearly 30 years, in both South Africa and New Zealand.

With rising costs, many of our customers are often forced to prioritise affordability over sustainability, so we’re committed to ensuring that they can do both – live more sustainably at prices they can afford.

Clothing and textiles is estimated to contribute to 7% of the global landfill crisis in 2023, according to Kiwi sustainability consultancy Make.Good. Like so many Kiwis, we believe we have a fundamental responsibility to protect our planet, our future, and the livelihoods of those who make our products.

Even younger consumers are having to prioritise their spending, with UK based research company Untold Insights estimating that 96% of Gen Z and Millennials are in this conflicting position. There is no one solution, but progress is key.

We’re focused on small incremental successes that together make a big impact. The majority of our apparel range has a sustainability attribute, such as clothing made from recycled materials, or cotton sourced through the Better Cotton Initiative.

We’ve also looked at how our products are presented, with a lot of our packaging, hangers and labels now made from recycled materials or with a sustainable attribute.

Over the past four years, we’ve made smart and sometimes tough choices about what we range, who we work with and how we work with them. But there’s even more progress ahead of us as we commit to removing more waste, improving our carbon footprint and reducing our impact on landfill by investing in circularity.

Our groupwide vision is to make sustainable living easy and affordable for everyone, which applies to all of our products and categories, not just apparel. And when we think about our ‘who’, we know that Warehouse customers are everybody on any street in New Zealand. All shapes, all sizes, any town, any time of the day. The thing they have in common is that they are smart and savvy shoppers. To quote Marc Jacobs, ‘Clothes mean nothing until someone lives in them’ and nothing is more rewarding than seeing Kiwis choosing us and wearing it their way.

So while it’s critical that we respond to what they really want and need, we’ve had to consider how we range our apparel with every Kiwi in mind.

That’s where being a buyer in 2023 becomes particularly interesting, as the role continues to diversify with the use of analytics and forecasting. At The Warehouse, we believe in using data and insights to drive better decisions, helping us identify what’s behind our customers’ choices, behaviours and, of course, how we keep track of our competitors.

Using data, we know our customer’s focus is increasingly on value for money, closely followed by quality, fit and availability across sizes – but having great product is always key.

We want to be a place where Kiwis shop for clothes, whether it’s choosing a Christmas dress for their granddaughter, finding that perfect outfit for Christmas Day, co-ordinating FamJams or simply a new season colour T-shirt to wear time and time again. Picking the right outfit in the special shared moments that we spend together is what fashion is all about.

Everything is designed in New Zealand by our team of talented designers, inspired by global trends but tailored to Kiwis, to ensure we remain relevant to their tastes and how they like to dress.

This season we’ve seen a definite shift in preferences, where Kiwis are looking for new styles that can be paired with staples already in their wardrobe. Oversized shirts in crisp and textured cottons are particularly popular alongside relaxed linen pants, and drapey rayon skirts.

Following customer insights, we’ve almost doubled our investment in both skirts and dresses, as Kiwi women look for timeless pieces that can be worn from season to season. Summer co-ordinates, with matching shirt and shorts, remain a favourite across the board, especially in menswear as they embrace bold and fun prints with festival vibes.

We’re also all about size inclusivity and I am particularly proud of our continuous work to offer extended sizes in both women’s, where we range from size 8 to size 30, and men’s small to size 6XL, ensuring that customers feel great in whatever they wear – all at the same price point.

We’re incredibly proud of the role we have in dressing New Zealanders for the last 40 years and with the plans we have in place and the strength of the ranges to come, I’m excited about what we might do in the next 40!