This spring, supermodel Kate Moss spent 12 seconds in the window of Topshop’s London flagship store, modeling a dress from her clothing line. That moment, and the fashion frenzy that ensued, nicely illustrate the rapid cycle of trends and shoppers’ appetite for newness.

Under retail pressure to introduce new things quickly, the cycle between emergence and decline of a trend has been greatly compressed, and will continue to tighten. Scores of trendspotters are calling things trends that are really just influences, causing them to be rushed through the normal stages. Less time for a trend to develop reduces its potential and longevity—a course that won’t be reversing anytime soon. A retailer’s only choice is to keep up or not.

U.S. retailers are stepping up their speed-to-market imperatives by making a substantial investment in the supply chain. They have powerful role models in Spain’s vertically integrated Zara, the flat organizational structure of Sweden’s H&M and total creative control of Japan’s UNIQLO. But note that these companies react to trends rather than set them. Trend-setting is still the work of a small group of visionaries outside the mainstream.

Today, even relationships are made fast. To make sure they last, retailers look for ways to stay connected by inviting participation. The Internet has made it much easier. With their Web sites, companies are asking customers to post reviews. And they’re making the customer smarter by offering detailed information that either can be shared with peers or used during the increasingly important product research phase.

Real and Virtual

Pop-up stores and event sponsorships help keep the buzz alive locally. To show it shares a sense of humor with its young male customers, this summer 7-Eleven dressed a dozen of its franchises as Squishee-selling Kwik-E-Marts to tie in with the opening of “The Simpsons Movie.”

Although the promise of user-generated content is being over-hyped at the moment, its potential is worth exploring. H&M is blurring the borders between imaginary and real to bond with its fast-fashion customers. In partnership with Electronic Arts, Inc., the company created The Sims 2 H&M Fashion Runway PC video game. Players have the chance to design clothes that will appear online, and might be produced and sold in the real world. The key is “might be.” H&M is not locking itself into anything that’s not commercially viable.

The necessity of rapid development to keep up with the changes consumers demand requires many minds, inside and outside of the company. Society is putting a premium on self-expression that further supports retail participation and the rapid turnover of inventory. As one retail expert observed, it’s the age of participation built on relationships and conversations. Ever-evolving merchandise stories have the advantage of engaging shoppers, enriching the experience and enhancing customer relationships.

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