With the House of Fraser news last week of another retail chain in administration, it seems like there’s bad news everywhere about our High Streets in decline (cue M&S, New Look, Toys’R’Us…). More voids on the high street. More jobs at risk.
The old order of retail is falling behind. But demise is not a foregone conclusion. Stalwarts like Harrods are smashing sales targets and there’s a burgeoning new breed of creative retail talent reimagining how it’s done entirely. To dismiss retail as dying is to ignore the important lessons we can learn from the demise of the likes of House of Fraser and what upstarts and stalwarts alike are doing to get it right and thrive.
Here are three things retailers can focus on to win:
Stay relevant and committed to what you stand for
I couldn’t tell you what House of Fraser stood for. I have no clue about their passion or viewpoint, and you could feel that play out in store. Confused, often messy and never entirely unique, House of Fraser felt like a brand too scared to take a stand.
In stark contrast, the brands growing on and offline are those with a crisp vision and product lines that allow customers to participate in that vision or even co-create it. Customers vote with their feet and their wallets, as we saw last week with the closure of Ivanka Trump’s fashion label — when the integrity of a brand falters, people will stop buying it.
For US-based fashion label Everlane, staying committed means being radically transparent about where their garments are made and how the costs break down.
Closer to home, for House of Fraser’s neighbouring department store Selfridges that means constant innovation with the likes of The Wonder Room and a strong confident stance on the causes they are passionate about, like their Project Ocean campaign against plastic.
Obsess over customer feedback
The pace of change is accelerating and so too are customers’ tastes and expectations. Retailers have the tricky role of predicting trends and buying stock ahead of the seasons. Some do this in response to customer tastes. Others, the pioneers, shape taste and drive new demand. Either way, the role of the retailer is to meet and exceed the customers’ expectations.
The retailers being left behind are those with too much distance between their buying teams and evolving tastes of their customers. The retailers thriving are continually gathering customer opinions and have mechanisms for feeding those back to inform their next product and the core brand. Closed feedback loops, working in real time.
To do it well, creative retailers are creating those feedback loops in-store and online. Take Bonobos ‘guideshops’ or LuluLemon’s stores, both designed to optimise for feedback, with chalkboards for customer comments next to dressing rooms and folding stations nearby so staff can hear what people are saying as they try on the clothes. Ideas to improve the product line get fed right back to HQ, ranked in order of importance and implemented right away.
Some companies are even giving customers access right to the top. A practise that’s commonplace in tech-first companies like Airbnb, where CEO Brian Chesky can be found regularly tweeting for feedback and actively engaging with customers, we’re now seeing that in retail brands too. With Everlane’s Transparency Tuesdays, customers can ask the CEO anything and he and the team will answer live on Instagram each week.
Experiment to learn and move forwards
With evolving customer expectations and changing contexts , there’s no guaranteed formula for sell-out success every season. What resonated last season may not resonate the next.
That’s why the retailers openly and continually testing, learning and testing again are the ones breaking ahead. It takes a humble and open mindset of deliberate experimentation to test new propositions with actual customers then double down on what’s working and exit what doesn’t.
On the high street this is best seen by the likes of Lush Labs where customers can test and co-create new products still in R&D phase, Pret’s Veggie Pret pop up experiment which rapid-tested new recipes and led to a new chain of dedicated Veggie Prets and vegetarian recipes incorporated in their core menu, or Sephora Lab providing the ideal playground for LVMH to source ideas from across the company, test and incubate new brands then rapidly scale propositions that work.
On a larger scale we’re seeing the more enlightened developers and retail agents experiment with retail mixes, length of tenancy and like at Argent’s soon-to-launch Coal Drops Yard.
For the most visionary, a time of great opportunity
In actuality, the retailers winning on the high street are likely to incorporate all three of the above, bringing together a strong and unique vision, with obsessive customer-centric focus and a mindset of experimentation that keeps them able to move with the times. The high street may be tougher and more turbulent than ever, but for the most visionary of the creative retailers, its also a time of great opportunity. A time to double down on their unique viewpoint and bring the customer ever closer. For those, there’s a loyal place in customers’ mindshare, hearts and wallets.
At Brink, we help our clients navigate uncertainty and the rapid pace of change. We like to answer the question, ‘what is the future of [insert industry or product]’ and design innovation programmes to tackle that question.