We’re often bombarded with marketing speak talking about “local”, but it’s mostly just that, speak. Remember when HSBC used to refer to itself as the “The world’s local bank.”, it meant nothing more than operating in lots of different markets and countries. Local became more about geography than anything else. It joined the group of words, such as luxury, modern and sustainable, that get used all too often, but have become meaningless.
Trying to balance the idea of a much loved local, independent retailer and the scale of a larger chain is the dream of any contemporary brand or retailer. According to CACI Consulting Group’s ‘Location Dynamics” engine, 75% of the UK high streets have the same brand profile. They say “The concept of clone towns is well known, but we believe clone stores are the real issue.”
Left - Welcome to clone town - Can brands decentralise and empower its people on the ground to make decisions?
It’s boring and in a saturated market many cookie-cutter, anonymous chains are no longer appealing to consumers and as such we’re seeing those with too many stores close or reduce their footprint.
“In a market where consumers are seeking localisation and engage in brands that mirror their values it is essential that a store is part of the community in which it sits.” says Alex McCulloch and John Platt, Directors of CACI Consulting Group.
“Customers can buy generic product sold in a uniform way online, they seek out stores for the personal, curated, local and engagement. Brands that therefore dictate homogenous stock and store fit out regardless of the local customer will not deliver that experience and as a result fall away.” they say. “The brands that trust in their people on the ground, invest in them and empower them to know their shopper as well as supporting them with forensic data analysis on what sells, what doesn’t, which marketing worked etc are the ones that will succeed.”
“Data alone cannot fix the problem, but nor can people. Good brands leverage both. A great example of this is Waterstones, finding a similar one in the fashion sector is a challenge – typically independents lead the way here. One fashion brand that doesn’t shine in this area is M&S, which serve up the same store, stock and fit-out regardless of market, and have only just entrusted their store managers to know their own P&L; the antithesis of employee empowerment.”
The type of store finding it hardest to adjust to modern retail was, originally and ironically, the most localised. Nearly every town and city had their own individually named department store up until quite recently. It was only in the early 2000s that John Lewis, with the exception of Peter Jones and Knight & Lee, which is now closed, rebranded each store to the company umbrella name. Tyrrell & Green in Southampton, Bonds in Norwich, Trewins in Watford, Jessops in Nottingham, Bainbridge’s in Newcastle, Robert Sayle in Cambridge and Cole Brothers in Sheffield all disappeared. They were all recognisably John Lewis because of the store interiors and branding, but retained their historical monikers into the 21st century and the affection that each town would have for them.
DH Evans on Oxford Street was re-branded as House of Fraser in 2001 along with many other well known names such as Rackhams of Birmingham and Kendals of Manchester. (It will be interesting to watch House of Fraser’s next rebrand to Frasers in 2020, back to the original Glasgow store’s name, with a new store in Wolverhampton’s Mander Centre following the exit of Debenhams. “Frasers of Wolverhampton” could have quite the ring to it?)
Up until 2018 the Newcastle based department store chain, Fenwick, had individual buyers for its 9 department stores. In order to save costs they centralised their buying last year saying, ”Fenwick has today announced a proposal to modernise and reorganise the business, moving to a functionally led structure while retaining our local focus.
“These proposals are part of a broader strategy to modernise the business and to invest in both Fenwick’s multichannel offer – including IT upgrades and ecommerce – and its flagship Newcastle store.” Previously each store ran autonomously.
It is understandable the desire to have everything centralised under one name and buying team. It saves costs and doesn’t confuse the customer. It also makes more sense because of the internet and having one unified website, but it loses the personalisation and affection that people had for these brands and nobody wants to think that their town or city is the same as everywhere else. (In out-of-town shopping centres it doesn’t matter quite as much because their isn’t so much ownership of place).
Right - Do clone towns need a pop-up Banksy store like this one in Croydon?
This reblanding doesn’t take into account British idiosyncrasies or quirks and our love of personality. Many chain stores want bland boxes. The historical nature of the fabric of many of these older brands and their buildings have been looked at as a problem, money pit and not conducive to modern retail rather than embracing their uniqueness. It’s only poor and long term under investment that has let these retailers down. Liberty of London wouldn’t be the same if it was in another building. The building is the brand.
"There is a fear that localised = expensive. It doesn’t need to – you know a Waterstones when you go in it and the branding is universal, but each store manager has autonomy over the look and feel of the product, what is on promotion and maintains local charts etc.” says McCulloch and Platt, Directors of CACI Consulting Group.
"Chains need to trust that their staff on the ground can make decisions on how they sell and give them space to do so within the brand framework. Equally they should be able to use POS data, online sales data and customer data to inform the manager on which lines have worked, which initiatives drove sales and how to better them.”
Engaged employees make better employees especially if they are personally invested in decisions. It’s the opposite of automation and the robotic attitude to manual shop employees.
“By trusting in the people on the front line, educating them, training them and supporting them through data will you also likely see key staff retention increase because staff will be empowered in their roles.” says McCulloch and Platt.
Is the design of stores an issue here and how can design catch up with consumer behaviour? “I’m not sure design is at fault here, there are many truly innovative stores and spaces in the market. The issue is more typically underinvestment in stores and a homogenous approach to stores. A brand can tailor its social ads based on geography and consumer (a 20-year-old single male in London will get served a different ad. to a 28-year-old mother of two in Liverpool) but don’t consider the same approach and nuance with their stores.” says McCulloch and Platt.
Facebook has been putting ‘Beacons’ into stores to send consumers personalised ads and to track their movements. Retailers also need to work backwards from this and tailor the stores to the people who are frequenting them. They could find out this information from peoples’ Bluetooth being turned on and then change the buy of the store according to the breakdown of the consumers and visitors.
Obviously, not each and every store is identical. Stores are different in size and can accommodate different levels of ranges. Some chains specifier different product for different locations, but, it’s more a mindset and preconception that they’re all the same which is the main problem here. People want to be pleasantly surprised. “I’m-not-going-to-go-in-there-because-I-already-know-what-they-sell-and-I-can’t-be-bothered” is the modern attitude to many chain stores. The more individual or local they were perceived to be, the more often you’re likely to take a look. If you want anonymous and clinical you’ll shop online, it’s about pride of place.
Mid-market department stores have become the punch bag for the state of modern retail. Often the largest, most visible and expensive stores to run, they are the cumbersome dinosaurs of the British high-street and, much like those, talk is about them dying out.
Two of Britain’s biggest department store chains, John Lewis and Debenhams, unveiled their rebrands on the same day, this week. Much like a first day at school, and a fresh seasonal start, this is their equivalent of a fresh text book and pencil case. But, will it be enough?
Left - John Lewis & Waitrose adds its Partners to their new logos
John Lewis is ramming home the fact it’s a big, fat cooperative by adding ‘Partners’ to everything. For the first time in the company’s history the names of both John Lewis and Waitrose have added ‘& Partners’.
At the same time, they also unveiled the largest own brand womenswear collection of 300 designs, which was created entirely in-house and carries the new name ‘John Lewis & Partners’. Plus its first own-brand gifting collection called ‘Find Keep Give’. The range is comprised of unique pieces, the majority of which were designed in-house by Partners.
This is John Lewis really putting its stake in the ground for point of difference. The future, they think, is something desirable you can’t get anywhere else. Never knowingly sold elsewhere!
Rob Collins, Waitrose & Partners Managing Director said: “This moment is far more significant than simply adding words and changing the design. It symbolises something bigger, expressing what’s different about our business and signalling our intent to make that difference count for even more: committed, knowledgeable Partners who care about the business they own, sharing their love of food and offering great customer service.”
Right - All about the D at Debenhams
John Lewis Partnership said in June that it would continue to invest in both businesses at a rate of £400m-£500m per year, to enable the two retail businesses to differentiate themselves from other retailers by innovating in products, customer service and services with the creation of ‘Customer Service Ambassadors’ who provide warm and personalised customer service front of store. As well as healthy eating specialists, they are training Partners to offer a concierge style service and equipping ‘Personal Stylists’ with the skills to deliver daily fashion talks; as well as investing in technology to improve customer service. This will be hard for other retailers to match.
But, John Lewis is feeling the pain too. They just announced the loss of back office jobs in IT, finance and store security from its 50 departments stores with 250 roles affected. This reflects the recent plunge in profits, and the announcement in June that profits in the first half of the year will be "close to zero”.
On the other hand, Debenhams was definitely due a refresh. Devised by new creative partner, Mother, Debenhams has unveiled a “modern, friendlier logo”. A new media tag line “do a bit of Debenhams” invites customers to “celebrate their discovery of the brands and products they love”.
Debenhams chief executive, Sergio Bucher, said, “Whilst we have made real improvements to our stores and continue to improve our product offering we also want to signify overtly to customers that Debenhams is changing and give them more reasons to come in store – our new brand identity is a way of signalling the change.”
As part of the ‘Debenhams Redesigned’ overhaul, the online shopper journeys have been reduced by half and conversion rate improved by 20%. The first new logo in 20 years, Debenhams’ new look reflects the investment and changes that Bucher, who was previously at Amazon, has made.
In June, Debenhams said full-year profits will be lower than expected - the third time it has issued a profit warning this year. The department store blamed "increased competitor discounting and weakness in key markets" for the profit shortfall. It said annual pre-tax profits would come in between £35m and £40m, below previous estimates of £50.3m.
Left - Debenhams new logo 2018
“Perhaps the rebrand for both these important retailers could be have been actioned earlier, but I am pleased to see that both Debenhams and John Lewis have now grasped the opportunity and wish them both well with the next steps. I am also encouraged to see that both businesses see the initiative as much more than signage and are taking the opportunity to look at every aspect of their businesses in terms of both the relevance and the importance of excellence in delivering goods and services to their customers.” says Michael Sheridan, CEO and founder of retail and brand design agency Sheridan&Co.
One department store chain that could possibly do with a makeover is the privately held Fenwick. The Newcastle-based department store chain is to shed 421 jobs as part of a cost-cutting plan following a slump in profits. The retailer reported, yesterday, it had not been immune from the struggles facing its competitors. It said management, support and shop floor staff would be affected by the job cuts - the result of a restructuring - taking its total workforce to 2,879 people.
Fenwick posted a 93% fall in pre-tax profits to £2m in the year to 26 January. They said a 3.6% fall in sales over the 12 months was a resilient result.
A spokesperson said: "Our annual results reflect the challenging market conditions all department store groups are facing, including increased competition from online retail, declining footfall on the high street, and increasingly competitive price discounting - factors that have been exacerbated by a rise in the cost of living that has led to a fall in consumers' disposable income.”
Fenwick is a small chain, with 9 branches, mostly in wealthy market towns. They have no e-commerce ATM, and, while they plan to, I think it could be too little, too late and they would be better off investing in their stores and “owning” the towns they are in. They need to remind us why we need to go to a Fenwick’s store. They should follow John Lewis’ lead and offer good customer service and product points of difference. It doesn’t have shareholders pushing for short-termism profits so should look longer term.
We’re still waiting to see what is happening with House of Fraser, but I’m sure we’ll see a new logo and branding there within the next 18 months.
These department stores are using new logos to draw a designed line under the past with the aim to looking forward. They’ve been surrounded by negativity for so long and this must be hitting the morale of the staff and this is a way of saying “new start” and they are investing.
There’s a lot of play for, but everybody needs to become leaner and faster, and many chains have no more meat left to cut. They, now, need shoppers returning and buying more. Only exclusive products or services they can’t get anywhere else will draw them back.
John Lewis has deep pockets and Debenhams’ survival could be at the expense of another chain. John Lewis’ classic branding didn’t feel tired, but maybe they thought it was important to change before it does, but I would have kept the original dark green colour. Debenhams’ new look looks fresh without trying too hard. It looks reliable and welcoming and does reflect the changes that have been going on in-store. Debenhams has come on massively over the last couple of years and it was a good idea to have a clear out of its “designers” - read more here. Now, it needs enticing, contemporary product to replace it.
The mid-market department store, as a concept, isn’t dead, but for the bad ones it’s the beginning of the end and no fancy new logo or slogan will fix that.
Read more expert ChicGeek Comments - here