In these days of brand awareness, it seems ironic that for many retailers, especially in the area of fashion, the very brand definition that once set them apart has become so diluted, or lost all together, as the look and feel becomes more and more generic either in their desire to stay fresh or to enable rapid expansion through franchising with a look, feel and stock that facilitates a quick opening.
Who remembers the early days of Banana Republic? The attraction of the store was the fact that it really did feel a little bit like taking a trip to a tropical island somewhere. Where along the way did Banana Republic become another mid-range clothing store, with bland ‘could be anywhere’ styling? Similarly, Gap has softened their original look and feel, and in the process perhaps lost the destination element to their stores. Don’t get me wrong, both Banana Republic and Gap are great stores, but I miss the uniqueness of the experience.
For many categories of retail, no more so than fashion, brands are defined by products (think Apple, Dyson, Aston Martin), but for some, to ignore the impact of the storefront and the in-store experience may be a dangerous thing to overlook. Customers desire a shopping destination separate and distinct from the typical ‘run of the mall’.
Think Benetton, once the agent provocateur on the high street – an edgy brand whose messages were intended to get a response – their products helped define their customers who wore the name and wanted to make a statement. Does the Benetton brand still provoke a response beyond the cut and feel of their product? Not in the way that they used to, I suggest. The provocative and challenging messages may have become too much of a liability and perhaps focused on a narrow segment of the population. Maybe the general awareness of the need for social responsibility, exhibited by more and more organizations, means Benetton no longer can use that kind of messaging as a differentiator for their brand. Sure, there is a section on sustainability on their website – but these days that is table stakes. A similar scenario exists with The Body Shop, once the doyen of social responsibility in cosmetics. Beyond price, what truly differentiates them from Bath and Body Works in 2013?
This is a problem for certain sectors of retail, while others seem impervious. The look and feel of your typical Starbucks store has not really changed since inception; they have a brand and a product that endures, precisely because it does not change. You either like Starbucks coffee and what they represent or you don’t. Really no need to reinvent the café to stay fresh, it’s the product that needs to be that.
So what is my Anthropologie nightmare? Well, it is one of the few women’s fashion stores that I, an unreconstructed middle aged male, consider a ‘destination’. I like going in, I really do. While the ladies in my life browse the clothes, I can absorb myself between fittings wandering their spacious stores, observing the non-clothing stock and embracing the experience. Of particular interest are the shabby chic furniture and housewares made from articles that 20 years ago would have been lucky to have been recycled, and more likely would have been jettisoned directly to the land fill (how tastes change!). In my nightmare it is only a matter of time before the shops are redesigned, the elegant and unusual storefronts are smoothed and the products are homogenized as the urge to stay fresh emerges. And then how will Anthropologie be any different from those that have come before?
The key has to be in staying true to original vision and principles. By all means innovate the product – in fact you must – but realize that for certain retail sectors, the product goes beyond what is on the racks and shelves, and it is the experience itself that is part of the destination. Reinvent, by all means, I caution however that businesses need to consider carefully what it is that they are reinventing and make sure that if they want to retain the destination element of their offering, that too needs to be part of the new look.