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The Business of Fashion – Regulation, acquisition and the slowdown

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When the global financial meltdown struck in 2008, many of those with a vested interest in the luxury market watched nervously; high net worth individuals had surely seen many investments wiped out as the recession struck and would thus be more inclined to austerity. While there was a brief moment of humility and caution over indulgence in life’s finer things, it was brief. The luxury market proved surprisingly resilient. Global spend has increased since the recession by around a third, helped in no small part by the explosion of growth in developing regions, China in particular. Orson Welles once said “If you want a happy ending, that depends of course on where you end your story”. Our story, sadly, does not end here.

It was not a good omen when fashion curator and director of the Musée Galliera in Paris Olivier Saillard said during New York Fashion Week last month, “We are in a moment that’s very bizarre in fashion: there are too many clothes”. Business of Fashion lamented both a lack of quality and vision in contemporary collections,

“Fashion seems stuck between the need to surprise using a new array of communications tools and the urge to deliver novelty at the fastest possible pace. Slowing down might be a solution, but that would be a hard route, which will hardly find followers.”

And it is followers that fashion, and the luxury market as a whole, are in need of. Earlier this month the Financial Times reported on the global slowdown of luxury spending. Behind this slowdown lie two factors. On the one hand, there is what are hopefully short-term influences; geopolitical turmoil is rife. Hong Kong continues to see protests that refuse to simmer down, causing disruption to myriad businesses. The city accounts for perhaps 20% of global luxury spending. The Middle East, whose consumer origin or nationality according to Bain & Co. has the biggest average per capita spend, is similarly in chaos, with Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya all in various stages of unrest. Regions like Saudi Arabia and Qatar are caught between a rock and a hard place. In Russia, sanctions have hit oligarchs and their ilk hard. As a result, shares in luxury good companies have been hit hard. Prada has seen profits slide 20% in the first half of the year. Everyone’s darling of fashion innovation, Burberry, has warned of a “cautious outlook”. Mulberry has issued a string of profit warnings and recently ejected its CEO.

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McKinsey illustrate the drift of luxury growth from developed to emerging markets

So we can reason that these companies are seeing fewer customers. But they are also attracting new ones, albeit with very different expectations of the service they expect from the companies they have relationships with. This is the longer-term challenge. Millennials may have been treated as a distinct niche group with quirky demands from brands, but next year they will outnumber Gen Xers, according to McKinsey. These utterly digitally savvy citizens have embraced and contributed to a digital fragmentation in the consumer decision journey, the production process and the fundamental nature of buyer / seller value exchange.

“[A] confluence of digital, the rising power of street fashion and changing consumer attitudes… are radically altering the industry. [It is a] consumer-led shift away from ostentatious and mainstream mega-brands towards understated originality”

One of the most obvious ramifications of this has been the trend of ‘logo fatigue’. It is likely to hit those like Gucci particularly hard, while benefiting those like The Row, and little-known retailers like L’Art du Basic. For larger brands there are some examples for inspiration though. Yoox, whom we have profiled in detail before, have gone from strength to strength in embracing effective digital strategy. The fashion ecommerce site reportedly sees 42% of its global traffic coming from mobile devices, and has recently made a significant push into experimenting with instant messaging app WeChat. As elaborated by Fashion and Mash, the account allows users to “shop via an interactive look book, and to instant message customer service teams and personal stylists. Content also invites users to exclusive events and provides early access to specific products”. In the physical world, Ralph Lauren’s hosting of a cafe in its Fifth Avenue store in New York may be less immediately strategic but seeks to leverage the same burgeoning trends. Brands will need to do more of this, more often, if they are to find what works best for them in terms of engaging and converting future prospects.

Also this month, Zeitgeist found itself at an event at London’s Four Seasons hotel off Park Lane, hosted by law firm Baker & McKenzie. Threats, tech trends and M&A were the main subjects of discussion. Zeitgeist scribbled down some bons mots which were thought worth recounting here. Last month, McKinsey produced an insightful piece on the future of luxury growth, indicating growth would come for the most part from what they termed global megacities, a large proportion of which were located in emerging economies. But China is facing a slowdown; no doubt one of the reasons it was recommended in the conference that businesses start to think less of China as an independent market of growth and more of ASEAN as a region.

3D printing was a matter of much conjecture, but it was pleasing to see that the regulation of such materials was already being considered. One speaker offered the technology would be a greater problem for toy manufacturers than luxury, but cautioned that fast fashion and high customisation were a potent mix. Current UK regulation allows for printing any designs (of one’s own creation or not) at home for personal use for no gain. Such laws may have to be re-examined as 3D printing becomes more widespread. It is difficult to protect the IP of a fashion designer’s work, and difficult therefore to know where to draw the line between inspiration and infringement. The case of the red shoe, specifically between Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Louboutin, has illustrated such difficulty. In the case of 3D printing, one speaker suggested that printing could be limited via restriction similar to how publishers use paywalls, or a more sophisticated version of the DCMA. The importance of protecting the source code of 3D printing designs looks set to be important; Pirate Bay already has a section for such product. Social networking as a new source of IP was also discussed. David Yurman sought opinions on styles to be included on a Valentine’s campaign; users could drop hints to their partner. Bergdorf encouraged fans to design Fendi bags over social, too. But there have been slip ups; Cole Haan offered to pay fans $1,000 for taking pictures of their shoes, without making it clear it was part of contest where someone would win and that the company was sponsoring the activity. They got off with a warning from the regulator, but luxury brands must treat that as a cautionary tale as they continue to experiment. “The law is not keeping up with the technology”, as one speaker sagely confessed.

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David Yurman’s Facebook campaign suggests new IP possibilities for businesses in the future

The M&A chat was equally of interest. Speakers ruminated on the rise of vertical integration as LVMH et al seek to own the whole process. It’s a brave step for companies that traditionally haven’t involved themselves with supply chains or distribution, according to those speaking. Acquisitions were taking two forms: one was spotting missing gaps in the portfolio. For LVMH, the hole in their portfolio was jewellery, which lay behind their purchase of Bulgari in 2011. More recently Giorgio Armani – or as one speaker referred to the man himself, “King George” – reclaimed control of Armani Exchange as it attempts to leverage fast fashion trends. The other form was that of acquisitions in support of brand development – innovation, technology, CRM in Mandarin, social media, etc. More of these sorts of acquisitions were expected on the horizon.

How do these deals play out today? Private equity buyers have a lot of capital and access to cheap debt, but traditionally many of the targets of a buyout have been family-owned businesses who were not ready to relinquish control to a PE firm. These firms are much quicker and more aggressive at deals; they can quickly globalise a brand, can improve the supply chain and stretch the brand up and down from the original price point. Of course, adding new assets, like social media, makes due diligence – and knowing how to allocate risk to a mercurial medium – much harder. Owning supply chains carries risks of more exposure (see Apple and Foxconn). One of the most thorny issues that speakers envisioned was for a luxury good empire known for provenance and quality to be acquired by a a company in a jursidiction that is not known for such things. What if Alibaba bought Balenciaga from Kering, for example?

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Digital is expected to drive, on average, 40% of projected luxury sales growth from 2013 to 2020

Next year will see the return of John Galliano to the runway stage to the helm of a fashion house, this time at Martin Margiela. A recent article on the designer’s flameout while creating works of wonder for Christian Dior emphasised the way in which Galliano “had been cloistered off into a strange protective bubble. Sometimes, we isolate (and elevate) talented creatives so much in the fashion industry that they lose connection with reality”. It is arguably a similarly protective bubble that the fashion industry itself has often been accused of being in, and we would argue it is in now with regards to the need for greater digital sophistication and a more significant investment in digital strategy as it concerns customer insights and the law. It is plain to see that the luxury industry continues to face disruptive challenges, be they at the hands of digital, demographic or geopolitical trends. Some of these disruptions will hopefully, as mentioned earlier, be more temporary in nature. The more fundamental shifts in consumption, though challenging, also present myriad opportunities for businesses that are brave and agile enough to test what works best to capture and retain the customer of the future. Last month Exane BNP Paribas published a report illustrating just how important digital sophistication will be (see above chart), and naming those most likely to benefit from such changes. They could do worse than start by reading our previous post on the future of retail.

TV’s bloody disruptions

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Last night, Zeitgeist eagerly devoured the first episode of the new season of Netflix‘s House of Cards, a series that has received lavish praise  – not least from us – both for its content and its position as vanguard of a new wave of television distribution, production and consumption. The series lead, Frank Underwood, takes on his competition with a ruthless lack of morality that is unlikely to jar with those in the cutthroat television industry. The New York Times recently featured an excellent piece on the series, focusing on the showrunner Beau Willimon, the unique nature of doing such a show with Netflix, which among other things guaranteed 26 shows upfront, and the new mood of “post-hope” politics. Is traditional linear TV entering its own post-hope state?

Such talk of impending doom makes for nice editorial (which Zeitgeist is not averse to), but how true is it? To some extent, such new forms of consumption are being hampered by externalities as the platforms make the switch from early adopters to the everyday consumer. Indeed, Netflix’s sheer popularity is proving to be a thorn in its side. In November last year, Sandvine reported that the content Netflix provides now accounts for almost a third of internet traffic in the US. This staggering figure no doubt accounts for at least part of why internet speeds take such a distinct hit during primetime viewing hours (see chart below). As Quartz has the insight to point out, such issues are less to do with intentional throttling and more to do with peering agreements between ISPs and content providers.

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Download speeds happen to take a significant hit right around the time people are looking to kick back with some Netflix

Such issues are likely to be ever more prevalent as the notion of net neutrality continues to come under attack. At the end of last month, a federal appeals court overturned the Federal Communication Commission’s Open Internet Order, which had stipulated that ISPs could not prejudice one type of internet traffic over another. The fear of any such policy being overturned has always been one of the creation of a two-tier internet, where people who can afford faster internet get preferential access, and companies are free to charge distributors differing amounts based on the type or amount of content they are delivering. Such consternation was also felt in government, where five US senators called on the FCC chairman to “act with expediency” to preserve the open internet. The news immediately caused concern for Netflix, as shareholders fretted that ISPs might start to charge the company for the traffic it takes up. CEO Reed Hastings responded categorically,

“Were this draconian scenario to unfold with some ISP, we would vigorously protest and encourage our members to demand the open Internet they are paying their ISP to deliver.”

Consolidation and the narrowing of choice took a further hit on Wednesday this week when Comcast announced it would buy all of Time Warner Cable for $44.2bn. The choice on cable landscape is already limited for the US, so it will be interesting to see what regulators make the deal. Chad Gutstein, former COO of Ovation, an independent arts-focused cable channel, penned an article in Variety saying that any concerns over the deal should be restricted to the possibility of abuse of a dominant position, rather than simply market share.Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu, writing in The New Yorker, rightly points out that the FCC should be approving such mergers only if they serve the public interest. He sees no such possibility in this instance, where the most pressing need for cable customers is lower prices. Last year, he writes, Comcast collected about $156 a month on average, per customer. For cable. Professor Wu contends that the merger would put Comcast in a position that would make it easier to raise prices further. This, despite the fact that conditions created via the merger would technically put the company in a position where it could create savings, both through economies of scale and more advantageous negotiating positions with programmers like ESPN and Viacom. Of course, Comcast is probably keen on preserving if not extending margins as it faces increasing competition from players like Netflix and Amazon. Cord cutting may be in vogue now, but Comcast will try to combat this by creating what is called ‘lock-in’. Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, a consumer advocacy group, is quoted in the New York Times; “Comcast and the new, giant Comcast are going to do as much as they can to stop you from unbundling. In order for you to get content you like, you’re going to be pushed to pay the cable bill, too”. Such tactics will test the limits of customer inertia, but only if they have somewhere else to go as a viable alternative.

The switch to online viewing is also raising issues of policy change in the UK. Public service broadcaster the BBC has long left it unclear as to at what point requiring a TV licence is mandatory, leaving citizens to infer that simply owning a television set is reason enough. Recently though, the broadcaster finally clarified that owners can use their TV, with no fee, to play games, watch DVDs, basically do anything that doesn’t involve watching live television. For the moment, this also includes their IPTV offering, iPlayer. In an article earlier this month, The Economist said the fee was “becoming ever harder to justify”. Antonella Mei-Pochtler of the Boston Consulting Group, quoted in the article, believes the increasing trend of young people to timeshift their viewing is likely to become ingrained. Coupled with the growth of internet-connected TVs, this is bound to accelerate a shift away from traditional linear consumption. The BBC is soon to begin developing premium content for its iPlayer service in order to seek additional revenue streams that may offset a decline in fees paid. But as The Economist points out,

“[T]hat would suggest, dangerously, that the BBC is like any other optional subscription service. Folding on-demand services into the licence fee could also amplify calls for the BBC to share its cash with other broadcasters, not least because such consumption may be precisely measured.”

When we look at the market for television sets and set top boxes, the news isn’t that superb either. The curved TVs debuted at CES in January are surely little more than a distraction. Last week, Business Insider reported that Sony is to finally spin off its TV operations into a separate unit, amongst news of $1.1bn in losses and 5,000 job cuts. But while we’ve talked of consolidation and narrowing choice, we also need to recognise this is also a period of unprecedented choice for consumers. As a recent article on GigaOm points out, there are millions of channels on YouTube alone. There are growing pains. As consumption of such content moves “to the living room”, the article details various sub rosa negotiationsby retailers like Walmart with their own video market, or players like Netflix willing to pay top dollar to put branded buttons on remote controls. What is clear, with all the issues described in this post, is that consumer choice needs to be preserved in an open market with plenty of competition. Such an environment will always foster innovation. This may breed disruption, but that doesn’t have to mean devastation. The age of linear TV viewing may be at the beginning of its end, but that doesn’t mean there’s still a lot to fight for, even if it’s a scrap. Frank Underwood wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Netflix has similar revenues but lower earnings than HBO, for now.

UPDATE (22/02/14): The New York Times published an interesting article comparing Netflix and HBO recently, showing how the two companies are faring financially (see image above), as well as their approaches to developing content, which started off as opposing ideologies but are slowly starting to meet in the middle as they borrow from each other’s playbook. The article quotes Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer: “The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.”

UPDATE (22/02/14): Of course, commercial network television in general is also going through a period of consternation, slowly building since the day TiVo started shipping. At the end of last year, the Financial Times reported that share of advertising spend on television is set to end after three decades. This is partly due to a proliferation of new devices and platforms – not least of which is Netflix – but also partly due to the amount of people time-shifting their viewing and skipping through the ads along the way. Thinkbox, a lobbying arm for the television industry, recently published a blog article with accompanying chart. It illustrated how many people time-shifted a particular programme depending on the genre. For example, fewer people time-shifted the news than drama shows. But one of the key points made in the article is “that there is no significant difference in the amount of commercial TV which is recorded and played back compared with BBC equivalents. To put it another way: TV is not time-shifted in an attempt to avoid ads”. This is specious reasoning at best. While it may be true that, yes, people do not discriminate between whether they time-shift a BBC show or an ITV show, it would be totally wrong to infer that those viewers are not avoiding ads when they do appear. The article’s author is guilty of confirmation bias, not to mention grasping at straws.

Is the price right? Battling consumer perceptions in the arts

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“Wine is valued by its price, not by its flavour”

- Anthony Trollope

It would be difficult to argue today that attendance and appreciation of Shakespeare’s plays are not, for the most part, restricted to the large niche of the middle classes. This is a pity, and interesting, given that his works are ridden with ribald language, iconoclastic storylines and slapstick humour. In his time, the plays were attended and enjoyed by the masses, ageless and classless. Such reach is the envy of productions performed today. High ticket prices charged by theatres – in a quest to secure enough funding every season to recoup the cost of production - must bear some of the blame. But does price, apart from acting as an immediate barrier to entry for some customers, also act as its own signifier of what the event entails, and the audience it is appropriate for?

In 2009, BBC’s Question Time hosted writer Bonnie Greer and, among others, Nick Griffin, chairman of the radical BNP. The ordeal was such that Greer was inspired to write an opera chronicling the evening’s events. Performed at the end of 2011, Greer hoped Yes would make an effective contribution to the UK debate on both immigration and racism. Such substantive content is what media like opera need in order to maintain relevance.”It’s relatively recently that opera has been seen as an entertainment for the elite”, Greer commented. “It used to be a populist medium – I’d like to play some role in reinstating that status”. This runs counter to other contemporary productions, such as Stockhausen’s operatic sci-fi saga Licht, recently performed in Birmingham. At one point, a string orchestra ascends into the air in helicopters, while later a cellist performs lying on the floor. It would be remiss not to mention the climax of the production, which, Alex Ross, writing for The New Yorker, fails to describe: “Space does not permit a description of the scene in which [a] camel defecates seven planets”. It is hard to imagine such fare being everyone’s cup of tea. Indeed, it is this sort of seemingly self-interested, arcane and intellectually challenging art that is likely to turn people off an entire medium. Some institutions recognise this. Earlier this month the Royal Opera House hosted what they called the “first in a new series of live-streamed events to feature debate, performance, and audience questions”, around the question ‘Are opera and ballet elitist?‘.

In the past though, the Royal Opera House and other institutions have been too focused on short term gimmicks, with a focus on price, to get people through the door. The thinking is broadly logical: Why don’t more people come to the opera? / The opera is expensive / Lowering prices will attract more people to the opera. These three thoughts have plausible connections, but in reality little in common. Like ‘vulgar Marxism’, such an approach reduces the problem to its most simplistic attributes. It is a fallacy. Despite this, The Sun newspaper has in the past partnered with the ROH to offer tickets from GBP5-20. The scheme was a lottery system, guaranteeing few winners. It provides little opportunity for conversion into a regular customer. Meanwhile, both The Sun and the ROH achieve their aims of shifting brand perceptions. But there is far more that could be accomplished. The BBC reported positive reactions from those that took up the offer, “What The Sun is doing is fantastic – opening the opera up to people who wouldn’t normally be able to come”. This despite the fact that opera tickets are consistently available for GBP10 at the ROH, every season. Away from price, the English National Opera tried their own tactic in October last year, inviting people to enjoy the opera in “jeans and trainers”.  But does the problem of democratising opera really have its answer in allowing people to wear denim? It seems absurd to think that a one-off event of such a nature could really attract new, long-term audiences. Indeed, The Telegraph reported on the affair, saying the ENO was missing the point, that in fact it was the “alluring glamour” of the medium that was what attracted audiences the world over; “It turns opera into an everyday thing, rather than something exceptional and magical”, wrote Rupert Christiansen. He elaborates on the problem,

“[Opera] can make for an atmosphere that outsiders and newcomers find exclusive and intimidating: it’s as though there’s a set of rules that nobody is going to explain or even admit the existence of. This… rubs up the wrong way against the Arts Council’s understandable insistence that the granting of subsidy via taxpayers’ money should mean open access at reasonable prices. Squaring this circle is a formula that nobody has yet managed to crack.”

The outgoing director of the ROH, Tony Hall – on his way to assume a new post at the BBC – wrote diary entries published last weekend in the FT. He wrote about the recent partnership established with the Theatro Municpal in Rio. Like the ROH, they are also looking to attract new audiences: “An idea I particularly like is where every seat in the house for a day a year is sold on the day for a real (about 33p)”. On the face of it this sounds noble and effective. Who wouldn’t want to see any form of entertainment, let alone an extravagantly produced opera, for a mere 33p? But let’s think about it. Doing this one day a year is miserly. It hardly encourages upselling, or long-term commitment. What it most assuredly encourages is that one day a year the opera house attracts plenty of press coverage as people line the streets queueing for such cheap tickets. Cheap tickets for one day a year is an act that smacks of condescension. And what of the price itself? Zeitgeist has written before about the power of behavioural economics. McKinsey have an interesting article on the study. To wit, for most people, consciously or otherwise, price is an overriding symbol of value. Price is used often, especially by premium brands, as a means of framing the product versus its peers. We often make irrational purchases on big-ticket items (a car being chief among these). Conversely, when something is cheap, especially when perceived as ‘too’ cheap, the consumer questions why it is at such a price, acting with suspicion. At its simplest, pricing tickets to the opera at 33p implies that it might not be something you would enjoy. The first reaction – often the most powerful – instilled in the consumer is one of trepidation.

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The Globe theatre has a simple, long-term strategy for attracting new audiences

Just as with the current government’s wrangling over minimum pricing policies for alcohol, the approach from the arts to occasionally allow the unwashed masses into their buildings misses the point. In the case of alcohol, the scheme was mainly invented to curb youth drinking, especially among the ‘working class’. But, as The Economist points out, “People on the lowest incomes, who are most price-sensitive, are surprisingly abstemious anyway; those in rich parts of the country, such as the south-east, consume copiously”. Shakespeare’s Globe does a good job of making the Bard’s plays accessible, with standing tickets for GBP5, something that Zeitgeist has taken advantage of several times over the years. It is one of the few artistic houses to have preserved this manner of watching a performance. It upholds tradition while at the same time ensuring the plays have access to a broader public. The Royal Court Theatre in London’s Sloane Square offers a few standing tickets for every performance for a mere 10p. It’s a great idea to have this option as a constant as, apart from anything else, it increases the likelihood of having returning customers who can be upsold to – or cross-sold to in the bar downstairs. Zeitgeist imagines however that the theatre could easily get away with charging ten times the amount for a standing ticket, with zero depreciable effect.

There is no doubt that a certain amount of price elasticity indeed exists with items like tickets to the opera. But occasionally releasing cheap tickets is not the whole answer. There are larger questions here on arts funding and the absence of dedicated, large-scale philanthropy in the UK that have not been discussed here, but will be important in encouraging accessibility to the arts. Earlier we mentioned the recent debate the ROH hosted asking whether people thought opera and ballet to be elitist. The problem with such a question is it immediately consigns the word ‘elitist’ to a pejorative category. One of the greatest points Jon Stewart ever made – now some years back – on The Daily Show, was that the word ‘elite’ should in some contexts be a good thing, something to be embraced. That some people excel in a certain discipline is something to be celebrated. That some art transcends others, is beautiful, challenging, creative and stimulating is something to be cherished. Instead the word and concept have become uniformly demonised. Though one could easily question ‘canon’ texts in any medium, there should be no need to mask something that is perceived as being ‘high art’, rather attention should only be paid to debunking any preconceptions about its exclusivity. Quick price gouges are most certainly not the answer to improving access to these forms of art. It takes time, relevance and above all a security in the knowledge that not everyone has to enjoy every type of entertainment. Just provide them with opportunities to be sufficiently exposed to it, without making it seem like you’re deigning to include them.

Selling the extraordinary

February 4, 2013 5 comments

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“Everything has become more experiential”

- Dante D’Angelo, brand and consumer development director at Valentino

It is an odd state of affairs indeed for the retail sector at the moment. On the one hand, consumers are flocking to digital devices like never before, particularly for their shopping. Conversely, this means that the physical experience of shopping becomes rarer, creating more opportunities for specialism. An article in the Financial Times a few weeks ago read as if a commercial plague had swept through the UK high street over the past few years. With 4,000 stores affected, 2012 was, according to data from the Centre for Retail Research, the “worst year since the start of the credit crisis in 2008″. Names of erstwhile stalwarts like Woolworth’s, Jessop’s, Peacocks and Clinton Cards have all fallen under the knife. As we wrote at the beginning of last month, what little salvation there is lies in embracing digital technologies.

The luxury sector however has its own special, gilt-edged cards to play. In St. Tropez, the Christian Dior boutique’s ample courtyard has recently been made use of with an all-day restaurant. Louis Vuitton have a cinema screening classic Italian films in their Rome boutique. It’s no wonder such brands have also branched into the hospitality sector, the former working with the St. Regis to develop branded rooms, the latter into full-scale hotel management. Ferragamo have been involved in the hotel sector for years. Two recent examples show how companies can extend the experience for visitors, and help drive revenue at the same time.

The auction house Sotheby’s will tomorrow auction a rather large collection of surrealist art. One of the few things that definitively puts it ahead of Christie’s is that it has its own cafe, which, last week and this week, is pushing the surrealism theme into its catering (see above menu). It’s a simple, creative idea that creates a cohesive brand, celebrates a big event, and ultimately hopes to drive revenue from peripheral streams around the auction. The RA’s current Manet exhibition is taking a leaf from this tactic, opening later but charging double the usual rates for a special experience, including a drink and a guide. The other interesting news of note was a new tactic being employed by the fashion company Valentino. Not content merely with having a major exhibition at London’s Somerset House, the label is also tinkering in an innovative way with its event structure. As detailed last week in Bloomberg Businessweek, Valentino is opening a new boutique in New York later this year, during which the typical glitterati will be in attendance. However, the new idea comes in the form of the company inviting prized customers to the opening for the chance to rub shoulders with said VIPs, for a steep price. Similarly, Gucci is offering its non-VIP customers tours of its Florence workshops for the first time.

Something that Zeitgeist has been noticing for a couple of years now, recently echoed by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) senior partner Jean-Marc Bellaiche, is the importance, particularly for those in their 20s – like Zeitgeist – that people place in defining themselves by what they’ve done rather than what they own: “In an era of over-consumption, people are realizing that there is more than just buying products… Buying experiences provides more pleasure and satisfaction”. On a macro level there is significant bifurcation in the retail market; not everyone will be able to afford in creating extraordinary experiences for their customers. A recent BCG report helps illustrate this, noting that while the apparel sector as a whole saw shareholder returns fall by 1.3% for the period 2007-2011, the top ten players produced a weighted average annual total shareholder return of 19%. Expect then for retailers – those that can – to increasingly provide exclusive experiences to their customers, beyond the celebrity, whether it be early product releases, tours, or events. Just don’t expect it to come without a pricetag.

The state of retail

January 6, 2013 7 comments
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The love of the bargain is what drives them… Click for CNBC’s coverage

It’s a common fallacy to think of a time before a change in status quo as somehow being magically problem-free. A Panglossian world where all was well and nothing needed to change, and wasn’t it a shame that it had to. Similarly, we cannot blithely consign the retail industry of the past to some glorious era when everything was perfect; far from it. The industry has been under continual evolution, with no absence of controversy on the way. It was therefore a timely reminder, as well as being a fascinating article in its own right, when the New York Times provided readers recently with a potted history and a gaze into the future of Manhattan department store stalwart, Barneys. Not only is their past one in which the original proprietor sought to undercut his own suit suppliers, creating a bootlegging economy by literally ripping out their labels and replacing them with his own, but it was also one where department stores served a very different purpose to what they do today. They had less direct competition, not least unforeseen competition in the form of shops without a physical presence. Moreover, today they are run in an extremely different way, with an arguably much healthier emphasis on revenue (though some might say this comes at the expense of a feeling of luxury, in a lobby now brimming with handbags and little breathing room). The problems and opportunities for Barneys could serve as an analogy for the industry of which it is a part.

Despite brief reprieves such as Black Friday (click on headline image for CNBC’s coverage), as well as the expected post-Christmas shopping frenzy, can one of the main problems affecting retail at the moment simply be that it is undergoing an industry-wide bout of creative destruction? Zeitgeist has written about the nature of creative destruction before, and whether or not that is to blame for retail’s woes, the sector is certainly in the doldrums. In the UK, retailers are expecting a “challenging” year ahead. Recent research from Deloitte shows 194 retailers fell into administration in 2012, compared with 183 in 2011 and 165 in 2010. So, unlike the general economy, which broadly can be said to be enjoying a sclerotic recovery of sorts, the state of retail is one of continuing decline. How did this happen, and what steps can be taken to address this?

Zeitgeist would argue that bricks and mortar stores are suffering in essence due to a greater amount of competition. By which, we do not just mean more retailers, on different platforms. Whether it be from other activities (e.g. gaming, whether MMOs like World of Warcraft or simpler social gaming like Angry Birds), or other avenues of shopping (i.e. e-commerce, which Morgan Stanley recently predicted would be a $1 trillion dollar market by 2016), there is less time to shop and more ways to do it. The idea of going to shop in a mall now – once a staple of American past-time – is a much rarer thing today. It would be naive to ignore global pressures from other suppliers and brands around the world as putting a competitive strain on domestic retailers too. Critically, and mostly due to social media, there are now so many more ways and places to reach a consumer that it is difficult for the actual sell to reach the consumer’s ears. This is in part because companies have had to extend their brand activity to such peripheries that the lifestyle angle (e.g. Nike Plus) supercedes the call-to-action, i.e. the ‘BUY ME’. The above video from McKinsey nicely illustrates all the ways that CMOs have to think about winning consumers over, which now extend far beyond the store.

If we look at the in-store experience for a moment without considering externalities, there is certainly opportunity that exists for the innovative retailer. Near the end of last year, the Financial Times published a very interesting case study on polo supplier La Martina. The company’s origins are in making quality polo equipment, from mallets to helmets and everything in between, for professional players. As they expanded – a couple of years ago becoming the principle sponsor of that melange of chic and chav, the Cartier tournament at Guards Polo Club – there came a point where the company had to decide whether it was going to be a mass-fashion brand, or remain something more select and exclusive. As the article in the FT quite rightly points out, “Moving further towards the fashion mainstream risked diluting the brand and exposing it to volatile consumer tastes.” The decision was made to seek what was known as ‘quality volume’. The company has ensured the number of distributors remains low. Zeitgeist would venture to say this doesn’t stop the clothing design itself straying from its somewhat more refined roots, with large logos and status-seeking colours and insignia. Financially though, sales are “growing more than 20% a year in Europe and Latin America”, which is perhaps what counts most currently.

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Louis Vuitton’s ‘L’ecriture est un voyage‘ is a good example of experimental thinking and missed opportunities

In the higher world of luxury retail, Louis Vuitton is often at the forefront (not least because of its sustained and engaging digital work). While we’re focusing purely on retail environments though, it was interesting to note that the company recently set up shop (literally) on the left bank of Paris; a pop-up literary salon, to be precise. Such strokes of inspiration and innovation are not uncommon at Vuitton. They help show the brand in a new light, and, crucially, help leverage its provenance and differentiate it from its competition. Sadly, when Zeitgeist went to visit, there was a distinct feeling of disappointment that much more could have been done with the space, which, while nicely curated (see above), did little to sell the brand, particularly as literally nothing was for sale. The stand-out piece, an illustrated edition of Kerouac’s On the Road, by Ed Ruscha, Zeitgeist had seen around two years ago when it was on show at the Gagosian in London. Not every new idea works, but it is important that Louis Vuitton is always there at the forefront, trying and mostly succeeding.

So what ways are there that retailers should be innovating, perhaps beyond the store? One of the more infuriating things Zeitgeist hears constructed as a polemic is that of retail versus the smartphone. This is a very literal allusion, which NBC news were guilty of toward the end of last year. “Retail execs say they’re winning the battle versus smartphones”, the headline blared. What a more nuanced analysis of the situation would realise is that it is less a case of one versus the other, than one helping the other. The store and the phone are both trying to achieve the same things, namely, help the consumer and drive revenue for the company. Any retail strategy should avoid at all costs seeing these two as warring platforms, if only because it is mobile inevitably that will win. With much more sound thinking, eConsultancy recently published an article on the merits of providing in-store WiFi. At first this seems a risky proposition, especially if we are to follow NBC’s knee-jerk way of thinking, i.e. that mobile poses a distinct threat to a retailer’s revenue. The act of browsing in-store, then purchasing a product on a phone is known as showrooming, and, no doubt aided by the catchy name, its supposed threat has quickly made many a store manager nervous. However, as the eConsultancy article readily concedes, this trend is unavoidable, and it can either be ignored or embraced. Deloitte estimated in November that smartphones and tablets will yield almost $1bn in M-commerce revenues over the Christmas period in the UK, and influence in-store sales with a considerably larger value. That same month in the US, Bain & Co. estimated that “digital will influence more than 50% of all holiday retail sales, or about $400 billion”. Those retailers who are going to succeed are the ones who will embrace mobile, digital and their opportunities. eConsultancy offer,

“For example, they could prompt customers to visit web pages with reviews of the products they are considering in store. This could be a powerful driver of sales… WiFi in store also provides a way to capture customer details and target them with offers. In fact, many customers would be willing to receive some offers in return for the convenience of accessing a decent wi-fi network. Tesco recently introduced this in its larger stores… 74% of respondents would be happy for a retailer to send a text or email with promotions while they’re using in-store WiFi.”

These kind of features all speak more broadly to improving and simplifying the in-store experience. They also illustrate a trend in the blending between the virtual and physical retail spaces. Major retailers, not just in luxury, are leading the way in this. Walmart hopes to generate $9bn in digital sales by the end of its next fiscal year. CEO Mike Duke told Fast Company, “The way our customers shop in an increasingly interconnected world is changing”. This interconnectedness is not new, but it is accelerating, and the mainstream arrival of 4G will only help spur it on further. The company is soon to launch a food subscription service, pairing registrants with gourmet, organic, ethnic foods, spear-headed by @WalmartLabs, which is also launching a Facebook gifting service. At the same time, it must be said the company is hedging its bets, continuing with the questionable strategy of building more ‘Supercenters’, the first of which, at the time a revolutionary concept, they opened in 1988.

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One interesting development has been the arrival of stores previously restricted to being online into the high street, something which Zeitgeist noted last year. This trend has continued, with eBay recently opening a pop-up store in London’s Covent Garden. These examples are little more than gimmicks though, serving only to remind consumers of the brands’ online presence. Amazon are considering a much bolder move, that of creating permanent physical retail locations, if, as CEO Jeff Bezos says, they can come up with a “truly differentiated idea”. That idea and plan would be anathema to those at Walmart, Target et al., who see Amazon as enough of a competitor as it is, especially with their recent purchase of diapers.com and zappos.com. It serves to illustrate why Walmart’s digital strategies are being taken so seriously internally and invested in so heavily. Amazon though has its own reasons for concern. Earlier in the article we referenced the influence of global pressures on retailers. Amazon is by no means immune to this. Chinese online retailer Tmall will overtake Amazon in sales to become the world’s largest internet retailer by 2016, when Tmall’s sales are projected to hit $100 billion that year, compared to $94 billion for Amazon. The linked article illustrates a divide in the purpose of retail platforms. While Amazon is easy-to-use, engaging and aesthetically pleasing, a Chinese alternative like Taobao is much more bare-bones. As the person interviewed for the article says, “It’s more about pricing – it’s much cheaper. It’s not about how great the experience is. Amazon has a much better experience I guess – but the prices are better on Taobao.”

So how can we make for a more flexible shopping experience? One which perhaps recognises the need in some users to be demanding a sumptuous retail experience, and in others the need for a quick, frugal bargain? Some permutations are beginning to be analysed, and offered. Some of these permutations are being met with caution by media and shoppers. This month, the Wall Street Journal reported that retailer Staples has developed a complex pricing strategy online. Specifically, the WSJ found, it raises prices more than 86% of the time when it finds the online shopper has a physical Staples store nearby. Similar such permutations in other areas are now eminently possible, thanks in no small part to the rise of so-called Big Data. Though the Staples price fluctuations were treated with controversy at the WSJ, they do point to a more realistic supply-and-demand infrastructure, which could really fall under the umbrella of consumer ‘fairness’, that mythical goal for which retailers strive. Furthemore, being able to access CRM data and attune communications programmes to people in specific geographical areas might enable better and more efficient targeting. Digital also allows for a far more immersive experience on the consumer side. ASOS illustrate this particularly well with their click-to-buy videos.

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As the Boston Consulting Group point out in a recent report, with the understated title ‘Digital’s Disruption of Consumer Goods and Retail’,  “the first few waves of the digital revolution have upended the retail industry. The coming changes promise even more turmoil”. This turmoil also presents problems and opportunities for the marketing of retail services, which must be subject to just as much change. If we look at the print industry,  also comparatively shaken by digital disruption, it is interesting to note the way in which the very nature of it has had to change, as well as the way its benefits are communicated. It is essential that retailers not see the havoc being waged on their businesses as an opportunity to ‘stick to what they do best’ and bury their head in the sand. This is the time for them to drive innovation, yes at the risk of an unambitious quarterly statement, and embrace digital and specifically M-commerce. What makes this easy for those companies that have so far resisted the call is that there is ample evidence of retailers big and small, value-oriented to luxury-minded, who have already embraced these new ideas and platforms. Their successes and failures serve as great templates for future executions. And who knows, the state of retail might not be such a bad one to live in after all. Until the next revolution…

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