Consumers shop less and emphasize relationships and branding more.
Back in the '60s, while attending the Harvard School of Retailing, Morris Saffer pioneered the philosophy that "The Store is a Brand". As the Millennium begins to crowd us, the concept has added relevance. Examples of adherents? IKEA, of course, and the Home Furniture/Home Hardware family of retail outlets.
Consider Millard Drexler's comments. President and driving marketing force of the GAP organization, he said "The Gap, Gapkids, Banana Republic and Old Navy Clothing Company are not so much stores as they are quality brands....brands which are indelibly printed on customer's minds through marketing consistency."
And Michael Gould, CEO of Bloomingdale's, remarked "We are something more than a department store. What is the power of our franchise? It is the Power of the Brand."
Just one more quote. Dr. Oren Harari declared that "Branding is the essence of competitive advantage." It's what makes you unique, stand out from the competition.
What does branding mean to you? Consider the state of our marketplace. We all know there are fewer shoppers. Surveys indicate trips to shopping malls are down 35 percent and hours spent 70 percent. People just don't have time any more. So you must see to it the trip is worthwhile and exciting for shoppers who visit your store. Unless you do, you'll miss an enormous opportunity to build rapport with your customer. They must feel an affinity with you. If there's no relationship, you cannot create a branded future. There must be a feeling you want to work together. Customers talk about shopping, it's therapy for them, something they enjoy. When stores let them down, they resent it in personal terms.
Morris Saffer was keynote speaker at a recent gathering of Home Furniture/Home Hardware dealers. His agency has worked with Home for more than 15 years and is responsible for creating the "Home of the Handyman" slogan as well as the current campaign, "Help is Close to Home". He has also devised the new look of Home's national flyers, all of which define Home's uniqueness to the consumer. "Home is an incredible branding success story. It has grown stronger and stronger, one of the first organizations in Canada to learn the concept. The essence of competitive advantage is how are you unique, what makes you special, how you stand out in the mind of the consumer. Brand is what it's all about. You must do the same thing every day, be consistent every day."
The Saffer agency is the first in North America to specialize in retail advertising. Morris was elected to the Retail Advertising Hall of Fame in 1997, and the Saffer agency has won hundreds of awards including last year's Gold from the Retail Council for the best advertising in Canada, the Hudson's Bay commercial starring Celine Dion. Morris, now Chairman, founded the International Retail Advertising and Marketing Association (RAMA) which includes just about every major retailer in North America. This year, RAMA recognized Morris' contribution by establishing the Morris Saffer Retail Branding Award whose inaugural winner was Pier One stores.
Saffer insists the marketplace "makes us all students. We should take time to reflect on the polarization of opportunity for retailers. You either cater to the rich or to the poor. And in the 'poor' category you can certainly put the middle class clinging by their fingertips to the North American dream. This squeeze on the middle class is especially critical in Canada. We are only a middle class market. There is no huge upscale market and thankfully no huge downscale. The only two truly mass markets in Canada are middle and lower middle. The result of this is to pitch most chain retailers against each other for a high percentage of their core business. If you're going to limit yourself to upscale marketing you have to severely limit your number of stores, which is exactly Harry Rosen's and Holt Renfrew's successful strategy. You had better find your niche and fit in.
"Branding is attitude," said Saffer. "You must control that attitude if you are going to succeed. Most critically, it is your customers who brand you, who buy into your total package. Ask your customers what's important to them. Specific selling must be done in brand character. It just means you must sell in your own unique way.
"Never forget," he warned, "that retailing is not brain surgery; shopping must still be fun. The reality is that retailing remains more merchandising, the selling of what's in the store, than marketing, having in store what the customer wants. This situation is serious. The opportunities to brand your identity are eroding along with the mass market and the customers changing attitudes and needs.
"We're confronting more speed, more choice, more competition. And interestingly, this helps the independent retailer every bit as much, maybe more, than the big chains. Smaller stores, more conveniently located, can make a major branding impact.
"So, we need to understand and listen to our customers. The marketplace is changing all around us all the time; it's increasingly easy to get left behind if you miss the signals. The line between retailers and manufacturers is blurring as they attack this mutual problem. You have to wake up every morning thinking about your customers.
"Don't forget the Age Wave. We've been preaching the aging baby boomer warning year after year. The 45 to 54 year old population is growing by 37 percent and the over 55s by 62 percent. Seventy-six million baby boomers will hit 50 -- one boomer every 7-1/2 seconds for the next 18 years. This age change is accompanied by an equally emphatic attitude change and one example is the dramatic move from disposable fashion to durable fashion, to needs rather than wants. More and more the marketplace is demanding that you choose your niche.
"Profit and growth are stimulated primarily by customer loyalty. If you can keep just five percent of your current customers from defecting you can greatly impact your bottom line. Customers must perceive they are getting value. Devote yourself to keeping your customers happy. It will be a marketplace where only the branded survive. Be in the right niche, be consistent, provide the right service to your customer. I have no fears about smallness, I have fears about incompetence.
"Your Core Brand Mission," he insists, "is preserve, protect, progress. The battle for survival will be the battle of the brands. You must have your own set of objectives to be ready to flourish in the next Millennium.
"As we enter the 21st Century, the battle for survival will truly be the battle of the best branded retailers. It's more than being bigger, or having better logistics, or even dominating a category. You must have a Core Brand Mission. Your objective is to always preserve and protect the core while stimulating progress. Simply put, if it's not core, change it! Above all you must have a philosophy, a core mission, and you must believe. If we don't keep learning we lose. Listen to your customers. Learn from them, learn to adapt!"