The Changing Retail Landscape

January 22 2015


These days, it’s tough to be a small retailer. As I’ve been out and about in neighborhoods that range from Park Slope, Brooklyn to Soho, NYC, I’m noticing so many empty storefronts where local retailers used to be. At the same time, many off-price, national retailers are successfully setting up shop. Nordstrom Rack, T.J. Maxx and Neiman Marcus Last Call have all opened on the Brooklyn Mall, and they are packed with customers. People are shopping away online, despite the risks of their information being hacked as it was at Target. So consumers are consuming, but infrequently with the independent shops.


It’s a trend, for sure. Small retailers with a strong brand and distinctive wares can still make it, but the economies of scale for larger retailers are hard to beat. There still exists a strong interest in the handmade, artisanal and unique – hence the success of Etsy, and Blake Lively’s new website venture Preserve, which showcases a curated group of USA-based artisans whose offerings span a variety of disciplines. Local food shops prosper as the trend towards food provenance and the public’s interest in protecting the environment continues to expand.


I’m sad to see a kind of depressed quality on what used to be shopping streets like 7th Avenue in Brooklyn. What’s the solution? It lies with price, originality, and vision, as well as paying attention to the holes in the marketplace so that you can provide products that consumers cannot find elsewhere on the local level. And as always with retail, it’s about being personal and forming relationships, one of the cornerstones of brand strategy and brand building.

What's Old in New Again: Cool Old Folks

January 14 2015

Here’s a trend I’ve been noticing for some time now, certainly in the UK marketplace. There is a new focus on projects that are inspired by stylish and accomplished older folks. I first noticed it when Tim Walker published “The Granny Alphabet” in 2013. Beginning with the letter A, the text by Kit Hesketh-Harvey establishes the book’s intentions: “A is for alphabet, (ABC), and aged ancestors (Awfully like me.) Twenty-six letters, that’s twenty-six Grannies.” Walker describes the book as both a photographic love letter to the elderly as well as part documentation of a dying breed of little old ladies, with all proceeds going to the charity The Friends of the Elderly. It’s incredibly adorable.


From Tim Walker's The Granny Alphabet

Interestingly enough, I do notice when I’m in the UK that older people are not scorned, shut away, or buffed down with Botox the way can be here in our youth-obsessed culture in the US. Right now, Todd Selby has shot The Bright Old Things for Selfridge’s, the upscale and enduring retailer based on Oxford Street in London. The campaign is dedicated to gifted artists, artisans and designers who have embraced new professions and disciplines in their senior years. They range from a topiarist (who even knew that existed?) to a punk hero to a Vlogger to a painter. Selfridge’s has also installed an in-store and online boutique where you can buy these talented oldsters’ work .


Selfridges

I can remember my cousin’s incredibly cool grandma Gert. She was a total original, very effervescent and funny, who frequently entertained in diamonds and a peignoir, while lavishly serving champagne and chocolates. She had a dedicated suitor and was a gifted storyteller and magical, creative presence in everyone’s life. One day, I’m hoping to be a Bright Old Thing myself, and love that I have creative inspiration to build on in my own family. Who's your Bright Old Thing?

It’s Nutty: Almond Milk’s Increasing Market Expansion

January 09 2014

Buying milk is not as easy as it used to be! Gone are the days when we would buy an important part of the daily staple very inexpensively as retailers used it to tempt buyers into their shops. Now we are assailed by choices of many different types of milk from coconut to soy. Is there anything in it?

A recent addition to the plethora of milk replacers or substitutes is almond milk. Unflavored almond milk has no animal fats, no soy, no lactose and is low in calories but many prefer the flavored versions which have sugars, gums and other additives. Silk almond milk has set itself against dairy milks as evident from the Silk almond milk carton, which affirmatively declares that "Dairy Milk is getting jealous!" This is an interesting marketing move, as by doing so, they are also taking market share from their own line of soy milks.


via

So does almond milk sell well? Undoubtedly. In 2011 almond milk sales increased 79% and in 2013 sales surpassed those of soy milk! And how about pricing? In equivalent sizes, almond milk retails for 25% or more than dairy milk, so customers must be drawn by something other than price. Almond milk is touted as being better for your health, as there are concerns about the estrogen in soy, it appeals to consumers with lactose intolerance, and there is also a move within the natural and alternative community away from cow's milk. Consumers also want to know what they are drinking or giving their children contains no growth hormones or GMOs, which is a claim that Almond Milk fulfills and puts front and center.

All this begs the question of whether dairy milk will retaliate and, if so, how. The move towards alternative milks has been going on for years, and will only continue to pick up speed. It's part of the larger consumer trend towards having more control and knowledge about what they are eating, as well as the abiding Boomer interest in longevity. It has certainly been documented in countless surveys that Boomers seem to see death as an option, not an inevitability, and that they believe that good eating and heart health will help them live forever. Almond milk fits the anti-aging profile -- hence it's popularity with a large sector of the population.

Will the dairy industry be able to assure consumers that they are still the best choice for their health? Have they become too accustomed to US Government subsidies so that they have lost their competitive spirit? Only time will tell.

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Market Trending: Kmart Raps Its Way to the Top

August 23 2013

Retailers go through cycles in which they gain and then lose market share. Of course, the reasons for these cycles are complex, ranging from everything to being out of touch with consumer tastes and trends, downturns in the economic cycles to making mistakes in repositioning their offerings and brand voice. Currently suffering mightily in public perception and market confidence is the Kmart franchise. In 2012 they shut down eighty-four stores, but they have been dealing with declining sales for the past six years.

Market trends have shown the business’ decline is mainly due toe loss of popularity among younger consumers. Feeling desperate to staunch their losses and bad PR, and In order to appeal to a hipper teen audience, Kmart is now trying to refine their brand image by teaming up with viral sensation Da Rich Kids, a group of young rappers all younger than age thirteen. Kmart asked the group to create a rap song about the discount store and thus “My Limo” was born.

    

                                                       Image via www.fastcocreate.com

My Limo has already received millions of views and is featured in the retailer’s latest television commercial. This new partnership may push Kmart back up the ranks and sway younger generations to shop at KMart, but the affiliation seems a bit out of left field. In addition, there have been a few reports of older customers being unhappy that the rap commercial portrays only African-American children promoting a brand that is known for low prices. However, the ads are too new to calculate exactly how big or small the effect has been so far with any of their target audiences.

Keep in mind that brands must be credible in order to cement consumer loyalty and maintain longevity in the marketplace. Kmart would need a family of products with legs that are in alignment with the spirit of My Life and that would continue to attract the same type of audience. A flash in the pan doesn’t work long term at retail, as it’s critical to maintain your brand voice in everything you do. Hence the consistent success of brands such as Burberry, Diesel, and Vans, who really know what they are doing in this regard.

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Macy's and Martha: Managing an Awkward Brand Moment

May 29 2013

By now, most of you members of the shopping public are aware of the contentious court battle between Macy's and J.C. Penney over Martha Stewart's Home Collection. Now, Martha has a long history of selling different products and product categories with retailers other than Macy's. She produces a line of carpets for FLOR, a number of furniture collections with Bernhardt, sold a lower-end line of paint and linens with K-Mart, and sells home office products through Staple's. It was only the J.C. Penney deal that would have infringed on Macy's, in which J.C. Penney was hoping to sell kitchen, bedroom and bath goods that would compete directly with Macy's. Martha's Home Collection is the anchor of "The Cellar" at Macy's, where the retailer offers up all of its tabletop, cookware and home goods from a variety of vendors. Martha's products are an essential draw that brings customers into this department nationwide. 

So, what was Martha thinking? Did she think that Macy's needed her so badly that they would simply accept her actions? I don't know, but I would imagine that J.C. Penney's was offering a better cut of the profits, important as Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia's earnings are down. None the less, Martha has a history of making some strange choices. Who knows the psychology behind her self-destructive moves, (remember the insider trading conviction, and the ankle bracelet, which are hard to forget)? She has had such an enormous influence over late twentieth sensibilities, home aesthetics, and how we live that one would think that she could rest secure in her enduring legacy, but that doesn't seem to be part of her emotional make-up and drive. She also seems unable to understand that her actions create reactions. Did she actually think that Macy's would roll over?

                            

                                               Macy's Martha Stuart Collection direct mail

Ultimately, Macy's has won the Martha battle, and has handled the crisis in an interesting way. The whole court battle played out in the media, and was never a crisis that was acknowledged or communicated directly between Macy's and their customers. It was simply not addressed, and played out in the background. Now that the issue is resolved, Macy's has handled the win in a graceful way. Hence, the direct mail piece that arrived last week. It doesn't say, "Martha's still here," or "Martha's back." It merely reminds you to come and shop Martha's Home Collection at Macy's; with Martha herself featured front and center on the piece. Very classy brand management, I must say.

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What is a Lifestyle store, anyway?

March 06 2013

A very enjoyable part of my time over the past many years has been spent assigning lifestyle photography, or in developing brand strategy and providing creative direction for lifestyle photographers and photo agencies that represent lifestyle creatives. As a brand strategist and trendwatcher, I'm always paying attention to the marketplace, in particular to the ways in which brand touch points are connected or disconnected where they intersect with their varied audiences and customers. I'm also very sensitive to the language aspect of branding, as my clients well know. Your brand name, the category you use to describe your brand, and the language you use to describe your brand can be as potent as any tool in your arsenal.

On to the category of lifestyle stores. The rise of the uber-lifestyle brand at retail really came to prominence about twenty years ago, with the push forward of stand–alone stores for brands like Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, and Anthropologie. These brands created highly cultivated destinations that offered an encapsulated view of a particular kind of life, one where you could carry the brand home in many forms -- from women's fashion to homewares, like bedding and tableware, to fashion accessories –- all in one place, and not presented in the fragmented department store environment. These lifestyle brands offered product options at different price points, so that you could bring home a twenty dollar cup or a thousand dollars gown. They offered an easy, transporting experience where consumers could easily envision themselves as part of the romantic Anthropologie or minimalist Calvin Klein lifestyle and aesthetic.

Today I was walking down Madison Avenue in NYC, where I passed the well-known card shop and e-tailer, Papyrus. Right there in the window they claimed to be a lifestyle store. I thought to myself, “They are a shop that sells different kinds of paper goods!” feeling quite surprised by their claims. Then I read their window signage, only to find that their definition of lifestyle means that they offer custom printing as well as a full-line of Cranes papers. The outcome: I was let down, and I felt misled.

Folks, this is not what you want when you put your brand out there in public. A basic tenet of brand strategy involves never promising something that you can’t deliver every time. Papyrus is clearly not a lifestyle store. They are a gift and card shop with additional customer friendly services.

The moral: I’m reminding you to think carefully and analytically before you put your brand out there, so that you know what you stand for, and communicate it accurately. This will help you to attract and retain loyal customers. 

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Pinning for Money and Fun in the USA and abroad

February 21 2013

How many of you are on Pinterest these days? It has become a vital tool for those of us who are highly visual, or in a visual profession, and who want a fluid and easy place to park their online image “scrapbook” for easy reference. Personally, I’m obsessed with it! In a funny way, I find that how I approach collecting images on specific topics and areas on Pinterest has much in common with the way that I edit photography for portfolios, books, websites, etc. I like to begin with a huge pull of images, frequently in the many hundreds, and then I am able to tunnel down into the core visual through-line in a photographer’s work. Now I'm doing the same for myself, and it’s a pleasurable exercise in collecting and editing.

Many American brands and retailers are also very much on board with Pinterest. In interviews, they state again and again that Pinterest is driving sales in a quantifiable way that they don’t necessarily see in other social media. It allows consumers to paste and share products in an appealing way, and to go back to their scrapbook, have a holistic view of the things that they love, and then to easily purchase the products they’ve pinned. Sometimes it’s not so easily quantifiable, as consumers frequently use Pinterest as a research tool which might then indirectly drive a purchase through looking at their own, or other pinners, collection of aspirational fashion or home décor or design images. Pinners are also repinning other images they find on Pinterest, or pinning from all over the online universe. Magazines have a strong roll to play in this environment, as they provide a great source of many aspirational images that then drive a more down-to-earth purchase.

Interestingly enough, in the course of my own time spent in pursuing images for my Pinterest board, I’ve found that it’s really difficult to pin from European home décor magazines. Whereas most American magazines have made a major push into providing ancillary and original content on their websites, most of the European magazines I visited online are far behind. They seem to see the online environment as one in which they should hold back content and force (or frustrate) the consumer into buying the print magazine. I’m curious to know how that’s working for them. Is World of Interiors more successful at retaining their print subscribers with their opaque website than a comparable magazine like Architectural Digest, which is making at least some content of value available? I don’t know, but I can say that in the new Pinterest world, I find myself more interested in interacting with brands that make my pinning most inspirational and easiest. 

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Anthropologie: A Faux Heritage Brand Hits the High Street

February 12 2013

 

          Anthropologie Regent Street's living plant wall, Image via www.businessoffashion.com


Major lifestyle and clothing retail chain Anthropologie, with over 147 stores in the U.S., and six in Canada, operates only two stores outside of North America—both in London. That’s a far cry from parent company Urban Outfitters, which racks up an impressive twenty-five UK locations, plus sixteen others throughout Western Europe. Catering to the universal teenaged fast-fashion set, Urban Outfitters has been able to easily make a name for itself within the European market. Anthropologie’s two London locations are fairly new, and are definitely an experiment for the brand.  So why the “pessimistic economic predictions” on the opening of the London locations from Vogue.co.uk?

A love of heritage brands is ingrained in British sensibility—from the royal family to Liberty of London, which has maintained its position as England's premier department storesince 1875. Liberty is still selected each year by the readers of Time Out London as the top shopping destination in the UK. So as a faux-heritage brand, one wonders in what way Anthropologie will be able to find a place in a country with actual heritage. In the U.S, vintage is a longstanding trend, as shoppers and merchants either connect to our real shared past or fabricated an idealized sense of what it means to be an American. Hence the success of Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, two brands that have constructed billion dollar businesses around the beauty and romance of what America never has been, but aspires to be. 

So why bring a faux-heritage mall brand like Anthopologie to Britain? First off, their girlish, embellished, romantic clothes and lifestyle items do fit in well with how British woman dress, and live. A friend there recently told me that his mom and her friends are starting to flock to Anthropologie. These women "get" the brand. They want pretty, and decorative.  On a certain level, it's also an investment brand, as this part of Americana does not come cheap. Antrhopologie is coming up against British high street brands with a more contemporary sensibility, so there may be a place for them in the market.

 

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H & M and COS, A Low and (some) Version of High Fashion

January 03 2013

The last few times I've been in London, where fast fashion is a way of life, I stumbled into what appeared to be a chainlet named Company of Style, aka COS. Initially, I didn't know that the simple, pared down designs and palette at COS was the work of a new brand design studio at H & M.

It turns out that COS is H & M's foray into a higher price point, although most items are still priced under $100.00 and thus very accessible for what seems to be well-made, streamlined design. Their tagline is Timeless, Modern, Tactile and Functional, and I have to admit that I'm seduced by this brand. I really feel that they got it right — it's very strong, controlled brand management, and is a concept that will do well no matter where it travels. The store design, by William Russell of Pentagram, London (love them! I loved working with Michael Beirut from Pentagram in the past), and his angular, restrained store design and layout brings the architectural quality of the clothing to life. Other retailers should heed how well H & M is managing and rolling out this brand. The store has already opened in 51 stores in the UK, France, the Netherlands, Italy and Sweden, of course. They have also just opened their first shop in Asia.

Of course, I'm awaiting their entry into the US market, where their brand of chic simplicity at an affordable price point will play very well in urban and exurban centers. C'mon over, COS!

 

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The (Guilty) Pleasures of Gentrification

January 25 2012

This morning when I was walking to work I saw, to my surprise, that H & M is opening a store on the Fulton Mall here in Brooklyn, right down the block from my studio. Hmmm, I thought, this is getting interesting. The Fulton Mall is turning into another version of East 86th Street, that outdoor uptown shopping “mall” on the Upper East Side. In a real harbinger of what’s to come, Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack also opened about a month ago, which is also the best and upscale fast food option anchoring the shopping area on 86th Street.

For many years now the Fulton Mall has been perceived as an inner city shopping non-destination. Even the presence of Macy’s, situated in the landmarked Abraham & Strauss building, had no effect on the mix of low-end retailers, fried fish joints and MacDonald-like food options that line the street. Meanwhile, Atlantic Avenue in Cobble Hill has gentrified fairly extensively in the past five years, and is a mere three block walk from the Mall. Now the neighborhood seems to be experiencing a seismic shift. The New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYC EDC), Fulton Street Mall Improvement Association (FMIA) and the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership (DBP) have recently completed the $15 million Fulton Streetscape Project as well, so that the street looks cleaner, more contemporary, and altogether more pleasant. It turns out that the Mall attracts 100,000 shoppers per day, meaning that people are dropping quite a bit of coin. Future tenants include Sephora and Aeropostale just opened, completing the sense of having shopped the same brands, in the same order, but on another street.

I have to admit that I’m not unhappy with the impending homogenization of my working neighborhood. It seemed inevitable, with the Mall situated between Fort Greene (which has shown a higher increase in residential property value than any other neighborhood in Brooklyn), Cobble Hill, and Brooklyn Heights, long considered to be Brooklyn’s Gold Coast. Some may see it as the continued march of big brands wiping out the nighborhood individuality, but I have to admit that I do love those Shake Shack burgers.

 

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