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Are luxury salespeople nicer in a downturn?

February 27th, 2009 by Devangshu Dutta

There’s some speculation that salespeople in luxury stores are being asked to become more friendly, so as not to turn away and turn off potential customers.

But I think it isn’t just them. I think as the economy slows, possibly everyone might become less abrasive and nicer to each other – less business around so you don’t want to turn off the spenders no matter how they’re dressed – “a king dressed as a beggar” is a good simile.

Actually that reminds me of a story someone told about 20 years ago about an Indian farmer walking into a car showroom and being treated patronizingly by the salesman. The salesman saw a more urbane customer walk in and handed the farmer off to a less agressive colleague, only to see 4 cars being driven off by the farmer’s sons after an all CASH payment.

Maybe the image is not evocative as Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman”, but still a pretty powerful one, nevertheless.

Posted in Consumer, Customer Relationship, Retail, Uncategorized | No Comments »

Retailers vs Brands – the reactions

February 26th, 2009 by Devangshu Dutta

Delhaize and Unilever may not yet have felt the need to visit a relationship counseler, and of course, the jury’s still out on who (if anyone) will actually win in their battle.

For now, Unilever has lost shelf-space for around 300 of its brands at Delhaize stores.

Delhaize may potentially lose some of the sales that those brands got for it, in case consumers want a specific brand rather than a private label or a substitute brand.

The consumers lose not just in terms of their choice being reduced, but perhaps also in becoming confused about the specific value / benefits of competing products when the certainty of their customary brands is removed. Remember, brand loyalty is built on the predictability of a repeated experience over a period of time. If  you remove that factor from the purchase, each purchase becomes an experiment again, until a similar predictability is found.

(For those who missed the previous post, you can read it here.)

Referencing this battle, reactions to a discussion in at least one online poll on seem to favour retailers, or equally blame both retailers and suppliers. Only about a quarter of the respondents felt that retailers were not being fair. Considering that the respondent universe comprised of professionals from retail companies, suppliers as well as service providers, this seems to be a surprising result. Or perhaps not? Perhaps brands are no longer delivering a significant value to be able to command a premium over private label?

Some of the reactions from that discussion are reproduced below with permission from Retailwire.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Branding, Consumer, Food & Grocery, Retail, Strategy, Supply Chain, Uncategorized | No Comments »

Discounted Luxuries

February 25th, 2009 by Devangshu Dutta

Luxury has its ups and downs. Assuming that the economy will look up at some point of time in the near or distant future, luxury brands will shine again, even if they’ve muddied themselves slightly in the puddles of discounting.

Public (and industry) memory is short, especially in fashion, where you might be as good/bad as your last collection. There are plenty of luxury brands which had once been pushed to the dustiest back shelves, that have come back into fashion in recent years. So I’m sure many of the brands will be forgiven their current trespasses.

And, as a precursor to that, someone’s going to come back very soon with the bumper sticker from the post dot-con days which read: “I want to be irrationally exuberant again!”

But on a more rational note, brands which have tried to “democratize” luxury by tinkering with the basic product quality and not paying attention to the brand values would find it harder to climb up again. Just because you want to reach a larger audience you cannot inherently reduce the promise of a brand. Especially when there is true quality available across the price spectrum today.

Who knows, we might even get back to the days when the joy of luxury was based on having truly superior products rather than just a name that a lot of people recognise.


Posted in Apparel, Branding, Footwear, Lifestyle & Fashion, Marketing, Soft Goods, Strategy, Textiles, Uncategorized | No Comments »

Retailers vs Brands – a sequel

February 19th, 2009 by Devangshu Dutta

About 7 months ago a spat occurred between the leading retail company in India Future Group and branded supplier Cadbury’s, with respect to margins offered to the Future Group. (A friend described it as a Bollywood saga.) Future Group had also previously had run-ins with other suppliers including the likes of Pepsi. (The previous post is here.)

Now there’s a European film noire sequel in the making, in a battle between the Belgian retailer Delhaize and European FMCG big daddy Unilever. Delhaize has suspended purchases from Unilever as, according to Delhaize, Unilever is making “unacceptable demands” that the chain stock more Unilever brands.

Like other branded suppliers, Unilever has obviously been impacted across Europe and the US as retailers have become more sophisticated in their approach to private label and squeezed out brands that they have been able to replace with their own products.

Given further weakening of the economic scenario, it is likely that consumers would switch to cheaper private labels offered by retailers, and retailers would be tempted to give over even more shelf space to their own labels where they get higher margins than branded products – a continually losing spiral for the branded FMCG companies.

According to a consumer survey carried out by an agency in Flanders in northern Belgium, apparently 31 per cent of shoppers polled were choosing to shop at chains other than Delhaize, and another 19 per cent were not happy with Delhaize decision (but there doesn’t seem to be indication yet that they would switch). Most of the customers who said they were remaining with Delhaize are either switching to other brands or to Delhaize’s own label products.

However this brawl ends, and whether it turns out to be a win-lose or a lose-lose situation, even this survey demonstrates that the retail store has the upper hand - less than one-third of the surveyed customers displayed their hard-core brand loyalty by switching to other stores.

That is obviously a worrying sign for branded suppliers who have invested humongous sums of money and decades of effort in developing their brands. But it also raises questions about whether the consumer is really perceiving any value out of the billions in advertising and millions of man-hours spent by the FMCG companies in developing the nth variation of toothpaste or detergent.

Tough times raise tough questions, and the ones that comes to mind are these:

  • In recent years FMCG companies have rationalized their brand portfolios, but have they done enough?
  • Are they really clear about the value the remaining brands are delivering?
  • Are the retailers really playing fair when they build up so-called partnerships with suppliers, only to take on board the product learnings and then develop own-label copycat products (sometimes down to package colouring and graphics)?

What do you think?

Posted in Branding, Consumer, Food & Grocery, Market Research, Marketing, Retail, Strategy, Supply Chain, Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

User Customization of E-commerce Websites

February 19th, 2009 by Devangshu Dutta

Online retailer Zappos is planning to introduce customizable web pages, and that has attracted all kinds of commentary – warm & welcoming as well as dismissive.

The big question is “what is the customization and how it is being offered”.

My rule is simple: web-page customization has to drive simplification of the shopping experience.

Changing skins, page layout, and other cosmetic stuff may keep novelty-seekers happy – for some time, that is. But the average user will find that it is just another thing too many on the already over-full to-do list.

Simplification of the user-friendly sort has to be heuristics and analytics-driven, and behind-the-scenes. It has to be driven by not just stated preferences (through options / settings, through drag-and-drop etc.), but unstated – by studying past behaviour in both purchase and browsing. Imagine if you had every customer stating their preference for a physical store layout. In fact does everyone even know what they really want?

The flip side is that this kind of monitoring may sound creepy and 1984-ish to some people. But probably those would also be the people who are blissfully unaware of the fact that in today’s world the only way to remain totally untracked is to not use any form of electronic / communication device at all, or to build each such device (hardware AND software) yourself from scratch. If you use social networking sites, and have “friend suggestions” on your page, you are being tracked!

There is also the balance to be kept in mind between the boundaries the customer defines and promotions that the retailer wants to drive. The consumer may want to control completely what reaches her; the retailer may take the view that there are incredible deals which the consumer just wouldn’t know about if she built impregnable walls around herself.

For those who’re interested in customization, the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) document from 2002 about their 2001 website redesign (“The Glass Wall”) is a great resource to refer to. It doesn’t seem to be available anymore on the BBC website itself, but copies are available elsewhere on the web.

Posted in e-commerce, Uncategorized | No Comments »

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