Here’s a question that I hope some women and/or retail people will answer as I will admit I haven’t done my homework thoroughly: when did department stores start this crazy idea about having in-store labels?
I’m wondering because there’s only one thing that’s always on my mind: why why why why? Why do they exist? Do people really shop this way? Or better even, which people actually shop this way (nowadays) and find it helpful?
The background story is that there’s been an interesting change at M&S: sales are bad, stock suffers, shares plunder, old clothing chief goes and is replaced by the woman who helped pioneer the idea of ‘Designers at Debenhams’. Disclaimer is I’ve worked for JWT which had Debenhams and BHS as clients. JWT helped create the line ‘Design in every department‘ and ‘life made fabulous‘.
To her credit, she had a good idea:
a) It revitalised Debenhams the brand (“we’re not Matalan or anyone else”)
b) It happened ages before H&M released designer collaborations, but that would be like comparing apples with oranges as H&M has the bigger global network and choice of designers (haute couture world of Lagerfeld, Lanvin, Marni, Versace, etc.) and isn’t a department store;
b) looking at the UK alone, they were first and it was launched at a time when M&S wasn’t particularly famous for its clothes, a bunch of retailers were still in business (Jane Norman, Peacocks, Bonmarche, and so on) and the world was in a better place financially.
M&S responded by creating their own in-house labels: Autograph, Per Una, Blue Harbour and all that. You walk in and you go right, Per Una is this sweet, romantic-like look, Autograph is meant to be a more modern woman label, and so on. General idea is that instead of saying “here is women’s clothing”, people can navigate their way to whichever style catches their eye.
If you don’t know John Rocha, but all his stuff is in one place, you skim visually and go ‘right, I get what he’s about’. Just like with films and typecast actors: you see a Fincher or Mel Gibson film because you know what you’re going to get. It’s either “you” or it’s not “you”. On the downside, you are unfairly pigeonholed because you don’t live in a bubble where you only watch one thing only. Also, fashion magazines talk about ‘key pieces’, ‘statement bags’ and ‘capsule wardorbes’ and all that. It’s not our reality, at least not for way too many of us. Over to Hadley Freeman:
Advertisers might not like to hear it, but fashion magazines are not read by most people as sources of shopping tips. They’re about fantasy. This is why I’ve never really understood why people bother to write in to the magazines and complain about the high prices of the clothes. For heaven’s sake, they’re not mail-order catalogues, they are escapism.
Rejoice! A world where people are happy to say they are influenced by highly impractical and expensive things! OMG!
Pigeonholing happens with kitchens too, another item of self expression: people in focus groups we did overwhelmingly wondered ‘am I modern person? A traditional one? A shaker type person?!’ Then what? We advised our client that a way of avoiding being prescriptive and/or condescending is to just not do that. Instead of modern vs traditional, you say “High Gloss Red” or take the IKEA neutral naming route and let people say whatever they like when they do a house tour.
I get that it’s useful (read: easy) for someone in the back room to say ok, this is selling well, this is underperforming, this we can get rid of sooner, this can be a permanent fixture..etc. But not so useful for people. Fashion is hard to ‘get’ if you’re not in on the action, and you are trying to take the path of least resistance.
And worse, now every other place wants to be a mini-department store in itself. WHY?!
Yes, so people spend more time (and maybe money) in the shop. But you feel like an emotional wreck after.
Next owns Lipsy so they’re excused, but the catalogue/site do sell lots of brands you won’t see in-store. That’s clever. New Look (ailing too) has some sub-brands lumped in-store alongside the better known Armani Exchange, Topshop has emerging designers and Boutique too but the Oxford Circus store somehow also includes a cupcake shop, nail and brow bars (*remember Andrea, Manchester is not like the rest of the UK*), House of Fraser has now adopted Mary Portas and Biba and so on.
I don’t know about others, but I’m not entirely enthused by the idea because I believe the vast majority of people find something they like, where they will spend most of their money, then the rest of the budget will be divided between a few other places that are ‘maybes’. No survey or research I’ve seen asks for the top 2 shops and no more. They want to know ALL the places. I could shop in 10 if I set my mind to it, but my money goes to 2-3 at most.
Zara, Reiss, Ted Baker and French Connection and even the likes of H&M don’t do these complicated label/sub brand things, yet they get on pretty well. In Zara and H&M you know ‘TRF’ and ‘Divided’ are “young fashion”. If you don’t because it doesn’t say anywhere, the looks and prices will tell you so. That’s fine.
But you know where the ‘business wear’ corner is, but it’s not limited to black/grey/navy suits and it doesn’t have a “label”. It says “Zara basics” on some if you care to notice because that’s how a lot of women think and recognise some pieces: basics. Wardrobe staples. When all else fails or you can’t be bothered default to them. Dress them up and dress them down if you must. Tshirts in plain colours, white blouses, an all-round blazer, black skinny jeans, a trench coat and all that.
Where are these things in M&S? Good luck finding them all. Where are they in Debenhams? Well, do you want the Warehouse skinny jeans or the Oasis skinny jeans? Dorothy Perkins? Or the designer Henry Holland ones? This is what I mean when I ask “do people really shop this way?” You give convenience and all these ‘brands under one roof’ but you assume I’m familiar with all of them. I’m not and I want to run away screaming.
This is wrong and a waste of good actors advertising your wares: being all things to all people won’t happen. You bring in young people (Henry Holland, Autograph, etc.) and annoy the ‘mature’ customer who might start thinking it’s not like it used to be. You keep the ‘mature’ customer happy – the bank balance needs it – you just can’t get young people to like you. You then put in sub-brands, but you confuse the hell out of everyone. Selfridges has opened a Primark concession. That’s very clever framing. And you get a yellow bag. But once the Selfridges distortion field wears off, you’ve still bought a Primark/any other concession name item. Except you didn’t buy it in Primark.
Also, these aren’t fun times financially and people have sussed the fact that clothes are all increasingly much of a muchness. It’s tough. But Amancio Ortega (Zara’s owner) is the ninth richest person in the world (Forbes) and Tadashi Yanai of Uniqlo is the richest person in Japan. So people aren’t buying the expensive premium sub-brands or designer ones, just sticking to basics. But everyone (and their mums) has that problem, yet people are queuing for Nike Airmax Yeezy trainers and H&M designer collaborations. Few will go to such lengths, but key thing is you’ve made something worth going that extra length for! You’re on trend!
I had a lot of respect for BHS as they refurbished stores and graced me with a hundred page document on every single thing you could possibly want to know from focus group debriefs and questionnaires. It’s really no harder than having a look at what people come to you for (even if it’s towels, underwear, occasion hats that look more expensive than they are) and going from there. Or like my favourite post from Rob says, if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.