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How heavily are brand perceptions damaged by sale-time delirium?

Hello and welcome to 2016! But fear not, despite its poor reputation, there are many positives to the month of January: new opportunities, renewed optimism, and the end of the sales. 2015 saw the end-of-year sales start earlier than ever before; by the second week of December, there was already many a reduction sign littering our highstreets. Inevitably this led to droves of consumers ransacking the sales aisles in the desperate pursuit of a fulfilled Christmas tree. In the past, this wave of madness was limited to the few weeks after Christmas, now it is sustained for more than a month. Needless to say, this is a strain on many stores that dramatically drop their prices, for not only are they facing a large influx of customers, they’re also, in many cases, indirectly opening their doors to an unfamiliar demographic: the bargain hunter.

Having found myself in both Selfridges and Liberty during this intense festive rush, I started to wonder about the effect this crazy period has on the reputation of a brand. Ordinarily, visiting one of these establishments is a treat; taking in the air of the pleasantly spacious fragrance department or flicking through luxury garments to a carefully orchestrated playlist. The experience is meticulously curated, the store assistants responsive and attentive. However, ultimately this kind of speculative browsing and indulgent purchasing has no place in the sales. Its dog-eat-dog, a free-for-all where the key focus for stores is to shift the closing season’s stock. But it’s these details that give a store character and charm, that both tell the customer they’re cared for, and distinguish one store from another. Categorisation by brand, style and even size goes out the window, replaced instead by the crux of the sales: price. And when this happens across the board, it has the effect of experience-globalisation where all these stores become fundamentally the same, only with slightly varying stock and in a different venue. The influx of customers means it becomes a challenge for assistants to address their basic requirements, let alone deliver an exceptional and distinguishable brand experience. All of this combined has a real potential to damage a brand’s image, particularly in the premium realm.

This unsightly phenomenon has come to be commonplace and a festive mainstay, but does it have to be so? One piece of advertising that really stood out to me recently defiantly went against this grain, when Margaret Howell (the high-end minimalist fashion brand) proclaimed that both its high-street and its online stores were also going on their Christmas Holiday. Granted this isn’t the best way to prepare for the new season’s stock and will impact their end-of-year sales figures, but this is surely a small price to pay to protect, maintain and boost the brand’s premium image. No bargains, but no frustrated customers. And while a great price may get a product out the door, a great brand experience will get customers coming back for more.

That’s not to say that Christmas 2016 will see the high-street shut down. Far from it, Margaret Howell’s decision to close is still relatively off-kilter with the mainstream of the consumerist world, in fact it can largely only afford to do this because of its premium status and products. But it reflects a movement that seems to be gathering momentum where the consumer isn’t king, with an increased focus on appropriateness and responsibility from brands, where a positive experience is worth more than a sale.

 

The Herd

05.01.16