Over the past thirty years designer brands have gradually held ground in fashion stores and departments, thereby altering the experience of shopping for clothing in many stores. This phenomenon can be observed in department stores, fashion retail chains, and down to single independent stores. They range from stores that offer clothing items from a number of selected designer names to those dedicated to a specific designer brand name (e.g., Burberry, Louis Vuitton, Armani, Gap, Paul & Shark, Stella McCartney), either by direct control of the fashion house companies or by licensing. The key motive is the dominant emphasis put on brand names in a store’s scene. The changes that have taken place in the retail arena in the way merchandise display is organized are likely to have an impact on the order and structure of the purchase decision process of consumers as well as emotional aspects of their shopping experience in fashion stores.
There has been a remarkable shift in the layout of clothing departments and shops from product-orietnation to brand-orientation. It is easily felt, as you enter the floor, that the garments on display are clustered by designer brands. The shopper is implicitly guided to search for and choose items by a desired brand before making his or her mind what kind of item is needed or wanted (e.g., trousers, shirts, skirts, jackets etc.) Often the brand-logo signage mounted on tables, shelves or other fixtures, or posted on the walls, makes it fairly obvious that the shop is a brand theatre.
There is a continuous competition for attention or focus between the designer brand names of clothing and accessories and the store name as a brand. In single-brand stores that carry the same name as that of their fashion products the conflict is essentially removed because the single brand corresponds to everything in the store — at the product level and at the retail level. It does demand, however, greater effort to ensure congruency between elements of brand image that are characteristic of the products and elements embedded in the store design and atmospherics. Yet in other types of fashion stores or departments such competition is omnipresent and valid. A strong reliance of the store on the clothing brands offerred to shoppers could enhance their perception of assortment in the store but it is in danger of eclipsing the store name in face of the designer brands. In other words, it suggests that the store is fully dependent on the designer brands it offers and downplays the retailer’s own competencies and other attributes of its store(s).
One method of tackling this challenge applied more frequently by department stores and fashion retail chains is to offer clothes under their own private label which is different from the name of the store but is strongly associated with it. In some cases, the retailers sign exclusive contracts with designers who will make garments solely for them, and thereby the designers get protected exposure of their creations at the retailer’s store(s). Thereon it is a question of striking a reasonable balance in display space, in-store signage and advertising assigned to the retailer’s own fashion brand(s) relative to other ‘imported’ designer brands.
Chains of “fast fashion” like ZARA and H&M constitute a special case: They act as single-brand retailers that assign the chain-store’s name to all their products but in fact their strategy is to mimic up-to-date trends of fashion by some of the better known designers and offer products of compatible designs at more affordable prices to shoppers from the middle-class.
But what about those mini-stores within a store assigned to particular designer brands? It means that an enclosed 3-walled section on the floor of a store’s department is dedicated singly to a given designer brand that offers a variety of its product items as if it were a stand-alone mini-store of the brand. The shopper can compose a whole set of dressing solely from that brand without ever considering similar items from the displays of other brands. Is that truly in the interest of a retailer? This is an extreme form of segregation of a designer brand from the rest of the display that sacrifices advantages of the retailer as a fashion seller to end-consumers for the benefit of the “guest” brand. If a brand orietntation is in order, it should be laid out flexibly and openly, keeping each brand-area easily visible from other brand-areas, as is already more common nowadays. The shopper should feel free to navigate between brands without setting artificial borders on the floor. It affords the shopper to mix items of different types of garment according to his or her judgement and taste — a choice of brands is available but is not constraining.
A separation by brand is still not always over-encompassing. For instance, a male shopper may step into a large section dedicated to men’s shirts, yet, where the rich assortment of shirts is sorted by brand. That is contrary to sorting shirts, for example, by style, size, leading colour, or design form (e.g., unicolour, stripes, squares). For a shopper who comes to purchase a particular type of shirt in mind, moreover if he wants to match it to a pair of trousers, sorting the shirts by brand can make this task more difficult and bothersome. Putting the brand before other attributes of clothing can often conflict with practical objectives of shoppers and force on them a structure of decision process that is unfitting their task. The disposition that shoppers are mainly looking for socially desired designer brands could be overweighted, especially with respect to shoppers in their thirties and above.
There is, furthermore, a price aspect to this emphasis on designer brands. Making it appear that nearly all merchandise is provided by fashion designers, appealling at least in name and logo, gives the impression that the merchandise is more expensive; this perception is not detached from reality of recent years (often supported by upgrade to more flashy and luxurious designs by fashion and department stores).
Another implication of brand-orientation in organising merchandise display is that finding the items shoppers look for takes them longer, and requires them to walk greater distances on a floor from one area to another to compose a set of dressing, particularly if they are not fixed on a single brand. This may sound like an excellent reasoning to the retailer because it extends the duration of a shopper’s visit in the store and gets her or him exposed to more merchandise, in expectation that the shopper will select more items and spend more money. This prediction is true just to a limit; it is likely to backfire if the longer search is accompanied by elevated angst or frustration hopelessly trying to find the kind of items sought for. It would probably not bother visitors who come for learning and exploration, but these are the less likely shoppers to spend money. It would be much less desirable to shoppers who come with a deliberate plan to buy.
The emphasis on brands can be met already at the entrance to a store on the front windows: in many stores a nice long vertical list of designer brands decorates the window and welcomes you to the store. The directory signage in front of the lifts and escalators is also frequently indicative: If in the 1990s there were details on the information boards of types of articles on each floor, now you are more likely to find the logos of brands available and very brief definitions in small letters of clothing and accessories. This may also on occasion add to the trouble of finding one’s way in the store. (Example of a store for men’s fashion in a European city that seems more original and attentive to shoppers: it takes a short time to discover that as you climb to higher floors in the store you move from casual to business to luxury dressing for men).
There could also be a lesson from implications of the brand orientation to sales personnel in fashion stores and departments. Sales team members are often less visible and less intervening, which is good especially in the early stage of the shopper’s visit as she or he studies the clothes on display; however, soon their guidance and advice should become helpful and appreciated, perhaps even more than in past decades. The sales team mission is after all to sell clothing articles that best fit and compliment their customers. Hence, the expertise and experience of sales team members in matching garments and composing aesthetic-looking outfits for customers across and within designer brands on their floor could and should still be much required and valued.
Retailers are said to have stronger leverage on manufacturers and are in better position to set conditions and terms for including their products in their stores’ displays. But on the ground, when it comes to fashion houses, retailers appear to have succumbed to their rule of designer brand names. Fashion retailers whose main business is retail seem too often to put all their pride and stake on the designer brand names they manage to introduce in their stores. Some retailers hold their own brands that provide a good answer to the designer brands they host. Yet it all revolves around brands. Fashion retailers must not stop developing and advancing additional competencies and attributes that would stand as their specialised sources of advantage, such as the friendliness of their store layout, its atmospherics, and the expertise and courtesy of their sales personnel.
Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)