With markets as tough as they are it’s not surprising that more businesses than ever are weighing up whether to adopt a short-term tactical approach or hang tough with the longer-term strategic thing. Retailers are right at the centre of this dilemma and you only have to glance at your local high street or shopping mall to see the choice that many have made. Stores with perpetual sales or cut-price offers have become a feature of the retail landscape in pretty well every country around the world.
Even though they know that the path to instant gratification has an inevitable pay-off, cake today is becoming an irresistable proposition for idea and cash-strapped marketers, who can only be aiming to be somewhere else when the bill arrives. So, what is the price of this kind of short-termism?
In this context there are two types of retailer – those who sell branded goods and those whose offer comprises mainly own brand. The first group can be further divided into premium and mass-market. The premium retailers, by and large, are chasing margin with high prices. They are usually the last to have to make the short-term/long-term choice because their clientele are well-heeled and unfamiliar with the financial reality most of us live with. On the other, far more popular side of the street, mass-market sellers of branded product are “champions of the consumer”. We rely on them to negotiate with manufacturers on our behalf to deliver the branded products we all hanker after at advantageous prices.
The own brand retailers come from a different direction. The value of their proposition is entirely their own making. Customers recognise own-branders as an authority in the things they sell and trust them to use their knowledge and experience to produce great value product of their own. Retailers like this that come to mind would be Ikea and Marks and Spencer.
Now consider for a moment discount promotions as a concept. Again, you could say they come in two kinds. The first is the seasonal event that we have come to expect. This is legitimate. We understand that these promotions are the retailer’s way of clearing slow-moving stock or ends of lines and as long as it remains occasional it and the retailer will retain credibility.
The other kind of discount promotions are those run by struggling retailers to generate sort-term business. These usually achieve their immediate objective. The problems arise with repetition. You must have heard people dismissing retailers as “the place with the sale on all the time”. The perpetual sale isn’t credible, so let’s not kid ourselves that consumers are buying this line. If a product appears to always be reduced to 99p then that’s all its worth to the consumer and no amount of double pricing is going to convince them otherwise. We’ve all witnessed the Pierre Cardin brand get pulped in markets around the world. Once a respectable, desirable brand, constant deep discounting has reduced it to a bargain basement brand. Nobody pays full-price for a Pierre Cardin suit because we all know that it will be 70% off next week!
So, when do you start heading into the mire of perpetual discounts? The answer is the minute you abandon the accepted seasonal event norm. Then its just a matter of how far you venture in this direction and how quickly you get back to firm ground that determines whether your business is irreversibly damaged. Discounting is like a drug habit. Initially the hit is rewarding – you make a load of cash quickly, but as you stick with it your dependency increases and the reward diminishes. You lie awake at night racking your brains for new superlatives to up the anti in your advertising, margin disappears and eventually your turnover will too.
Your hard-won brand community will dwindle. We wear the products we buy and carry branded shopping bags with pride as badges of belonging. Where’s the cudos in belonging to to the cheap shop community? Customers will feel betrayed. The brand that you have devalued to junk had defined their status. Now you’ve pulled the plug. Your authority disappears over night and whatever you say to try to re-establish value in your offer is futile. You are just a cheapskate discounter and there’s no way back!
If your regular customers don’t abandon you they’ll do something even worse – they’ll only turn up for the deals that you make no money on and the only new customers you can expect are all broke like you. When The Full Effect Company went into one well-know organisation a few years back, we discovered that a third of their customers were actually costing them money because they only bought the bargains with little or no margin. There was no spoon-full of sugar to help the medicine go down in this case, we just had to loose 30% of their customer base. However, there are few shareholders who would stomach this kind of treatment unless, as we did, you manage to get back on track very quickly. We replaced those customers with new, profitable ones within twelve months and met the company’s growth targets.
So, before you launch your umpteenth BoGoF this year give some thought to where this road is leading. You may not be planning to be around when this chicken comes home to roost, but there aren’t that many juicy retail marketing jobs around, so you might want to think again.