Authenticity in retail

Monday, 12th June 2017

In the latest pro-manchester round table discussion we looked at how retail is grappling with the challenges of a disrupted digital market and how to build an authentic brand.

In business, the retail market is the most intense, the most testing environment. The interplay of relationships brings everything about modern commercial capitalism right out into the open. Selling, buying, pricing, who you employ, how you source, how you distribute, how you present your goods to the customer. All of these are displayed in the stark theatre of the market.

There’s no hiding place either. Our round table, supported by JMW Solicitors, we looked at the central challenge of building trust between retailers and consumers.

It’s an uncertain time for retailers, between the economy and changing consumer behaviours, the world they once knew is well and truly over. According to the Economist, 4000 retail stores in the US closed last year, automation provides a challenge, not just as a way of attracting digital savvy customers, but to drive down costs.

Driven by this new generation of consumers for whom digital is the default, not the new thing, the desire to know more than just the price tag of a product has created a new pressure in the retail industry, the pressure to be real and authentic.

Forward-thinking retailers recognise that consumers are moving beyond simply buying products. They are investing in brands, both emotionally and financially. They are forming emotional bonds and ties with the brands they support and buy from.

One of the key questions we set out to answer was how are retailers reacting to this consumer desire and selling lifestyles over products and what channels are retailers choosing to project their brand’s core values and beliefs that make them stand out from the competition?

Beth O’Donnell and Rick Bartram founded the social media fashion retail sensation that is Fearlesss (the final s is deliberate). With regular updates on available items on Facebook, they have created a loyal and dedicated customer base that feels far more emotional, than transactional. The trick has been to turn them into fans of the brand, using Instagram and Facebook, primarily, to create social stories in lifestyle, fitness and street fashion.

They have built up an aspirational brand, using authentic models, maintaining a dialogue and a relationship with customers, the vast majority of whom purchase on their mobiles, 80 per cent in fact.

The key to sustaining a high level of loyalty and business is absolutely down to an authentic culture. As Maria Malone from the Fashion Institute at Manchester Metropolitan University pointed out, Fearlesss have got to the stage where customers would feel disloyal if they were to shop elsewhere. The business has grown and managed to maintain that same level of engagement, at times stripping back what didn’t contribute to that unique and authentic link with the fanbase.

For Phil Smith, a veteran retail consultant and previously a senior executive at B&Q, there are trace elements of the basics in future facing retail brands. “you are opinion former in a niche and growing market, it’s just called social media these days.”

The best advice that the Fearlesss team got from around the table was to trust in their instincts – Jayne Riley from Seventy7 citing the vital importance of the culture of the business, while Maria Malone reiterated the instincts about the business, particularly when it came to recruitment.

There are some thorny issues to bear in mind. What about products sourced from China? What about ethically produced and sourced fashion items? How much does a sense of the ethically sourced fashion item start to enhance the brand, a concession to values, over and above unit prices and squeezed margins.

So how did we do?

As Rupert Cornford of Carter Corson, business psychologists, reflected, “what struck me was the sense of community between customers /fans of these brands that are being built from scratch – that they have the chance to create such trusted loyalty, they almost felt part of the family. I really picked up the importance of four things, commitment, consistency, community and culture. And part of that was about Fearlesss showing a bit of themselves, giving customers a sense that they were real people too.

For Rachel Beattie, at the very beginning of her journey as a new fashion retail business for me I think it was the culture aspect in everything you do as this was something for my brand I wanted to be a huge part but hearing that view consolidated was really valuable!

Written By Michael Taylor – MMU