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Department store window with posters indicating imminent closure.

High street brands cannot rely on history and familiarity to survive — new research

At a precarious time for the high street, a sense of brand heritage might be considered a great strength. The theory is that well known stores are able to boast – and attract customers with – a proud history of originality and quality.

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In reality though, heritage appears to have become something of a blind spot for some retailers. Last year Debenhams (aged 243), Jaeger (aged 137) and Laura Ashley (aged 68), all went into administration before reemerging as online only brands. Similarly familiar rivals including Marks & Spencer and John Lewis are struggling.

My research indicates that one reason for this is retailers continuing to over value their status as heritage brands. As a result, they fail to keep up with changes in shopper behaviour and risk becoming dated, sluggish and digitally inept – unwilling to try new ideas in case they risk the loyalty of their established customer base.

But innovation and agility have never been more important. The threat of digital disruption and evolving shopper behaviour mean retailers need to always look afresh at what they do.

Yet to established high street names, protecting their own heritage means not making mistakes, sticking to old ways and minimising costs for shareholders. It is the complete opposite of innovation, of trying out new and possibly risky ideas.

Take Amazon for example, arguably the most successful retailer on the planet. It evolved from a bookseller into a dominant and ever expanding retail marketplace. It recently opened its first UK checkout-free grocery store and a hair salon to expand its move into the bricks-and-mortar landscape (surely proof that physical shops still matter despite high street woes).

Of course, one might argue that it is easier for a businesses like Amazon to be innovative and agile because of its strong financial backing and technical expertise. But while technology can help to implement innovation, it does not produce it.

For instance, having “smart fitting rooms”, or an interactive touch screen mirror does not instantly make a retail store innovative and attract large numbers of customers.

Consumers’ needs have become more complex. They do not simply go to a physical store to buy something, as they easily do that online. They go to explore, to be inspired and entertained, as part of the “experience economy”.

At the same time, efforts to address these needs should avoid being perceived as sales gimmicks like the “experience desk” at John Lewis, a concierge-style service that tell shoppers about the store and can book them into other services.

Lifestyle changes

One example of a shop successfully mixing heritage with innovation is Liberty London, which regularly refreshes its range of products and services (and even its physical spaces) to encourage shopping. As a customer there, I do not feel I am always being “sold to”, but instead am inspired by the surroundings. As I admire the displays and check out the merchandise, the buying follows on naturally, but the process is subtle and enjoyable. I cannot say I have the same experiences when visiting House of Fraser or John Lewis.

Our research on perceived authenticity shows that brand survival can by no means be taken for granted. It requires a sophisticated strategy which combines convenience and continuity with the ability to survive new trends and look forward.

To survive and prosper in the long term, high street retailers cannot rely on quality, consistency and nostalgia (the known attributes of brand heritage). They need to be innovative, agile and responsive (or better still, pre-emptive) to change.

This is not about asking high street retailers to ditch or dismiss their hard won heritage. But it does mean critically rethinking the meanings of heritage in the retail landscape, both current and future. Failing to do this can have catastrophic consequences.

For heritage has very little commercial value when a retailer is unwilling or unable to break some of the old fashioned rules. Otherwise, heritage would simply mean history – the place where so many established brands have been consigned to after disappearing from the high street.

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