The role of government is to provide great infrastructure/environment for ALL business

Job losses at icon brand companies make big headlines. Politicians are addicted to giving taxpayers money to large businesses, including trying to lure them into their electorate. We all love the idea of having the next Apple or Google in our electorate, but look at the US economy and its poor performance over the past decade despite having these two emerge as giants over that period.

It’s hard to name icon companies from Singapore or Netherlands or Austria yet these are some of the richest, most productive economies in the world. It’s a reminder to government that any modern economy is diverse and complex, even a Google is a tiny player within it. What matters much more than having a few of these star companies is that thousands of less-than-household name companies can do business easily. e.g. an efficient retail sector is a stark difference between highly productive and less productive economies. I know this isn’t sexy, but it seems to be the truth.

This means that government should concentrate on infrastructure, on good and simple laws, less red tape, flexible workforces, access to training/re-training.

I note that Australian government investment in Roseworthy Agricultural College, and the Waite Institute, and setting the levy that funded the Grape and Wine R&D Corp has returned an astonishing return – creating Australia’s modern export wine industry (and better wine for Australians). But all attempts to save the industry in times of a high Australian dollar and so on (e.g. the 1980s grape vine pull) did little good, just put money in the pockets of a few lucky businesspeople.

I suspect there are many similar examples in many other industries.


Bad service habits

One of the most important functions of marketing is cultural, to prevent the organisation from slipping into a production orientation, to keep it focussed on the customer and the market.

Recently I was told off in the Bordeaux Apple Store, but rather that take it I told the employee off. You see I had taken a space on a large desk that had lots of spare space, to sit and write on the new version of How Brands Grow. So I’m sitting there with my new MacBook Pro and new iPhone (clearly I’m a good customer) and an Apple Store employee interupts me and tries to say that this table is only for one-on-one demonstrations. But the table is largely empty I said, if I’m in the way I’ll move. No you aren’t in the way he said, but the table is just for demonstrations. Now this struck me as absurd and I told him so. He said it was store policy. No it isn’t I said. I asked him to reflect how this incident would look to him if he were observing as a third party, or if he were watching it on a customer service training video!

I knew there was no silly policy like this. I’d even previously be summoned into the store to work by an employee who saw me sitting on the ledge outside the store using their wifi) “Come into work anytime he said”. Another employee had told my wife how children were always welcome to play in the Apple Store because they were future customers – to which my wife noted “our daughter is already a paying customer”.

Anyway the Apple Store employee went away, presumably to talk to their manager, came back and said I could continue to work. Then later he interrupted me again, “what now” I thought. And then he not only apologized but thanked me, explaining how easy it is to get into a bad habit, where you start to make rules of how the store should be without thinking why the store is here, to serve customers.

I said that I understood, that as a young university student I’d worked in a service industry and I now reflect how over-the-top, officious even, we often became in bossing customers around. In that instance our excuse (it was an amusement park, with a large rollercoaster) was safety – but that was an excuse for slipping out of a customer service orientation into a production orientation.

We are all human. It takes training, and reminders, to stop us slipping into bad service habits.


The rise and rise of retail chains and brands

I was telling a colleague about Hema, a dutch chain of stores that sell everyday staples, “everything from a needle to an anchor” my grandfather would say.  Well they don’t sell anchors but they do sell needles and all sorts of other useful things you need, regularly, for round the house.  And everything is their own brand.

It started me wondering about the rise of manufacturer-retailers or retailer-manufacturers, and single brand stores.  So I wandered around the shops and took note of which were multi-brand stores, like (most) supermarkets and department stores, and which were single brand chains.  It’s fascinating how the world looks different when you look at it systematically, out of “everyday mode”.  I expected to find lots of retailers who stocked multiple brands but they are a tiny minority – and look to be disappearing.  My list is at the end of this post, I could have gone on walking and made it five times as long but you can see most stores are singe brand.

Indeed I’m sitting in an Apple store writing this post.  An LA-based computer manufacturer that once had no stores, now it operates this store here in France and quite a few more like it around the globe.  When I was a student at university I remember quite a few case studies of manufacturers that had tried to get into retail to ensure distribution (e.g. brewers who bought pubs) and how it had often back-fired; manufacturing and retailing are different businesses was the lesson.  Well it seems that management has improved and many firms can do it (see list below), and many retailers find that they can have a central office buying (and branding and marketing) and that makes life more simple than having to stock their stores by choosing stock from many sellers.  The retail staff can just concentrate on retailing, whereas a purely retail store has to buy and sell.  This is perhaps why we see chains replacing owner-operated stores, even (sadly) in restaurants (though thankfully not in France).

There are a few exceptions like shoe stores, opticians, and cosmetic stores but even here there are single brand stores (e.g. L’Occitane, Julique), where the manufacturer (or designer or at least buyer) is also the retailer.  Department stores, supermarkets and wine stores are among the last, it seems, where the norm is for them to stock themselves with many brands from competing manufacturers – though even here they usually have their own private label brand along with the others.

So what does this mean for marketing?  In some ways it’s an indictment on the quality (and quantity) of marketing by manufacturers.  They were poor at building their brands, and retailers found that their retail presence was as good at building mental availability as the (little bit) of advertising that the manufacturers were doing.  Of course, it also shows that some manufacturers worked out how to be retailers, and very good retailers.  So it’s also an indictment on retailers who operated largely as shelf stockers, renting space to competing brands.

Will dedicated manufacturer-marketers and retailer-marketers survive?  Meaning stores that stock multiple brands?  I think we have the answer, the future is largely already here.  Yes there will be a few, a few dept stores, supermarkets, and some specialist stores.  But the majority will be single brand chain stores, where one head office designs and/or buys/manufactures its own brand’s product range which it sells through its own stores.

OK, what if you own your own shop, stocking manufacturer brands?  Hmm, the tide seems to be flowing against you.  I can’t think of any new chains that have emerged along these lines.

OK what if you are a manufacturer brand marketer without your own retail channel?  Again it looks like the tide of history is not flowing your way.  But can a company like Unilever operate its own stores?  It’s an interesting question; L’Oreal already owns The Body Shop.  Procter & Gamble and others have their “toe in the water” with their own online stores but that’s a long way from having a Hema type store stocked entirely by P&G.

Will we see wine stores dedicated to a single company? We already see some stores that stock many brands that are in effect commissioned by them, they own or control the marketing of these brands.  But might we see a large luxury wine brand like Penfolds open its own stores.  Nespresso did it – if only to use stores as a way of showcasing/advertising the brand.

Hmmm, predicting the future is difficult, but while 10 years ago the idea of manufacturers who depended on many different retailers, like Apple and Levi, opening their own stores and surviving seemed unlikely. And it has happenned.

PS Retail marketing scientist Herb Sorensen points out that “own brand stores” are a strike back by manufacturers at “private label”.


List single brand retail chains I made walking around Bordeaux:


Oliver Grant
JB Martin
Eden Park
Hugo Boss
Father. & son
Alain Figaret
Louis Vuitton
Florence Kooijman
Pain de sucre
Eric Bompard
Olivers & co (olive oil !!)
Rosa Bagh
Alienor chocolatier
and so on…..

Exceptions I noted:

Galleries Lafayette
Bijoutiers but only some
Cosmetics but only some
Manfield – shoes
Outdoor and sports clothing
Wine shops

Stores compete for shopping trips

One of the fallacies of retailing is that stores compete in terms of selling items.  Of course they need to sell items to make money but they do that by attracting customers (or rather, shopping trips).

The more attractive a store is, i.e. the greater the share of shopping trips it wins, the more it sells.  And this is the real retail battle.

The more shoppers a store attracts the more brands will compete to buy their shelf space. In a way a store is like a TV station, it needs to attract viewers so that advertisers will pay a lot for the little bit of advertising space it has to sell.  Stores work to attract shoppers so that they can take a bigger slice of brand owner’s sales to consumers.

Store owners can easily lose sight of this.  They do strange things like try to trap consumers in store, making it harder for them to find the things they buy regularly in the vain hope that they will spend more in the store if they are trapped there for longer.  This is not a good way to earn repeat shopping trips.

Category management systems can send stores astray.  Each category manager wants only to increase sales of their category, and loses sight of the bigger picture, which is for the store to win a greater share of all the shoppers.

It’s the brand marketers (the store’s suppliers) who want to sell specific items.  If they want the store to stock their items, and to give better display space then they need to show that doing so will make the store more attractive to shoppers.  That their brand will help the store win shopping trips from the other retailers.  When you think about it this way one realises that price specials are just one very small part of making a store attract more shoppers.

Why stores stock many items that hardly sell

One line take-out: Each of us has a very different opinion on what the store should stock.  To win us all stores need a wide range.

The top selling 1000 items in a supermarket generate about half of its sales revenue. Which means that it’s vital that store managers make these items easy to see and buy – but that’s another story.

What I’d like to highlight today is that the other 30,000 or so items they stock sell very little volume.  This is what is sometimes called “the long tail”.

Stores try hard to weed out items that don’t sell.  So the typical store item does sell, but rarely. Stores are full of stock that barely moves while a tiny percentage of the items fly off the shelf.

This can lead marketing consultants to advise retailers to pare back their range to concentrate on the items that deliver most of their revenue and profits. Yet this range (and cost) cutting strategy often fails.  Unfortunately, it’s been encouraged by recent research (some of it flawed) on consumer confusion – research that mistakenly suggested that smaller ranges will increase sales.

It’s true that stores look cluttered and complicated.  The average household only buys a few hundred different items from a supermarket in a year. That is, they do a lot of repeat buying of some items over and over.  So each buyer is looking for a few things out of the 30-50,000 on offer in the store.  That makes shopping sound like a horribly complicated task.

So why on earth would consumers be attracted to stores that stock so many items – most of which they don’t buy?  One notion is that consumers like the IDEA of choice, that they are attracted to variety but once they actually arrive in-store they fall back on their habitual nature and existing loyalties.

There may be a little truth in this explanation but the real reason is that consumers are very heterogeneous in the items they buy.  Remember that all those items in the store do sell, each item has its buyers.  So given that each of us is buying only a tiny proportion of the items in store the odds that my shopping basket will share anything in common with the person in front of me in the queue (or anyone else for that matter) is very low.  As I often point out, if you look at what’s in the shopping trolleys of fellow shoppers you see that “other people buy weird stuff”, or at least that they buy different items from you.

The few items in common in any two trolleys are, of course, most likely to be those items that sell in large volumes.  These will appear in many more people’s trolleys.  Even so most of the items in our trolley will not be from the ‘top 1000’ and so hardly anyone else will buy them.

The Double Jeopardy Law tells us that an item with low market share will be repeat-bought less often than its rivals, but not dramatically less often, the main reason that it sells so little is that few people ever buy it.  Which means that many of the many low selling items in a supermarket are, in effect, being stocked for just a few consumers.  Some may even be stocked for a single household.  But for these few buyers these items are important, they buy them, maybe not that often (but that’s true of most things we buy), they know them, they are in their heads and their pantries – but not many other people’s.

Because we buy these items we like stores that stock them.  We each enter a store looking for “our stuff”. If the store doesn’t stock the things we buy we can sometimes find ourselves inconvenienced.  We want to see, and be able to find, the items of interest to us.  That makes a store attractive to us.  Fortunately for store managers consumers are extraordinarily good at filtering out all the brands and SKUs that aren’t in their personal repertoire and finding their brands.  Successful stores make this even easier for consumers.

So my point is don’t make the mistake of thinking that a store can do without 90%+ of its range.  Stores compete for shoppers, and shoppers vary enormously in what they look for, in what mental structures are in their head, in what they see.  Each of us has a very different opinion on what the store should stock.  To win us all stores need a wide range.

The power of physical availability – How Brands Grow

UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s (a sponsor of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute) has been doing rather well.  And over Christmas they astounded financial analysts with their performance compared to other retailers.  Like-for-like sales over the Christmas 2010 quarter were up 3.5%, and they overtook Asda to become the 2nd largest supermarket.

How did they do it?

Chief Executive Justin King highlighted one crucial factor – 12,000 tons of salt.  No they didn’t sell it, they used it on their car-parks when it snowed, ensuring that their stores where accessible to customers.  “You just have to get on with it and provide the best for customers. There is no doubt the snow had an impact, but if you lie back and become a victim to the snow, then you’re not doing what we’re here to do. Some [retailers] did better than others.” said Justin King.

And to further consolidate their success they opened 700,000 sq feet of new stores and upgrades.

A great example of the power of physical availability.


Sold Out – a lesson in book marketing

My book, “How Brands Grow“, was available for a whole day in the UK, after which Amazon and the other online retailers depleted the UK stock of Oxford University Press.

It’s a specialist book so it’s not going to be a big seller, but when it runs out of stock then there is no way it can gain a decent sales ranking, and so it won’t catch attention and then it won’t sell much.  It’s a catch-22 for new authors (new brands), distributors won’t stock much unless they see it selling lots, but it can’t sell lots unless it is well-stocked.

A lesson for me in book marketing.  The next book will be so much easier.

PS Though of course I’m actually oddly pleased that it sold-out – it feels good even if it isn’t.

Myer for sale

In previous posts I have been critical of the marketing strategies of Australia’s Myer department stores. Particularly their use of loyalty programs and price promotions.

This week Coles-Myer announced it is to sell the Myer department store business, after another year of disappointing financial performance for the stores. The sale decision is public acknowledgement that someone else can run the business better.

Tesco cola is not the reason Tesco has been doing well lately

Recently both Coles and Woolworths, the two dominant Australian supermarket chains (with combined share of more than 80%), announced a shift in strategy towards private labels. Coles has said that by 2007 30% of its sales will come from its own labels.

Australia is an interesting evolving case study because it has one of the very highest levels of retailer concentration yet private labels (or retailer brands) are only a small part of the Australian supermarket industry, reportedly sitting at 12% of sales or less.

Coles and Woolworths are now trying to mimic the strategy of most/all of the UK supermarkets.

But have they got it wrong ? I suspect that they have misunderstood a crucial aspect of UK retailers strategy, which isn’t surprising because I think UK marketers haven’t noticed it either.

The real success of Private Labels has been less about taking on the big successful brands, and more about quite simply improving the branding of the supermarket by putting the retailer’s brand everywhere it can be, while at the same time not in anyway degrading the shopping experience for consumers.

Let me explain….

This weekend I visited a Coles supermarket to see how their private label roll-out was going. The answer is obviously very slowly. You could very easily completely miss noticing their private labels.

They were present in only a few categories, where they seem to be trying to take on the big brands. For example, here is a picture of Coles Corn Flakes right next to the leading brand Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. The Coles packaging is good, and priced substantially cheaper – although marked as on special.

From the amount of boxes missing on the shelf it looks as if it is selling fast – though this could be misleading – Kellogg’s Corn Flakes may have been restocked more recently.

I was interested to see how Coles looked in comparison to a UK supermarket like Tesco. And the answer is very different. Tesco brands most, if not all, their fruit, vegetables, seafood, roasted chickens, meat cuts and anything that is not usually strongly branded. Coles makes the occasional, half-hearted effort, but the vast majority of such items carry no name or the name of some farms no one has heard of or cares about. A few things like packaged cuts of meat carry a tiny Coles logo. They seem to be missing the easy and obvious ways of branding their store.

So Coles have a very long way to go, and a lot to learn about branding.

I was also struck by the huge opportunity to replace thousands of obscure brands with the Coles name. There are so many ‘brands’ in an Australian supermarket that would be barely recognisable to shoppers, even the ones who buy them. These are brands that are never advertised. Some are even from large companies, like the Mars/Masterfoods Promite brand (a competitor to Australian icon Kraft Vegemite).

In short Coles could easily achieve 30% of their sales from Private Label with us (and brand managers) hardly noticing the exclusion of any brands.

But instead they seem to be concentrating on mimicking big brands. Presumably because these are high volume items. And they can encourage big brands to lower their prices – which can be a good thing.

But this comes at the cost of creating tension between major supply partners. And it increases complexity for shoppers (buying Corn Flakes is now more, not less, complicated).

A more “easy win” for a supermarket is to replace as many of the ‘non brand’ brands as possible with their label. Over many years, in different categories and countries, this is where we have seen Retailer Brands enjoy great success – replacing the differentiated but unadvertised brands. The brand that’s only on the shelf because it is the ‘super cheap’ brand, the ‘Australian’ brand, or the ‘organic’ brand. Supermarkets are full of these ‘non brands’ that take up far more shelf space than their sales justify.

Supermarkets like Tesco have, where practical, cleaned out a large number of these ‘non-brands’ (or “brands without brand managers”) and replaced them with their own label. It has vastly improved the branding of their supermarkets – your bag of tomatoes or punnet of strawberries sitting in your fridge now says Tesco (not R&J Smith fruit farm or some other such name which meant nothing to you). And, importantly, made the shopping experience easier – the number of brands has decreased with almost no loss in variety.

Sure Tesco has also tried taking on some of the big brands. But I think this part of their strategy and success has been vastly overrated. Tesco cola is not the reason Tesco has been doing well lately. They’ve done well in winning share from other retailers, not from Coca-cola.

The lesson for retailers is avoid diversifying into the business of marketing individual packaged goods brands. Retailers sell shopping experiences, that is how they compete against other retailers, and to take your eye off this ball can be fatal. Better for retailers to take the easy route of using Private Label to improve store branding by replacing brands that aren’t doing sufficient branding and advertising. And keep and support brands that are working hard to maintain and grow their consumer franchise.

And the lesson for national brand manufacturers is that if you don’t work hard to maintain and grow your consumer franchise, if all your marketing investment is simply in-store sales promotions, then you deserve to be replaced by Private Label.

Dr Byron Sharp. Professor of Marketing Science
Director Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science
University of South Australia

More misguided loyalty programs

In a previous post I commented on Coles Myer’s misguided new loyalty program.

Now I read that they have hired Tom Lemke a former Kmart US executive in charge of loyalty programs. One hopes he will bring new knowledge to the company, but I doubt it. More likely he will consolidate blind faith in loyalty initiatives.

And today I read that they are testing a new program that asks shoppers to register and fill in a questionnaire on what brands they buy. They are then sent a shopping list which switches them to other brands – if they stick to this list they get large discounts in the form of loyalty points (that can later be converted to cash).

Good to see experimentation, but they would be better off first putting money into fundamental research into marketing. This program is doomed to be insignificant at best, and most probably a waste of money.

Misguided Myer Marketing

Two major Australian newspapers ‘The Australian” and ‘The Age’ have reported that the department store chain Myer is to launch another loyalty card, they already have Fly Buys and a credit card.

Called ‘Myer One’ this loyalty program is to be aimed at Myer’s high value customers. According to chief executive Dawn Robertson “Myer One is for our most loyal customers”.

This is so fashionable, and so misguided.

Given the things Ms Robertson has said, this marketing initiative appears to have been planned in ignorance of the serious R&D into the effects of retail loyalty programs, not to mention fundamental patterns of buyer behaviour and brand performance.

And the logic is faulty.

Think about which customers a loyalty program might attract, and who are desirable to attract (from the perspective of making money):

1) Occasional buyers of the category – these customers are unlikely to be attracted to a loyalty program (they realise they won’t earn many points), indeed they aren’t even likely to hear about it let alone give it much thought.

2) Frequent buyers of the category but occasional Myer shoppers – these would be very attractive to gain, and they might be attracted to the program, after all they could earn a lot of points if they shift their buying towards Myer. Unfortunately all of our research shows that loyalty programs do very little to attract non and light customers of the loyalty program brand.

3) Frequent Myer buyers – these are the customers that Myer One is targeting. But these are the least desirable group. These customers represent the greatest subsidy cost of a loyalty program, ie giving people rewards for doing what they were doing anyway. They are of course the most likely group to join – they will see the program’s promotional activity (remember they shop at Myer regularly) AND they will realise what a good deal it is…something for nothing !

In short the Myer One will probably be a good deal for a few customers, and a poor marketing investment.

And it won’t lead to growth, real growth comes from winning more customers…and that’s mainly occasional customers. No brand ever got big by simply trying to get more out of its most loyal customers.