The Amazon effect, excess space and the pandemic are driving retail evolution

- by Fran Minogue, Managing Partner in Articles

The Amazon effect, excess space and the pandemic are driving retail evolution

If we cast our minds back 20 years or more, most brands had very few standalone sites, preferring to operate via wholesale or concessions in department stores.

Over time, in a move to get closer to the customer and control their own selling environment, brands, particularly in fashion, started to roll out stores - often with flagships in city centres and smaller shops in the suburbs.

This coincided with the gradual demise of the department store - unloved and underinvested - with many categories moving online, disintermediated by Amazon or big-ticket specialists.

As retail space in prime locations became more and more expensive, brands found it increasingly difficult to make a profit on the high street and sought to reshape portfolios while also creating a strong online presence. Until recently ‘flagships plus online’ looked to be the formula of choice.

But retail is nothing if not dynamic and, post-pandemic, there has been another seismic shift; online presence - both own site and marketplaces - is even more significant, but as continual investment in sophisticated technology becomes unsustainable for all but the largest players, there is the emergence of a new wholesale model through the digital department store, together with a more holistic approach to partnerships and alliances.

The power of partnerships

It could be argued that Asos, Zalando and Global Fashion Group have effectively operated as digital department stores for some time, and now Boohoo is following suit by creating a house of brands that will attract a broader demographic.

Next’s Label business offers a wide selection which drives considerable traffic to its site and it has now taken the next logical step with Total Platform, whereby smaller brands can leverage all the back-office functions of warehousing, fulfilment and logistics and focus their own resources on the added-value areas of product design, marketing and customer experience.

Crucially, unlike some third-party sites, this enables them to maintain control of their data. Reiss, which joins Total Platform next spring, has launched a curated range from Paige jeans on its website and plans to add further complementary brands, starting with Castore sportswear in October.

Recognising the power of partnerships M&S has finally embraced additional brands, such as Ghost, Hobbs, Joules and Jaeger - which it acquired in another first earlier this year - which fit, and hopefully extend, its consumer demographic.

M&S joint chief-operating officer Katie Bickerstaffe says: “Operating as a curated platform gives our busy customers more reasons to shop with us. They can easily access many of their favourite brands and we also have an opportunity to stretch appeal and introduce them to new products, such as Nobody’s Child. Importantly we continue to offer ranges that are exclusive to M&S, including our collaborations with Ghost and Finery.”

The supermarket was born as an ‘under one roof model’ replacing high street stalwarts

John Lewis has just revealed plans to follow suit, introducing 100 third-party brands to its website over the next 12 months. Executive Director Pippa Wicks said: “We’ve offered customers the option to buy larger branded home products directly from suppliers via johnlewis.com for a number of years and we’re now expanding this into fashion, providing customers with even greater choice. As part of our plans to modernise John Lewis, we’re expanding both the number of fashion brands and the range of those we already sell on johnlewis.com”.

Reduced margins for both parties are offset by greater awareness, access, convenience and consumer choice – a win-win all round.

The supermarket was born as an ‘under one roof model’ replacing traditional high street stalwarts – the butcher, greengrocer, bakery - with a one-stop-shop.

Now a number of forces are driving further evolution: the ‘Amazon effect’, excess space as general merchandise moves online and, most recently, the pandemic forcing the closure of so-called non-essential shops.

These factors have conspired to bring a new wave of mutually beneficial partnerships. B&Q at Asda and AO at Tesco are truly shop-in-shop formats, with dedicated staff and a well-edited offer.

This not only enhances the host store’s consumer proposition but has the added benefit of achieving greater exposure and accessibility to an out-of-town or pureplay brand. These recent trials only serve to make Sainsbury’s acquisition of Argos even more prescient.


Clarity is an International Board Advisory and Executive Search firm specialising in the Retail, Consumer, Hospitality and Leisure sectors.
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