Image: Topshop

At a precarious time for much of the retail market, 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. In reality, however, heritage appears to have become something of a blind spot for some retailers. Last year, 243-year-old Debenhams, for example, 137-year-old Jaeger, and nearly 60-year-old Topshop all went into administration before reemerging as online-only – or almost entirely online only – brands. Meanwhile in the U.S., the nation’s oldest clothing retailer Brooks Brothers filed for bankruptcy in 2020, as did 195-year-old department store chain Lord & Taylor. 

Research indicates that one reason for this shift in which retailers are successful (and which aren’t) comes from stalwart names continuing to over-value their status as heritage brands. They tend to rely too heavily on their position as market stalwarts and in the process, fail to keep up with changes in shopper behavior, and thereby, 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 behavior mean retailers need to always look afresh at what they do. Yet, to many established names in retail, protecting their own heritage means sticking to old ways and minimizing costs for shareholders. It is the complete opposite of innovation, and of trying out new – and possibly risky – ideas. 

Take Amazon for example, arguably the most successful retailer on the planet. It evolved from an online bookseller into a dominant and ever-expanding retail behemoth. It recently opened its first UK checkout-free grocery store  and a hair salon to expand its move into the brick-and-mortar landscape (surely proof that physical shops still matter despite high street woes). One might argue that it is easier for a businesses like Amazon to be innovative and agile because of their 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.” – something that Walmart appears to be banking on by way of its recent acquisition of Zeekit –  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 can easily do that online (and as a result of the pandemic, more consumers than ever are comfortable – and accustomed to – shopping online). They go to explore, to be inspired and entertained, as part of the “experience economy.”

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 consumers to consistently visit its stores. 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, retailers cannot simply 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 like Debenhams or chains like Lord & Taylor 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. After all, 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 minds of consumers entirely.

Kokho Jason Sit is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Portsmouth. (This article was initially published by The Conversation)