The retail sector is going through drastic changes. Established names like The Limited are closing or filing for bankruptcy. Amazon and WalMart squeeze everyone’s margins. Special discount shopping days like Black Friday have morphed into Gray November, a month-long deep discounting period. As brands fight to keep up with competitor discounts, profits and customer loyalty are harder to earn.
It is unrealistic for retailers to continue to increasingly discount and remain viable. After all, if a retailer offers 50% off, they’ll need double the sales to reach the same margins. And, oftentimes, the unit sales immediately after the promotion ends suffer as a result. But with global competition increasing, what are retailers to do? Keep up with the Joneses and hope to remain viable, or take a risk and go against the grain to try to increase profits? While some retailers need to rely on discounting, I’d argue that most don’t.
I recently spoke with a fashion retailer who recognized the endless discount cycle dilemma. They had been stuck in this discounting rut, but did not want to be known as a discount brand. They prided themselves on making quality product at a decent price and this constant discounting was bad for their brand and devalued their product. This past holiday season, they made a straight forward business decision: No guts, no glory. At their busiest time of the year, they chose to not discount.
Hello Guts, Meet Glory
While their competitors were running 30%, 40% and even 50% off specials during the busiest shopping period of the year, this retailer resisted the urge. As the season played out, they saw a 10% growth in total revenue until the last week in December (more on that below). On top of the 10% growth, their margins were protected. They generated 30% to 40% greater profits for those units sold.
This retailer also runs an annual day-after-Christmas and clearance sale. This year was no exception. But how would the previous non-discounting impact this sale? As it turns out, one side effect of the non-discounting strategy was that it created and satisfied the demand for a discount. This year’s clearance sale set records in volume of units sold, selling 10 times more year over year. It satisfied the demand of those looking for a deal while not taking away from their traditional after-Christmas strategy.
Having this conversation can be scary. Before you pull the ditch-the-discounts ripcord first look at ways to strengthen your current brand positioning.
Focus on Your Brand
What does the brand stand for? How consumers perceive your brand can ultimately determine whether they will purchase from you without a discount, much less become a loyal customer. Consider brands that have a cause, like TOMS Shoes. Consumers connect with their cause and, because of that, they are generally willing to spend more on a product.
Does your brand focus on quality, value, customer service, personalized services, etc.? Do you have social causes? Do you convey this within your messaging on your website, email, and social profiles? If you remove or lessen discounts, consider whether you offer customers enough value-adds to purchase from you and not a competitor.
Planning for The Long Haul
Since you will no longer be relying on sending a generic 30% off promotion to drive sales, your general batch and blast email strategy will likely need to become a little more refined. You’ll need to maintain a more relevant customer experience. Focus on segmenting where you can. Include intuitive product recommendations inside of your emails and on your website. Analyze your lifecycle messaging and determine how you can redesign them to provide the most value to the end user. Engage, I mean really engage, with your audience on social media. Ask questions, proactively comment, and deploy user generated content to make the site and email experience better.
Evaluate Your Automated Marketing Strategy
When making the decision to pull back on promotions, the next step is to evaluate this strategy with your automated messages. If you have discounts in your welcome, post-purchase, shopping cart, or other automated message series determine whether you want to maintain this strategy. In some cases, you may, as these messages are triggered from user actions. Since these messages are sent to single contacts you may decide it is worth “rewarding” subscribers for engaging.
Just because you no longer set the expectations of continuous discounting doesn’t mean you have to end discounting altogether. Occasional sales may ultimately carry more weight with consumers as they know deals are few and far between with your brand. This will also appeal to those consumers who specifically look for deals.
By avoiding blanket price discounts, you can experiment in configuring promotions. Consider free or expedited shipping promotions, for instance. These carry weight with consumers while protecting margins. Retailers can run promotions on grouped items instead of single SKUs, therefore increasing average order value while still protecting margins.
There is no one strategy for fighting back against deep discounting. Retailers will need to determine how far they are willing to commit to the strategy, and to what extent their customers are willing to tolerate the pullback. While the retailer I mentioned earlier plans on enhancing their overall strategy by refining their segmentation and timing of messages, I did ask him if there was anything he would do over again based on his experience. His answer, “Not really.” That answer is quite telling. Whether the success of this strategy is sustainable, only time will tell. But right now, this retailer is enjoying the glory.
Greg Zakowicz is Senior Commerce Marketing Analyst for Bronto Software