The Sale before The Sale

With the seemingly limp uplift provided by the hyped Black Friday, retailers are keen to kick start the Christmas spending. Fashion retailers in particular are hurting from mild weather in recent weeks, so targeted “sell thrus” have not been achieved.

The winter sales traditionally start on Boxing Day, but a short walk on the high-street and a glance through your inbox reveals the sales have already started.

Some medium to high end brands are already offering 40% off, and a number of high end department stores are offering their traditional “Fashion Preview” from 30 to 40% off. The execution of this was pretty varied, and what should be straightforward for the customer to understand and take advantage of, was in reality very complicated.

We visited a number of stores this week, from high street to high end, and these were our findings.

Fantastic windows greeted the customers of Harrods, with their theme running throughout. As ever the Food halls were in full swing. Christmas and gifting food as well as hampers in full and abundant supply always makes us want to buy.

Elsewhere in the store, the Fashion Preview was fully set up, 30% off the Spring Summer 2015 ranges. This was interspersed with seasonal reductions ranging from 40-50% off. Brands such as The Kooples, Sandro, Maje and All saints were already offering sale level discounts, but were excluded from the Fashion Preview offer.

Home and Furniture were actually in full sale with the famous red “The Sale” signage offering discounts from 25-40% off. The toy department looked great fresh from a new makeover, and here you could buy an original Star Wars Stormtrooper Helmet for £650. In addition to the Fashion Preview message, Gifting was a strong message, with numerous carts offering “gifts for her” or “gifts for him”.

Our favourite gift must be the Rolls Royce Dawn, on the ground floor by door 9. Just need the £250K to buy it!

Next was Harvey Nichols, starting on the fifth floor in the Food department, which has a pop up Christmas decoration clearance area. All reduced by 50%, and displayed to sell.

Harvey Nichols also operate a Fashion Preview, offering 40% off, but trying to find out what was in was difficult and confusing on some floors. Concessions have their own discounts. Here again brands such as The Kooples, Zadig and Voltaire and Sandro were 50% off, but you only found out when you asked – seems to be a well-kept secret. This was much clearer as you move down the store to ladies wear on the first floor, with signs indicating if the brands were in the preview or were “not participating”.

Next stop Selfridges. The Christmas shop on the fourth floor, has all decorations at half price. Beyond that there is a strong gifting theme across the floor, and again very strong in the basement, with the Conran Shop, Anthropologie, Technology and Decorative.

In fashion, there was a Fashion Preview in shoes, indicated by a red dot on the barcode, but strangely no signs to make you aware or encourage you to spend. Once again, The Kooples, Sandro, Maje and Zadig and Voltaire were displaying 50% off signs, but elsewhere in fashion, everything was full price. There was a definite feel of more new season product, as shown by some large oversize “New” swing tags.

Food halls have the new Marc patisserie and chocolate shop. We can recommend the Tahitian Vanilla Ganache!

Oxford Street itself was a buzzing mass of people as usual, chestnut sellers and steel bands playing Christmas Carols added to the atmosphere.

Who needs Black Friday?

Having started at the top, we then turned our attention to the next tier down.

Once again we found a number of areas of the stores in full sale, or at least offering Christmas Reductions across a number of categories. John Lewis had the least amount of markdowns, probably as a result of their strong recent performances, but House of Fraser seemed particularly heavy with stock.

House Of Fraser felt difficult to navigate, with numerous fixtures or rails, bursting with stock, and several different messages for markdowns, “Christmas your rules” in either black or pink, offering between 30% and 50% off, and then branded signage in red also offering 50% off. Not sure why this couldn’t just be the same though.

As you would expect Fashion had a number of brands on sale too, particularly in women’s wear and women’s shoes, where the KG concession was in full sale. Men’s wear had far fewer markdowns however.

Home and furniture were also in sale offering up to 40% off luggage and 15% off furniture. These could be great stories, if only they had a bit more atmosphere. Merchandising could have been stronger and simpler. Less rails and fixtures would have made shopping easier, and we did not understand some of the adjacencies; fit tech next to kitchen knives? Always a danger this time of year that the rules go out the window to get the stock on to the floor and in front of the customer. If only they could be as disciplined as John Lewis, our next destination.

Photo 16-12-2015, 13 37 30

John Lewis was very good, simple layouts, easy to shop, clear signage for brands and categories, really easy to navigate and find what we were looking for.

Christmas and gifting offered really good products, well done to the buyers but they could have made a bigger impact with their “Man on the Moon” theme. Finding space for Christmas is often challenging, and it did feel a bit odd, moving from a beautiful and busy Christmas shop into home office furniture. One for next year perhaps?

Another one for next year, when all signs point to the Toy area, you can be forgiven for expecting a toy grotto but when you got there it was a bit under whelming.

A reflection of its stronger performance, John Lewis had the least amount of markdowns in fashion; just a few brands such as Hobbs and Phase Eight were displaying clearance prices.

As we entered Marks and Spencer’s we were greeted by large A frame signs offering 30% off selected Christmas lines, which flowed across food, home and fashion but gifting at M&S seemed a bit sparse. There was an area dedicated to it, but it was one of the smallest we saw. Sell throughs could have been exceptional or it was under bought. Hard to tell but it was lacking for that point in the season.

Clearly fashion is the largest part of M & S and it is here where we struggled. There are such a high number of sub brands, and then category areas, it makes it hard to shop. When you get in amongst them, there are some great products with very good quality, but finding them is so difficult. Clearer sight lines and better signage for the sub brand or category would surely help customers discover their products easier.

In summary the key messages we took away, and would love to share with the retail teams involved, were adjacencies, signage, clarity of message and range stories become clouded and confused the closer one gets to the end of the season, just when the customer is under the most pressure and needs the most help to find a gift quickly and efficiently. Don’t let standards slip or the customer will leave frustrated.

The other message is that there is no such thing as a traditional sale calendar any more. It is a free for all, and the customer is in control. Winter sales officially start Boxing Day, but why wait, grab yourself a bargain now. Who said you can’t leave Christmas shopping to the last minute?

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