I’ve always believed that you get what you pay for, and retail goods are no exception to this rule. I would rather spend a little more for a well-made business suit that will last for 10 years than buy a cheaper version that I’ll have to replace after one or two seasons. But I have to be honest: lately, I’ve found myself wandering the aisles of discount stores thinking, “Wow, I can get five shirts for what I would spend on one at a higher-end store.” In these penny-pinching times, it seems easier to spend less now, and not worry about what happens when I have to replace all five shirts next year.
But after listening to some Financial Times interviews with CEOs of luxury retailers—and watching the hem on a recently purchased bargain skirt unravel—I’ve returned to my original perspective. And I’m not alone. As Bernard Arnault, whose company owns brands such as Louis Vuitton and Fendi, explained, now is when consumers are looking for quality and durability in their products, which is exactly what high-end retailers offer.
Of course, the CEOs are hardly unbiased reviewers of their own products. But these companies have more than just CEO chatter to convince me of their worth—they have history. Those years of proven value and satisfied customers speak louder than any advertisement or interview. And they know it.
Burberry CEO Angela Arhendts told the Financial Times that heritage is precisely the tool she is using to see her company through the downturn. She believes that reminding customers of the quality and innovation that has characterized the brand since the mid-1800s will help reassure them that they are getting a return on their investment. That’s especially important when consumers have so little money with which to invest.
Burberry’s story reminds me of another high-end, classic retailer with which I regularly work at The History Factory. Also known for its commitment to quality and its loyal customer following, this brand faced a dark period when new leadership tried to revamp the company’s image in order to attract a younger, hipper clientele. It didn’t work, and the brand only suffered in the eyes of its formerly faithful following. A subsequent change in leadership, however, brought the retailer back on track, and heritage has become forefront in the company’s mind.
The lesson learned is that culture and values shouldn’t change to keep up with a changing world. Instead, they should lead companies through those changes, downturns and all. And when it comes to attracting new clients to a classic brand, heritage is still the key.
That doesn’t mean there’s no room for innovation. Arhendts explained how Burberry is communicating its history to younger audiences through multi-media videos that combine historical information with current, popular music. But for companies such as these, built on the combination of quality and innovation, there’s no better place to turn than their foundations for help in troubling times. As for me, I think I’ll stick to window shopping until the tide turns.