Friday’s announcement by the U.S. Commerce Department that retail sales unexpectedly grew in February comes as a surprise. And yet, it didn’t catch America’s top retail brands off guard. Interbrand Design Forum’s 2010 ranking of the top 50 retail brands revealed that the top 25 increased significantly in value—although one would assume the Great Recession might have had the opposite effect, since the consumer stayed away from retail in droves.
Rather than over-reliance on price cuts to lure beleaguered shoppers, companies such as the top three–Walmart, Target and Best Buy—spent the downturn refining their brand. That is, investing in the things that matter and abandoning those that don’t.
Target, for example, maintained differentiation through high-fashion apparel designers, intensified focus on its new up & up private label line, and is remodeling hundreds of stores to give customers a better shopping experience. Now that consumers are spending just a little more freely, Target’s customers will have their brand choice reinforced with new product and a fresh environment.
Even in downturns, the most valuable brands make decisions that get the most out of their store base, because they understand what they are trying to be. With this clarity of purpose comes a detailed understanding of how operational actions influence customer behavior and choice.
February sales surged across all categories, including department stores, which Macy’s for one is poised to leverage, having spent the past three years holding to a strong strategic brand direction through thick and thin. All through the downturn, Macy’s was busy rebranding 330 regional stores operating under ten different banners, and fine-tuning its local assortment program.
Furniture stores, consumer electronics, and hardware stores saw big gains as well. For example, Lowe’s hasn’t waited idly for home values to recover. It has upgraded its website to showcase its brand as a source of inspiration. It has been encouraging DIYers to turn to it for ideas, how-to videos, and project calculators. Lowe’s is also partnering with HGTV, and launching a magazine called Lowe’s Creative Ideas. Again, keeping shoppers dreams alive in the downturn has them well positioned to take the lead in the upswing.
Even though the unexpected sales rise is hitting all the big chains, those retailers that waited too long to surround the purchase with something relevant—besides cheaper prices—might not be creating value for their brands going forward. You can still get the American consumer to trade up and continue spending if the value equation and brand differentiation is right. And if you’re managing your brand for value, like the powerful asset it is.