Managers of premium brands face a perennial dilemma. How do you grow a premium brand without killing its soul?

By MediaStreet Staff Writers

A unique brand cachet attracts its core high-price-paying customers. But what happens when you seek to expand sales to the masses by offering lower prices? In recent years, outlet stores located hours away from glitzy shopping districts have sprung up everywhere. They are selling off-season and lower-tier merchandise at a fraction of regular retail prices. They have become significant sources of revenues.

The conventional wisdom is that relying on revenues from outlet stores can destroy the brand’s prestige over time. But according to a forthcoming study in the journal Marketing Science, outlet stores may actually help improve the brand’s cachet.

The study, “Why outlet stores exist: averting cannibalisation in product line extensions,” was authored by Donald Ngwe of Harvard Business School.

Ngwe analysed five years of customer sales data covering over 16 million customers and 27 million transactions from a major high-end fashion firm with hundreds of regular and outlet stores around the country. He found that the brand’s core customers are picky about wanting the latest products and are willing to pay premium prices, but are unwilling to travel very far to buy the brand.

In contrast, the larger mass of customers who aspire to consume this brand, but are price sensitive, are not only willing to travel the long distances to outlet stores, but are also not very picky in their tastes for the latest products and willing to tolerate lower quality. Therefore outlet stores expand revenues with limited cannibalisation of revenues from the core high paying customer base.

Taking into account this strong negative correlation between taste for quality and new products and willingness to travel for shopping among the core and mass segments, Ngwe modelled the firm’s product introductions in regular and outlet stores. He found two key results. First, the availability of outlets for selling older products to mass consumers means that firms can take more risk and introduce more new products at faster rates at its regular stores. Second, as outlet stores absorb the customer base of price-conscious customers who need less service, the firm can invest in greater service at regular stores. New product introduction at regular stores increases by as much as 16 percent. Ngwe said, “Here is the kicker. Even as outlet stores generate significant revenues from the masses, they help the brand increase its cachet among its core customers through more new products and higher service.”

The conventional wisdom that outlet stores can be detrimental to a premium brand’s health arises from failing to recognise the positive spillovers from outlet stores on regular retail stores. Ngwe noted, “For the brand we studied, there is little cannibalisation of regular store revenues by outlet stores. Moreover, outlet stores have positive spillovers in terms of higher service and more frequent new products in regular stores. So the net effect of outlet stores is to increase brand cachet.”

However, Ngwe cautioned, “Critical to our conclusion is that core customers would not shop at outlet stores due to their aversion to traveling long distances. This may not be true for customers of other brands, particularly lower end ones. Also, pure online brands cannot use travel distances to separate their core and mass customer segments. Online premium brands will need to find other means to differentiate their upscale and mass offerings.”

The complete paper is available here.

 

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