Thriving as a Legacy Retailer in a Digital Age: Three Takeaways from Shoptalk

April 4, 2018 David Stychno

Imagine traveling back to 1980’s New York with your iPhone.

You stop a passerby.

They scream at you to put some clothes on and you explain that Terminator will come out in a few years and the whole naked time traveler thing will make more sense.

Then you ask them to point out some shoes from another passerby that they’d like to own.

You Google the shoes on your small slab of black glass, show them a picture of said shoes and order them for next day arrival.

When it comes to retail, one of the most challenging and fascinating examples of necessary adaptation has been for those companies who have been around for 30, 50, 100 years — so called “legacy” brands.

By this time you’ve been handcuffed by the police and a crowd has gathered, just staring blankly aghast and not recording anything because people do not have magic pocket computer camera phones remember this is 1980.

That person you bought the shoes for is super confused but full of wonder.

Sometimes it’s fun (and important) to pause and reflect on our current radical techno-future and consider how quickly things have changed.

The digital revolution has upended countless industries and business models.

When it comes to retail, one the most challenging and fascinating examples of necessary adaptation has been for those companies who have been around for 30, 50, 100 years — so-called “legacy” brands.

Ascena Retail Group manages a collection of eight women’s apparel, accessory, and footwear brands, some dating all the way back to 1900. Full disclosure: three of Ascena’s portfolio brands also happen to use Custora.

Ascena CEO, David Jaffe, delivered one of the final keynote sessions at Shoptalk 2018. Titled  “Thriving as a Legacy Retailer in a Digital Age,” David’s presentation focused on how they’ve adapted and continued to thrive while navigating an array of disruptive digital and competitive forces.

Here are three highlights.

1. Customer expectations: Understand how they have changed.

David outlined six categories for framing how consumer expectations have changed.  


Increasingly, customers are expecting more tailored interactions from every brand.

A simple example is customized email. If Brand X begins emails with, “Hi Lora...,” why isn’t Brand Y?

Another simple example—how quickly can a customer service or in-store associate access your purchase history? Customers understand that stores collect purchase data, and as more data-savvy retailers are leveraging that data, it’s raising the bar for every brand to deliver more personalized experiences.


David described this as, “I want it when I want it.” Yes, people can and do buy $1000 dresses while in line for tacos. Or with the help of time travelers.


Shoppers want a story. Everlane and Patagonia are shining examples of leveraging transparency as a brand value. And beyond manufacturing, how was the product created? What was the design process? What informed the material choices? Were there any environmental considerations? Shows like Project Runway have opened up the “process” of fashion design to a whole new generation of shoppers.  


Everyone wants a good deal — or to feel like they understand the value of their purchase. In other words, some shoppers want the “best” absolute deal and will only shop with promotions, whereas others believe so much in the quality and reputation of your products that they’re happy to pay full price.


For many, shopping is a hobby, (even if they won’t admit it. :)). Hobbies should be fun. Fun + shopping comes in many forms. Maybe it’s the thrill of a sneak peek to a new collection? Maybe it’s the thrill of a surprise re-stock. Maybe it’s the way you celebrate your customers or bring a new spin to an underserved category?


Related to the “On-Demand” mentality of shoppers, the next big hurdle is fulfillment. How fast can shoppers experience their purchase? There is a big advantage for legacy brands, which we’ll address below. Other considerations include customer service response (phone, chat, text?) and post-purchase communications. If that order confirmation doesn’t arrive within 10 seconds, you have work to do.

Keeping these opportunity areas in mind, consider, How might we frame our marketing goals within each of these categories? For example, “How might our brand communicate with more authentic transparency about our products?

2. There’s a convergence in the (retail) force.

Digital-first brands like Bonobos, Warby Parker, and Casper continue to expand their physical retail business, whereas massive retailers (both digital and legacy alike) like Macy’s and Walmart are either trimming their real estate and/or expanding their digital channels.

David sees this trend continuing towards a balance where brands are able to offer the best of both worlds.

David also listed the many ways Ascena views their stores as critical fulfillment and brand experience assets that address some of the shifting consumer expectations above: Customers can make digital returns in store, ship to store for pick up, speak with an associate about product feedback, and so on.

Basically, he believes the omnichannel strategy will win in the long run.


For digital-only brands: How might we offer opportunities for customers to interact with our products? (This might be a virtual tool. Nike recently launched their first AR “demo” with their new React line of running shoes. Definitely worth checking out).

For legacy brands: How might our stores complement our digital touchpoints? Could we be doing more?

3. “Brands matter more than ever.”

Sure, brands can be bought, but truly building a brand takes time. Some of today’s legacy brands like Ann Taylor and Lane Bryant have immense brand equity and credibility that has taken years to build. This familiarity and trust still matter to consumers.

As David put it, to thrive, these brands need to “ even stronger relationships with their customers and use their data to better understand who she is and what she wants.” Their tenure and accrued data are one of their most valuable assets, right behind great products of course—which David was very clear to emphasize. This combination of great product and customer-obsession is key to moving the needle. As noted by keynote speaker and Glossier CEO Emily Weiss, "It doesn’t matter what the brand says about the product; it matters what the customer says about the product.”

“Product is king,” in his words, and smart, data-driven and customer-focused adaptation is absolutely essential for legacy brands (or any brand for that matter) to compete in this crazy future we’re flying through.


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