A tale of two retail experiences


Barkers department store on Kensington High Street in 1959 – now the location of the UK’s first Whole Foods Market.

Lots of nonsense is talked about brands.

Especially these days when the entire marketing community seems to have gone beardy weirdy, believing that cosumers and brands are now best buddies. This approach largely ignores the small issue of capitalism – the way that businesses extract a profit from the consumer.

For me the primary service a brand delivers to a business is in getting consumers to do things that are irrational and often against their best interests – to trade-off price, quality or service. If not why would a business have them?

And two retail experiences pointed this up to me in their very different ways – Wholefoods Market and Ikea.

The UK has just got its first proper Whole Foods Market in the old Barkers building on Kensington High Street.
Now I know the Americans amongst you have all gone cynical and sniffy about Whole Foods Market. Claiming that the firm has sold its hard core organic roots short and dismayed at the shenanigans of its founder who has a habit of anonymously slagging of competitors on analyst’s discussion boards.
Well you’ll find no such cynicism from this quarter. This is the best supermarket in the UK period.
Nowhere else demonstrates the one thing you really want from a food retailer – a real love of food. Sure there are a few food halls in poncey department stores but they are far more likely to be places you buy a stilton at Christmas or a tub of gentleman’s relish for a favoured uncle than the destination of your weekly shop.
Its not just that the food is good, it is the way in which it is cared for and merchandised that marks Whole Foods Market out both from your bog standard Sainsbury’s, Tesco or Waitrose and from the organic retailers like Fresh and Wild (which Whole Foods Market also owns). Eggs are sold individually with you choosing the ones you like the look of to put in your egg box. Cheese has its own temperature controlled room. The Sausages are made on the premises and then sold form their own humidor. The bakery is a bakery and not a bit of ‘retail theatre’. And even the canned food is merchandised with a flair that seems to escape the ghastly sheds that dominate UK food retailing.

See what I mean about the eggs

Of course there is a price. And its the price.
Not for nothing is Whole Foods known in the US as Whole Pay Paket where even the well healed of Northern California wince at the checkout. Like most great brands Whole Foods Market are able to establish and maintain a price premium over the competition because the brand (and I am using the term to include both the tangible and intangible mainfestations of the consumer experience) gives them the strategic freedom to ramp up price and still keep the cash tills ringing. Thats what I call price elasticity.
The day after my visit to Whole Foods market I dropped in on Ikea in Wembley. Of course with Ikea there is no price premium in return for access to the brand – its more like your dignity they are after.
What continues to impress me about this retailer is the frenzy of slobbering desire that they manage to whip-up in people by the time they reach the checkouts. Sure some of the design is nice but the excitement that led to rioting when their Edmonton store opened is really all about the price. Ikea isn’t just cheap, Ikea’s prices defy the very laws of physics.
But as you will all be familiar with access to these prices comes from enduring a retail experience that is entirely on Ikea’s terms – there are more rules in Ikea than in test cricket.
The whole thing reminds me of Eddie Izzard’s letter from St Paul to the Corinthians “Don’t do this. Don’t do that. Don’t put socks in a toaster. Don’t put jam on magnets”.

A bit of Eddie for light relief.
Both retailers are extracting value form the consumer but in almost diametrically opposite ways. Whole Foods says this is the product and experience but if you want it you have to hand over your cash (which is excatly the same as when we buy an iPod or an Innocent smoothie). Where as Ikea says this is the price but if you want it you have to put up with an experience engineered to require minimal effort on the part of the retailer. That’s why many people have too leave a period of years between Ikea expeditions – they are so drained by the process.
And that is what powerful brands deliver for businesses – a preparedness to endure something about the mix of price, service or quality that is anything other than optimal for the consumer. And in that preparedness to act irrationally is the potential for profit. Something that both Whole Foods Market (with twice the profit per square foot of any other US supermarket) and Ikea (despite recent UK wobbles) know alot about.

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37 Replies to “A tale of two retail experiences”

  1. I popped over to whole foods the other week.
    I was very impressed by the slickness and the quite simply breath-taking markups.
    However, I think Tescos and co still have lots to teach them about store layout. Spreading over two floors is, in my opinion, overly ambitious. It’s excellent for tourists but I think it’d be frustrating for anyone who tries to shop there regularly.
    Not sure if they’re planning on having a ‘tourist attraction’ model, but I think it’s what they’re going to end up with.
    We’ll see if it succeeds, but I think Waitrose and M&S will give them some pretty stiff competition.

  2. Good post. Thank you! When I have an opportunity to preach from the pulpit about brand, I offer a simple message: Brand is not a logo nor what you say it is. Brand is the experience your customers have when they interact with your business. They own the brand and determine its value, not you.

  3. very nicely captured and your final observation about “what powerful brands deliver for businesses – a preparedness to endure something about the mix of price, service or quality that is anything other than optimal for the consumer” is absolutely spot on
    These two brands are for the large part don’t share the same target audience. I risk exaggerating but I’d say that these 2 brands don’t share more than 3% of their potential consumers.
    So these examples also tells us something (nothing new really) about powerful brands and class/social divide:
    The high-end retail experience (WFM /Urban Outfitter) where people are willing to pay super-premium prices for the product/experience versus Low-end retail experience (IKEA / Ryanair) where people are willing to take quite a lot of shit as long as they get budget prices.

  4. IKEA is after your dignity? A low end retail experience? Oh c’mon, folks it’s the very opposite of that.
    IKEA lets people trade labour for money. The customer does some of the work and pays less as a result.
    Firstly you choose what you want yourself without having some salesperson on commission fawning over you; then you collect and deliver yourself so avoiding the long wait you get elsewhere; then you build it yourself. And not only have you saved a lot of money, you get the sense of satisfaction that comes from any gratifying piece of work. IKEA is about no less than the dignity of labour.
    As for low-end, pah! where else do you get Sunday lunch for the whole family and change out of £15.
    And you get the sweet after taste of knowing that all that flat packing has saved the planet a ton of CO2 in terms of furniture miles.
    Whole Foods on the other hand is just poncey middle class nonsense.
    Up the workers, I say.

  5. Wonderful post. Goes a bit wonky just before the Eddie clip, as you seem to let your latent beardy weirdy sensibilities indulge in a rant against Ikea, but you regain form at the end.
    I would argue that Ikea does a wonderful job presenting low cost, medium quality furniture of good design.
    I’d also argue that almost everyone that shops at Whole Foods, at some time, has made the trade-off between price and personal service to buy Ikea furniture – most likely to avoid taking in Gran’s old dresser.
    Many people leave years between Ikea expeditions because that’s how frequently they buy home furniture.
    In my house, we’ve learnt the location of all the doors hidden for staff – the doors that break through the enforced traffic flow inside the store.
    That lets us pop in for a rack of glasses, a new lamp and a nice open faced shrimp sandwich, and then jump to the front of the store.

  6. food for thought. I wonder whether ikea is actually the triumph of rationality over the irrationality of brands that persuade you to part with mounds of cash for little significantly more. Whilst others charge for a contrived experience, they just get on with selling you stuff cheap, almost stripping away anything you’d associate with traditional brand thinking ie service, ease, time saving, experience. Isn’t ikea about product over brand?

  7. actually, whilst i’m going on, i worry about the marketing industry using examples like ikea as case studies in great branding. Or at least puffing out its chest a little too far, and over claiming credit in its success. Tesco is another case in point. ‘Every little Helps’ helped a little, but as with ikea, the reasons for success were down to brilliant product, low price, supply chain efficiencies, store locations, transport innovation and all the other things that marketing folk think just happen. Hmm rant over. In a roundabout way i agree with the underlying point. People don’t want to be best buddies with brands. They make them do stuff they don’t need to do. At the same time, brands aren’t always that crucial to their decisions. Fair enough i say.

  8. I think I know what you mean sidekick, but IKEA is a brand in that it stands for something: a better everyday life for the many people.
    It is also a very successful business. Perhaps the difference in in its approach to business. It has never really been a marketing focussed business and just about all of the innovation has been on the production and distribution side. From sourcing materials and flatpacking to out of town stores and a design philosophy which starts with the price (how do we make a kitchen chair that can retail profitably at £15 and is still beautiful to look at and functions properly?). They famously built a motorway through Russia in order to access raw materials, in Sweden in the early days they by-passed the traditional furniture manufacturers and went straight the lumber yards; they persuaded a pylon insulator manufacturer to make them lamps and a shopping trolley maker to make them a sofa range both for a fraction of the cost of traditional manufacturers.
    There are loads of stories like this. What they add up to is a brand created by a determination to deliver on a promise of quality furnishings at a price the many people can afford.
    When customers interact with IKEA their experience is framed in truth and authenticity. Every brand wants that but many brands try to manufacture it through marketing rather than create it through genuine innovation in the production process, which is perhaps the only way a business can actually create value for its customers.
    So I think IKEA is a brand, I just can’t think of many more like it. Maybe Swatch who enacted a similar revolution in watchmaking and pissed off the elitist Swiss industry in the process. And I suppose the supermarkets do it by leaning heavily on farmers, but that’s a pretty short-term strategy, you can’t build a long term business without making sure there’s something in it for everyone in the supply chain.

  9. But that misses sidekick’s point, we do like to bang on about great brands/businesses like ikea … but in truth how many have our industry created, or been a critical element in their creation?
    Precious few, but you’d never guess it.

  10. Well I think we could safely say that the sense we have of Ikea in the UK is inpart shaped by Phil in particular and St Lukes in general.
    Sure he needs to get over Ikea and move on with his life but he does have the authority to bang on about it.
    And I don’t buy the idea that we cant be fascinated by brands if the ad industry had the square root of fuck all to do with their creation or maintenance. They are still fascinating business tools, and indeed I think it is all the more important that we study ‘new’ brands that have emerged from stongly entrpreneurial origins and without the aid of agencies if we are to improve the brand advice that we give to our clinents.

  11. Every agency overstates how much of an impact advertising/branding has had on their clients’ successes – it’s the old Jeremy Bullmore example about every agency having at least one example which ‘increased turnover 500% in the first 6 months’.
    That said, yes, advertising/branding does have an impact. Quite how much, well, that’s the trick. It’s very difficult to quantify.

  12. Oi, Huntington check your facts. IKEA UK is just one market of many. Check our website for our latest US campaign; the Finnish and German stuff and the textiles work we just did for london, paris, NYC and LA. There’s more to this business than what’s reported in Campaign!
    Anyway, Sidekicks second post must have came in while I was writing mine. I think this is his/her key point:
    “but as with ikea, the reasons for success were down to brilliant product, low price, supply chain efficiencies, store locations, transport innovation and all the other things that marketing folk think just happen.”
    All of that is true to a point but if no-one is going to the brand how are they ever going to experience it? More importantly, if the brand feels massively salient and fashionable and bang on for right now, then your engagement with the experience is going to be so much richer.
    What advertising does brilliantly well is frame brands in a cultural context. Isn’t Honda a fantastic example of that? The Dreams brief had been kicked around for a few years as far as I’m aware – I remember St Luke’s pitching for it in 1999 or thereabouts. It took Hate Something to propel the brand into the zeitgeist, make it part of our lives.
    Great campaigns catch a wave of cultural change and ride it for all they’re worth.
    Also, Alisdair Gray in his book Lanark argued that art allowed people to imagine being in a place before they ever visited it. Milan, Paris, Rome are places we visit first in our imagination, through paintings, novels and films. He was making a point about old Glasgow, that without writers and artists no-one could fully imagine the city.
    Sounds very pretentious, but I think that what good campaigns do is take you to a place, bring it to live in your mind and make it relevant to modern life.
    Maybe there’s an insight in there: maybe we talk too much about building barnds and too little about creating campaigns.

  13. I think I’m right in thinking that the German market is the biggest for IKEA in Europe right now. I’m not sure why this happened, but it was the place to go and buy your furniture already way back in 1993 when I moved over here.
    Here, IKEA stores perform a number of cultural/communal functions, which, it seems to me, have organically evolved over the last 14 or so years. These include:
    1. A focal eating point. IKEA stores are flooded with blue and white collar workers at lunch time.
    2. Communal shopping. “I’m going to IKEA do you want to come too”.
    3. A place where we have a god given right (church –nod towards Graeme Douglas) to buy furniture.
    But the interesting thing to me is the fact that when you move into a new flat (accommodation is different here in Germany – most of us rent flats) you automatically plan IKEA into the move. It’s simply part of what you have to do when you move spaces – it’s part of the process and part of the moving vocabulary.
    The fact that IKEA’s campaigns are actually rather good is almost irrelevant because from a communications point of view we expect three things from IKEA; the new catalogue, the “knut” campaign that has run for the last 10 years just after Christmas and the “mid-summer” campaign.
    But the thing I love (and I really do love IKEA) about IKEA, and here we have the work of an agency, is the claim “Wohnst du noch oder lebst du schon?” which is simply brilliant (and impossible to translate) and builds on the fact that IKEA is part of our vocabulary and makes it part of our lives. IKEA is almost a verb, not quite but almost.
    Surely this is the best thing that can happen to a business? And surely it’s immaterial to me as a consumer who has been responsible for this (agency/business).
    (look Richard – no swearing)

  14. on a technical note … is the ‘square root of fuck all’ the same as ‘fuck all’ squared?

  15. anyhow I’d have to agree, with Marcus and with Phil.
    I don’t think the Ikea campaign -fantastic though it is, and always has been- has inpart shaped the sense we have of Ikea.
    Depends of course by what you mean by ‘inpart’… or ‘we’ for that matter.
    If you mean ‘in small part’ or ‘we’ being the communications community -which I don’t think you do- I’d agree, but for the public I think there are factors far more powerful than, albeit brilliant, advertising. The in-store experience widely shared (wasn’t that the point of the post?), the catalogue, the bed we sleep on, the people we know who have bought and built, the chest of drawers, the people we know who have their kit, the stories…. the burnt meatball (granted they didn’t sell them to me that way).
    Phils analysis is more like it ‘good campaigns take you to a place’, they can sustain brands, they can even reposition them -or help- but build them? Rarely. You said yourself brands emerge from entreprenerial origins, we might help them grow but we didn’t plant them.
    Was I trying to ‘sell you’ the idea that we shouldn’t be fascinated by brands? Not intentionally.
    And are they ‘fascinating business tools’, or consumer constructs that businesses need to understand?
    Phils final point is worth thinking about, as a community do we talk too much about building brands and too little about creating great campaigns?

  16. just catching up after a manic day and enjoyed the detours this conversation made. ikea is clearly a success story, it’s just interesting how different the intepretations are as to why. i’m sure there’s a case study somewhere i should read, rather than shouting off from my mobile phone on a bus.
    on that note, wouldn’t it be good to have some kind of wiki database of marketing case studies for people to come and read and learn from, without having to trawl through the IPA database or WARC. it would be really simple to find something – and with proper tagging, you could stumble on some cool little stories. and i quite like the idea that its open source, so someone might write up their ‘version’ of the story, but it can be altered by someone else, and altered by someone else, and in the end we might get to somewhere near the truth. a wikipedia for branding. this probably exists and i’m just totally ignorant of it. in any case, i’ll add it to my list of ideas, i never quite get round to doing something about.

  17. Phil,
    “What advertising does brilliantly well is frame brands in a cultural context… Great campaigns catch a wave of cultural change and ride it for all they’re worth… art allowed people to imagine being in a place before they ever visited it. Milan, Paris, Rome are places we visit first in our imagination, through paintings, novels and films…. what good campaigns do is take you to a place, bring it to live in your mind and make it relevant to modern life.”
    Love it. In a world consumed by endless chatter about everything 2.0, I found this the best and most elegant defence of advertising and its power to harness imagination that I’ve heard in a while. Thank you. I’ll be copying and pasting it into many a conversation… With your permission of course.

  18. Grumpy, copy and paste to your hearts content. i’m pretty sure I’ve borrowed each and every one of those words from someone far smarter than me.

  19. “i’m pretty sure I’ve borrowed each and every one of those words from someone far smarter than me”
    that would of been me phil.
    well I had to jump in before richard claimed it. Goalhangers that we are.

  20. I’m still struggling to think of someone smarter than Phil.
    I think the idea that good campaigns allow people to imagine ‘visiting’ the brand before actually doing so is rather nice.

  21. Hey folks, what happened to the debate we were having? It seems to have got bogged down in flattery. Stuff that.
    Coming back to that swedish retailer I’m unhealthily obsessed with, one of my old clients there had a nice little mantra: TO BUILD BRANDS, BUILD THE AUDIENCE. They do tend to speak a little funny but the wisdom in that expression is immense. His point was that ad agency people waste too much time sitting around thinking about brand stuff and not enough time worrying about the customers. Brand values and essences and personalities are all abstractions. People, culture and trends are real. The role of advertising should be to engage the audience culturally. That means, don’t give too hoots about consistency and all that, just go out there and stir people up.
    Take the brand as a given, it is the product (and the shop and the customer experience) and it is not advertisings job to worry about those things. Other people can deal with that. It is our job to work out what people are talking about, pitch the barnd into that debate and cause a bit of a fuss along the way.
    Malcom X in his speeches to young people advised them to: agitate, educate, organise. (Actually I got that from a That Petrol Emotion song, but hey, what a band.) Agitate, educate, organise is a brilliant way of structuring a campaign. It’s Dove with the self-esteem fund being the organise bit; Dirt is Good almost got there but fell a bit flat on the organise principle.
    Anyways, the St Luke’s Friday BBQ is starting downstairs, must dash.

  22. brilliant brand, but fail to see the role of advertising in this one.
    Limited stores, a flat and boring category/market, design at low prices and a flippin hot dog at the end of it! These were the chapters in the IKEA story/myths which people spread and thus ensured its success.
    The brand grew from strength to strength to as a result of its topsy turvy approach to retailing/interior design and not the advertising. And yet as the model becomes dated it has lost a spark which no amount of engaging advertising can help re-engineer.
    So, whilst it was, I don’t think it is a great retailing success (but the hot dogs are still great).

  23. MM, I think that advertising was often the ‘spark’ to which you refer. As far as I know IKEA as a business is still doing very well around the world which suggests the concept is far from dated.
    In terms of it being a boring market, when people are asked what says most about them as a person, their car/job/mobile/clothes/home the majority answer home. Mintel used to classify the furnishings market as low interest, it is the opposite of that.
    But ‘spark’ is a brilliant way of thinking about how advertising works. Being a detonator that ignites an explosion in popular culture is another.

  24. Phil,
    Now that your BBQ is out of the way, can you expand more on “Agitate, Educate, Organise”? What do you mean exactly by these notions?

  25. Grumpy, I like agitate, educate, organise as an explanation of the different levels on which a campaign can operate. I suppose I also like the analogy between advertising and political agitation and mobilising people around a cause.
    Take Dove, the agitation is the challenge to the mainstream beauty industry and its love of size ’00’: The images of real women and the film of the ordinary girl becoming a beauty model via photoshop is also a great piece of agitation.
    The education is the level of the communication which explains that everyone can be beautiful and, much deeper, the self-esteem fund on the website which helps mums talk to their daughters about weight issues etc.
    The organise was best represented by the poll the original campaign was based around: you have your say on what is beautiful.

  26. I love the idea of bringing the thinking of Malcom X to discussions with clients. Would scare them more than Marx does *cuts and pastes again*
    Your analysis of Dove within the Agitate-Educate-Organise model rather undervalues one of the key drivers of the brand’s growth globally – i.e. it delivers good products that actually work (and generally outperform the dominant domestic competitors). So in this example, the Educate component also encompasses making people aware of the other, better, different beauty PRODUCT choices that are available…
    I wonder then if the Educating bit is about the brand making available choice of values, ideals… but also products and their benefits. Didn’t IKEA educate us Brits that decent style for the home didn’t have to cost a ton… that we needn’t be prisoners of chintz?
    Incidentally, I noted with interested in the O6 Annual Report from Unilever that so far, “Dove self-esteem programmes have reached more than 750 000 young people”.
    In the same report, it states that “more than 4 million consumers claimed a free hand-held clicker to keep track of the flirtatious looks they attracted as a result of using Axe Click”
    It would seem that some issues (or audiences) are more responsive to Organisation…

  27. Nice point about clickers, Grumpy.
    On your point about product. The origianl Dove campaign didn’t go into product detail. Neither did the best of the IKEA stuff.
    Your absolutely right to say that the brand educated us that furniture didn’t need to costa ton, but it wasn’t a role for the advertising. The ads fought a bigger battle – changing british tastes.
    It comes back to the point made earlier in this discussion about the role of advertising and maybe its better to leave brand building to the brands and focus upon building audiences.

  28. Hi Richard,
    I love the idea of Whole Foods, but the experience just doesn’t do what it says on the tin.
    The passion for food, the environment and the producers is what they look to preach. But the Garlic which is bought from the depths of France, the oodles of plastic pots and the exotic eggs which look better on the shelf than in the bin (after the rich Kensington local buys an Emu egg to show their nanny but soon realises that they are never going to cook with it) is not my idea of the true whole foods vision.
    I am a sceptic, and the reason for this is because the size of the place and the amount of wastage and airmiles created to get all of this food to parade elegantly on the shelves is artificial.
    It is hugely powerful marketing, riddled with gimmicks. But it is rough around the edges, and in the ‘green’ business, it is imperative that all the edges are used.

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  30. thanks Phil, I too quite the like the idea of creating sparks with advertising. great how you just stumble on these things when blogging!
    Anyway, as for IKEA, my fault for not being clear, but can see how furnishings reflect status among today’s shoppers, but back in the 90s it still stood for something fairly generic/female/uninspiring..’Loaded lad/ladette’ culture was doing was the rounds and furniture shopping at that time was uninspiring ..untill IKEA came along for all those reasons mentioned above…
    BUT now I wonder when so many of us demand personalisation (instantly) how IKEA’s model can remain relevant/valuable.
    The whole idea of standardisation is questionable (IKEA furniture was everywhere in the 90s,in fact everyone seemed to have the same damn coffee table which was a credible reassurance!) and yet like our own industry the desire to shop at/and source boutique one off pieces (at low costs) among mainstream consumers is increasing massively. Look at the number of design/furnishings stores that have popped up across high streets and the internet?
    So against these, how does IKEA remain unique? Can it? Does it still have a place?

  31. MM
    Two women go to IKEA to kit out the same sized house on the same budget. A mathematician was asked to work out the probability of them choosing exactly the same products. It was billions to one against.
    Factor in local variations in range, the fact that the range now changes throughout the year and the fact that a decent % of the population are so in love with traditional styles that they would never go to IKEA and standardisation seems to become less of a problem.
    However, your experience of everyone having the same damn coffee table maybe tells us something else: friendship groups may well share taste in furnishings in much the same way as they will share taste in music, film or fashion. If this is true, the challenge for IKEA is to extend their customer base beyond young, white collar professionals and to become the brand for a broad, diverse population. IKEA describes it’s target audience as the many people (the masses) but I don’t really think they have managed to build a substantial working class audience in the UK, certainly not to the extent they have in Sweden or Germany.
    By the way, has Richard went on holiday or soemthing?

  32. Phil,
    Dove didn’t begin with Real Beauty! The ‘original’ Dove campaign did talk product – 3/4 moisturizing milk.
    Ok. Cheap point score over.
    More interestingly…
    It’s hard to track down who first coined the phrase ‘Agitate, Educate, Organise’. Though it was most certainly not Malcolm X.
    Looks more like it had its origins with the Marxists. It was the title of a piece by Dora B. Montefiore that appeared in the December 1918 edition of ‘The Call’ (the journal of the British Socialist Party):
    “Meanwhile our work of education, organisation, and agitation grows ever more and more strenuous. We Marxians hold the interpretation which alone can help the people to crystallise their scattered atoms of rebellion into intelligent, ordered, insistent demand, backed up by political and industrial action”.
    However, I have not been able to find any earlier attributed uses of the phrase.
    I’d rather it had been Malcolm X… a lot easier to remember than Dora B. Montefiore!

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