The Future of Retail: Mono- vs Multi-Brand Experiences

A Look Into How Mono-Brand Stores Like Red Wing Shoes Are Taking Back the High Street

Traditional retail models are dying off, and physical stores need to adapt. Whilst it’s highly unlikely that the physical store will become extinct—at least in the foreseeable future—what’s really interesting is the change in the kind of store we see on our streets.

In this series about the Future of Retail, I’ll be exploring how technology and the changing expectations consumers have for their shopping experience are changing the face of retail, and how retailers are staying ahead in an ever-evolving industry.

The future of retail is a discussion that’s as old as the industry itself. In recent times, there’s been a lot of talk about how the customer experience will look two or five years from now.

Over the past decade, changes in our shopping habits and what we expect from our shopping experience have altered the way we shop as a whole. With retail goods becoming increasingly abundant in variety and easy to access, consumers are moving away from stores in search of a shopping experience that differs from the standard.

Despite the steadily encroaching competition of online sales year-on-year, consumers (and by consumers I mean people) still love to go shopping in physical, bricks-and-mortar stores.

Retail Revenue

The Commoditisation of Fashion

If you ask your friends what jeans they wear, they’ll tell you without hesitation their label of choice. However, ask them where they bought them and things will become somewhat blurrier. The point is that more often than not, the average consumer cares about what brand they wear but less so about where they bought them.

Consumers have a broader selection of goods available to them than ever before. But regardless of the abundance of choice when it comes to goods like jeans or boots, only a handful of brands dominate the market.

The result of this commoditisation is that consumers stop seeing the attributes that distinguish similar products—such as uniqueness or brand—and focus on the price. In short, when faced with a wall of nearly identical blue jeans, they will tend to buy the cheapest.

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Brand Narrative as a Retail Strategy

The strategy of multi-brand stores is to offer a broad enough selection of similar goods to maximise the chance of a sale. The focus on closing a sale is so great that staff are often only trained in describing the products they sell, essentially ticking off enough boxes on the customer’s checklist. What they rarely do is build a narrative around the product.

Mono-branded stores arguably have an easier time in building a shopping narrative centred around a single brand, its products and the image or lifestyle they promote.

Red Wing Store, Stockholm
Wood, concrete and metal dominate the interior of the Red Wing Shoe store in Stockholm — materials carefully selected to enhance the visual narrative of the brand.

On a small street leading off the shopping parade that is Stockholm’s Drottninggatan, an official Red Wing Shoe store quietly opened its doors last December—the first of its kind in Scandinavia. Nestled amongst two other shoe stores that boast displays for everything from Nike to Chippewa and a jeans store selling Lee and Wrangler, it stands out as the only mono-brand shop on the street.

As an avid Red Wing fan, I couldn’t wait to visit the place myself. Once I got past the unassuming front door, I entered a world of hardwood flooring, concrete, wrought iron and leather-clad worktops displaying the eponymous boots. Sitting behind said worktops and smiling back at me was Per Nordahl, the owner of the store.

All of this plays into the narrative that Red Wing Shoes have built around their brand, and it kicks into action the moment you walk through the store doors.

Mono-Brand Stores Equals Strong Brands

In cities like Stockholm where retail spaces come at a premium, setting up a bricks-and-mortar store can be a costly venture. You have a whole range of factors such as location and even weather playing a role in whether a day’s trading ends in profit or loss. To put it bluntly, opening a physical mono-branded store sends a message that business is going well.

15937190_1698980513726701_700353224167733271_o In the case of Red Wing Shoes—whilst the brand has enjoyed a loyal customer base here in Stockholm for some time—this new store marks a milestone in how the brand’s success has grown. Personally, up until this point, my sole experience of Red Wing had been choosing from small selections in limited colourways from the few shops that stock them.

When asked about why this was the right time to open the store, Per, leaning over the leather bound worktop, tells me it’s been a work many years in the making:

I had been meaning to open a Red Wing store five or six years ago,” he recalls. “There was already a demand from back when I had opened Sivletto and Unionville.”

It wasn’t the lack of profitability that had delayed the opening the of the store but rather commitments to his family that meant the store only opened its doors a few months ago. The potential market desirability was already there.

When you work with different brands,” he continues, “you cannot go too big in any one brand. We always had customers asking us to order in different models we didn’t stock.”

Essentially, the Red Wing brand had gained enough desirability locally to warrant opening its own store. Despite the brand’s heavy association with raw denim and other heritage workwear, Per wanted to take the customer experience of Red Wing Shoes out of the back wall of a denim shop and create a unique brand experience dedicated exclusively to its leather goods.

Mono-Brand Stores Equals Greater Brand Control

When it comes to fashion retail, the personal touch goes a long way, both figuratively and literally. This applies in particular when it comes to premium garments.

Let’s face it, good jeans, like boots, aren’t cheap so if you’re prepared to shell out the cash for a new pair you want to be sure that what you’re buying is right for you.

When investing in something like a good pair of boots, you probably want to touch and try on a number of styles and have a professional make sure the sizing is perfect. After all, they’ll be on your feet for a good few years. The Red Wing store is a good example of where the extra level of expertise bridges the gap between a sale or not.

It’s true: what you can find in stores can always be found online for less money. Almost every brand has it’s own online storefront, allowing it to sell directly to the consumer. But even the best website is limited in conveying a brand to its audience through pictures and words. By maintaining a presence in the physical world, brands can incorporate touch, sound and even smell into their brand experience.

Multi-Brand Stores Promote Lifestyle Not Products

Whilst mono-branded stores have the advantage of centring their brand narrative around a single product or a range; it can be limiting in terms of integrating the brand’s ‘micro-narrative’ into the ‘macro-narrative’ that is the consumer’s lifestyle.

To put this in context, Red Wing Shoes sell beautiful products. Their premium line—Red Wing Heritage— is branded to play on their blue-collar heritage: sturdy footwear for the miners, lumberjacks and engineers that build America. Yet the vast majority of their consumer base are affluent and urbane men who’ve probably never seen the inside of a functioning mine.

This is where multi-branded stores have a distinct advantage. By promoting the Red Wing products alongside associated brands and goods, like premium denim, they can paint a broader picture for their customers. Individual products are promoted as accessories to a lifestyle that consumers aspire to, rather than as products in their own right.

Essentially, the nature of multi-branded stores means they can create a robust and more immersive lifestyle experience. As one of the world’s foremost retail industry forecasters Doug Stephens from Retail Prophet puts it:

For the multi-branded retailers the key will be to design, craft, execute the most unique experiences available in their categories in order to compete.”

A Strong Brand Is Your Strongest USP

As mentioned earlier, if a commoditised market means that if consumers can buy the same products from a variety of different multi-brand stores, they are likely to remember the brand they bought, rather that the store they bought it in. For brands, having your products in a multi-brand store means relinquishing control over the brand’s image to some degree.

However, developing brand identity is certainly not something that happens overnight, and customer loyalty is often something enjoyed only by the most established brands. Multi-brand stores that carefully curate the brands and products they sell will offer more memorable shopping experiences compared to a poorly executed mono-brand store.

The multi-brand or multi-category retailer of the future will be an experiential designer that executes incredible and memorable experiences for their brand customers,” says Doug. “Retailers will be paid like agencies for the very valuable work they do for brands.”

Established brands with a defined brand strategy and broad product range can build comprehensive brand experiences without relying on multi-brand stores to ‘fill the gaps’ in the brand narrative. Let’s take Levi’s as an example, who sell their goods through both their own brand as well as multi-brand stores.

Inside every Levi’s store, you’ll be greeted with wood and metal hardware interior, offering a unified brand experience worldwide. It’s clear that a lot of work goes into developing an atmosphere evoking 20th century Americana and the California Gold Rush from where Levi’s draws its heritage from. Rock music blares from speakers throughout the store to push the brand’s association through history with influential, rebellious movements.

It’s these elements that enhance the product’s inherent charm. For that perceived luxury and shopping experience, consumers can expect a certain price point.

Levi’s also sell through vendors like Asda in the UK, who are more commonly associated with affordability rather than luxury. Levi’s also understand that one of their strongest USPs is their brand itself. That’s why diluting their unique identity would be detrimental to the value of their goods, and sales figures.

Not wanting to miss out on selling to a new demographic but not wanting to compromise on brand either, companies create sub-brands to create some distance. In the case of Levi’s, they launched Signature by Levi Strauss, dropping their trademark arcuate, riveted pockets and when selling through a vendor that doesn’t match their own brand identity.

In short, their Signature range straight-fit jeans don’t deserve to be called 501s.

Good brands that open their own stores understand the value of having a physical link with their customers. The best brands understand the value of creating a lifestyle around their products. Red Wing shoes are no exception to this:

When I was opening the store, the head office in Minnesota had a long list of guidelines when it came to decorating the store,” Per explains to me as he points to a thick binder tucked underneath the till. “Everything down to what materials to use as well as what colour schemes.”

While this long list of demands might sound surprising, given that Red Wing Shoes, along with Levi’s, are sold in hundreds of unaffiliated stores globally, when it comes to how the brand represents itself there is no space for ambiguity.

The Role of The Store is Changing

Look up the definition of ‘store’ you’ll get something akin to “a building or part of a building where goods or services are sold.” While the definition still stands, it misses a significant change that retail has experienced in the last decade and a half. Stores exist as a place where goods and money change hands, but the purpose has been shifting away from this purely transactional model.

With a market saturated with consumer goods and the meteoric rise of e-commerce in recent years, consumers are losing the desire to contend with cookie-cutter stores offering similar products and a staff that lack in-depth product knowledge and pushes for the hard sell.

Group 2 A physical store is still the strongest calling card a brand can give to its customers. It’s the physical manifestation of a brand’s values and by extension, the values of the people who consume it.

Brands that invest in dedicated showrooms are more likely to invest in training their staff about their products. They attract staff who are brand consumers themselves: aficionados who enjoy relating to the people who walk through the door as much as helping them purchase a product.

The Red Wing Shoe store in Stockholm is no exception: more and more mono-brand stores are opening up that are turning away from the traditional notion of a store and instead are modelling themselves as a form of ‘third place’ for their consumers.

Physical mono-branded stores are starting to focus on creating fun, helpful and satisfying experiences, rather than the transaction. Consumers are overwhelmed by the abundance of goods offered both online and in huge multi-brand department stores.

The store of the future will be a place we go to be inspired, entertained, educated and enthralled,” explains Doug Stephens. “We’re already seeing the advent of this with stores like Adidas NYC and TOMS Venice Beach. These are not stores, so much as interactive portals to the brand.”

Retailers are combating this ‘shopper’s fatigue’ by curating unique spaces that serve as places for people to experiment with new lifestyles and to learn.

My visit to the Red Wing Shoe store doesn’t begin by browsing the goods displayed on the shelves. Instead, it starts with a smile from Per and a conversation about our mutual appreciation of a good boot. After all, it’s what we have in common. Customers are increasingly placing their loyalty in brands that offer more than just the products they desire, but also a chance to share their passion with others: a place akin to a clubhouse.

This notion of ‘belonging’ to a brand, as you would a club, or family, is not exclusive to mono-brand stores. There are plenty of multi-branded stores that whilst not exclusively selling one brand, curate a range of products or brands that adhere to a lifestyle.

Thinking Beyond The Transaction

During my visit to the Red Wing Shoe store, Per invited me to a beer-and-talk event hosted by in the store where an official Red Wing shoemaker is going to talk about how the shoes are made. He instructs me on the best way to apply mink oil to my boots so that they are left feeling sticky.

RW Blacksmith Of course, I leave the store with a new pair of Blacksmith boots. Moreover, I leave with the knowledge on how to care for my new purchase and a sense of fulfilment that belonging to a club that appreciates a good boot can give you.

With a few clicks online, I can easily find the same boots for less but what has created the sense of loyalty I have for this brand is the experience I have when I visit the store.

Successful brands are already making headway in this new era of shopping. In a sense, we’re beginning to expect that our garments arrive through the mail; stores are becoming spaces where we come to meet friends, talk and express ourselves.

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