Evolve or Die – Eric Kuhn on the Importance of Change in Retail Environments

Eric Kuhn, design leader at BHDP, examines the importance of not only facing, but embracing, change in order to survive in today’s uber-competitive retail climate.


Evolve or die: You could say that in many respects, all of humanity subscribes to this simple statement. And while the influences that inform our evolution are constantly changing, the reality is we adapt and evolve whether we like it or not. Most often, we’ve no idea it’s happening until we look back to comprehend the monumental change. Mostly for the better but sometimes for worse.

However, if I were to reframe in a branding context, we’d find the behavior to be quite different. Because in the retail realm, for many, evolving is a choice. Though, I’d argue the contrary, as the result of failure to grow, expand, migrate or transform (to accept the reality of evolution) will have the same results. Brands can, will and do die.

We see this happen time and again. Whether it’s specific chains or entire industries, failure to be agile and nimble has been catastrophic. And it’s not for being blindsided by the impending change. They’ve faced them. The retailers see it coming. Yet, inaction occurs, typically caused by a level of naiveté and a good dose of arrogance. They are mega-brands, bigger and more powerful than the forces pushing at their businesses. And, of course, they are wrong.

Because, just as in nature, those outside influences will always win out. Many might say it’s terribly unfair that change is a necessity for sustained growth and overall future. Why can’t you simply do what you do and do it exceptionally well to be secure? Why must everything change? The easy answer is we, as a society, are always changing. Everything, from the things we like to the way we purchase, changes. And yes, I know, this is not news. That’s been the case since the beginning of commerce. Which is why it’s confounding that businesses choose to ignore that reality.

All that said, yes, there was a time when brands had the upper hand. But that is a bygone era, 20 years past. And no, it is no longer good enough that you make a great product. Who cares about the top-of-the-line video player or DVD player anymore, for example? Times change and brands are obliged to respond to the demands of an ever-shifting consumer base.

But here’s the funny thing about evolution. Sometimes what’s old is new. Take for example the idea of buying the printed word in – of all places – a store that’s relevant and newsworthy (thank you, Amazon). Because, beyond evolution, another phenomenon of nature occurs on a regular basis. We go through cycles, from global warming to vinyl records. So that adds yet another dimension to what we need to be prepared for and accommodate.

But the single constant is change. Those brands that understand this will have a better chance at sticking around a while longer than those that don’t. Here are some brilliant examples:

This brand is not just reinventing how you build a competitive product in a very challenged industry but also how you sell it. The model of selling direct-to-consumer in shopping malls for the auto industry is the closest thing to a revolution as you’ll get.

Saks Fifth Avenue
Their push into the Canadian market is one of the smartest moves a brand could make in a truly depressed category. And while I’m confident the department store is not going to disappear from the face of retail, it is struggling. So an approach, such as this, to reinvigorate not just Saks but also Hudson’s Bay, is incredibly clever.

sorel pop up shop by bhdp changes in retail designSince being acquired by Columbia Sportswear in 2000, the brand has been completely transformed. What was once a hardcore utility footwear brand has now morphed into a highly desirable fashion mark. That shift began in 2009 and the brand has steadily built a devoted customer base that devours the heritage inspired/style-forward assortment. And this shift really manifests itself in the physical stores created by BHDP last year. That in itself is a key example of evolution. Pushing the brand to move beyond the Internet and shop-in-shop into a freestanding, highly branded experience demonstrates Columbia’s understanding of its shopper’s expectations. Those fashionistas are not idly waiting in the wings, they expect brands to come to them when they what them and where they want them, in a variety of formats and scale. And in delivering that expectation, the investment has paid off in spades.

Brothers Marketplace
changes in retail design brothers marketplace medfield maWhile relatively unknown, this brand truly demonstrates the savviness key to retailers’ survival. Brothers is a newly minted brand and store experience developed by Roche Bros. Based in Boston, this medium-sized supermarket chain recognized that the competitive climate was changing, and in order to grow as they felt they should, they would need to not only enhance their existing portfolio of stores but also penetrate untapped and under-serviced markets. And the solution wasn’t necessarily to plug another larger-format store into these target areas. It would take a different format and, in their/our point-of-view, an entirely new brand. That sort of strategy takes a great deal of discovery and data collection. But it also takes courage and a leap of faith. But it paid off. Despite it being a smaller retailer, it is one of the purest examples of brand evolution. It has fueled the parent company and been a catalyst to expand reach and, most importantly, grow revenue.

Agility is an absolute in any solution developed. How can the space, concept or overarching brand behave in a manner that resonates in a meaningful way with customers (and actually stand for something), while still being adaptive to the forces of nature all around them? Every day, this is the challenge I pose to myself, my team and our clients. The solutions are, of course, different for each engagement, but the driving and guiding principles are consistent. Idle hands are truly the work of the devil in this business; arrogance is a close second. Get comfortable with change and the concept of evolution, embrace it. Because while you were reading this, the world kept spinning … and that’s a good thing.

Eric Kuhn is the Design Leader for BHDP where where he provides leadership and inspiration while guiding the design team and clients through the inception, development and manifestation of highly innovative solutions for strategically driven projects and brand experiences around the globe.

Catch Eric at the upcoming International Retail Design Conference (IRDC, Sept 13-15 in Montreal) where he will co-present with Aimee Morgida, director of operations, Roche Bros./Brothers Marketplace, Brand Evolution: How to Avoid Extinction through Expansion, Migration and Transformation.” The session will examine how retailers should respond to the various challenges rooted in adaptive and shifting markets. For more information on his session, this year’s conference agenda or registration rates, please visit irdconline.com.

To learn more about how BHDP can help your retail brand evolve to its next level, visit /work/retail/.

This article also appeared on VMSD.com.