Thoughts on repeat purchases and brand loyalty
My mum once told me that my father’s first wife (who needless to say was a thin, blonde German aristocrat) had a wardrobe full of Yves Saint Laurent, a beautifully lit closet containing shelves of tonally co-ordinated cashmere, rails of shudderingly expensive designer labels, but that she only ever wore a grey marl Lonsdale sweatshirt and Fioruuci jeans (well, it was the seventies). Jackie Onassis, similarly, used to buy a garment she liked in every colour, so that Aristotle famously grumbled, “one of everything in every colour, and in every home, but all I ever see her in is blue jeans”. Both brand-loyal and serial repeat-purchasers, then, but it made me wonder – why are we loyal to certain brands, and is repeat purchasing a smart consumer strategy or just a sign of OCD?
As someone for whom ‘ winding down’ on a Sunday evening typically involves hand-washing, ironing and folding my t-shirts by colour, someone who seasonally rethinks my wardrobe, routinely, and some would say rather anally, cleanses, prunes, and refines one rail of garments over and over again, I’m going to have to argue my case, here. Without getting too scientific about it – who knows why people like certain things, when their tastes develop, whether it is hereditary or random (but this is an interesting topic) – people have their routines, their way of doing things. Some girls are fastidious about their morning and night-time skincare regime, for example, whereas I am very much in the ‘make-up looks better the second day’ camp on the ‘cold water followed by Nivea’ side of the fence. But I am very particular about my wardrobe, far more so than practically any other area of my life. My diet goes up and down, my music collection is confused at best. But my wardrobe is the place I never neglect.
Recently – it was a Sunday – happily epilating last season’s knitwear and editing down to a stream-lined selection of crew-neck cardigans, a grey V-neck in cashmere and my ‘investment’ sweater (thus justified at time of purchase), a chunky pale-blue angora number, it occurred to me that a pattern was emerging; I seem to have duplicates of everything – two pairs of brogues, two pairs of the same suede ankle boots, four pairs of Acne jeans in varying shades of grey, two Equipment shirts, two identical blazers by Acne (one chambray, one stone) and so on and so forth. It had escaped my attention before quite how predictable I was in re-buying the same items, the same styles in a second or third colour, how apparently ‘loyal’ I am to a small pool of the same designers.
Considering how much is out there – the dizzying number of labels and department stores and online emporiums - it’s hard to find something I want to buy at all, let alone re-buy. Of course it was easier when I used to be a sporadic consumer, when it didn’t matter how many skirt-sweater combinations I had in my closet, but we develop behavioural patterns as we get older, I guess, we develop certain likes and dislikes and are less swayed, less distracted by the fads that trickle through from the catwalk to the street. It is rare, in my experience, to find designers that you like on every level – and by this I mean founders you admire, a history you have followed, an ethos you empathize with, staff you like, who intuit what you want and understand why, rare to find a business that are really good at all these things. It’s complicated, out there, and tried and tested might be increasingly what people need in order to part with their hard-earned wages. ‘It all makes me think that fashion retailers have got something very muddled up’, Maggie Alderson wrote for High 50 last year. ‘They think consumers want to be constantly thrilled by something new, when in fact there are some essential items we just want to be able to buy over and over again in the basic colours without any fuss.’
Market research indicates that loyalty stems from the relationship one has with a particular brand – a relationship which, like a friendship or a love affair, stems from values of trust, like-mindedness, understanding. ‘The ingredient that turns repeat purchase into true loyalty is the consumer’s relationship with the brand. If they feel that the brand is truly on their side, and is looking out for their long term interests, repeat purchase and loyalty will become synonymous’ writes business strategist Frederick F. Reichheld in The Loyalty Effect.
But is there something to this, or is it all consumer-research claptrap? Sure, we all have the obligatory Tesco clubcard, but we probably have a Nectar card too, and even a Co-Op card and this is meant to signify ‘loyalty’, for which consumers are rather patronisingly ‘rewarded’ with yet more vouchers for half-price eggs (usually during the precise duration in the month when you don’t need eggs) but realistically we go where the offers take us, don’t we? Wherever is cheapest, or most convenient on the drive home from work. In this case, we are all guilty of multi infidelities on a daily basis.
According to Co-Creation Consultancy, Promise, there are five steps to becoming ‘brand-loyal’ [read the full article here].
1. Customers come back, the brand becomes the preferred brand (retention)
2. Customers come back for more, more often (repeat purchases)
3. The brand creates a habit (customers come unconsciously)
4. Customers stay through bad times, are willing to forgive mistakes (when they happen and they are addressed) and find a reason to stay
5. Customers advocate the brand (helping the brand retain existing business as well as win more customers).
Thinking about my own repeat-purchases and questioning whether I am ‘loyal’ in any way to a particular brand, and why, I made a list of four:
- Isabel Marant – The ‘Etoile’ collection for the past five years has been an extraordinary success, and produces globally coveted clothes that are tousled and bohemian, a little bit tomboy, a little ethnic, inimitable Gallic chic, and most of all comfortable. Her most popular designs are her knitted, leather or suede-edged boucle jackets, Cuban-heeled ankle boots and delicious Aran-knit sweaters.
- Church’s – English heritage family shoe-makers who opened their first factory in Northampton in 1873 and are now a leading international luxury brand famous for their brogues, chelsea boots and riding boots. Still producing the traditional styles, such as the classic ‘Burwood’ brogue, alongside more modern styles and seasonal colours.
- Equipment – Founded in 1976 by Christian Restoin, this French brand produces androgynous, minimalist and timeless crepe-de-chine silk shirts with a masculine cut.
The fourth, and perhaps only label I feel I have had a semblance of what Reicheld would consider a ‘loyal relationship’ is the Swedish brand Acne.
Acne is reliably consistent; I buy a couple of pieces every season. I wouldn’t (and couldn’t) buy the whole collection and there are actually only a few pieces each season that I would choose to wear as I’m not courageous or cutting-edge enough for their more extreme styles.
My ‘relationship’ with this particular brand began with the basics – actually I started out with a pair of Acne jeans that I bought on eBay because I had heard that they were a great shape. I liked them enough that a year later I went back to the store on Dover Street and bought a pair full price, and then another and another and I’m now on my fourth or fifth pair. Then I tried a shirt, and loved it, and still wear it. So, as Promise predicted, the beginning of the ‘relationship’ was a series of several tentative steps. As is any, if you think about it.
Meanwhile, Acne seemed to have become more of a high-end designer label, with several collections a year and more accessories and footwear, and become extremely expensive – jeans at £190.00, shoes from £350.00, leather jackets at £1,200.00. They opened stores in Tokyo and offices in New York. But they retained their core selection of denim with the same styles and cuts and colours. Aside from the aesthetic, I think that might be what I like about the label so much – every season for as long as I’ve been following them, they bring out the same models of jeans, boots, motorcycle jackets, the same basic linen t-shirts. They might be ever so slightly improved, cut in silk rather than viscose or suede rather than leather, there might be a whole new colour palette, but it must be a testimony to how right they got the designs of those garments, that they are still around, still in fashion, still on the shelves and on the catwalk and on the street. A couple of years ago I acquired one of their classic lambskin biker jackets, which was the most expensive item I had ever bought – an investment that could have gone horribly wrong, but it has become an integral part of my wardrobe and has softened and bedded down and gone from something I ‘save for best’ to the thing I throw on with jeans and a t-shirt on a Sunday. I am genuinely fond of it; an old friend I will have for years, decades perhaps.
Recently, I decided to buy a new hand-bag. My favourite tote bag was looking a little tired and I had started to wear my vintage Chanel too much to compensate. I saved up for a classic Mulberry ‘Bayswater’, because I like the style and the pebbled leather and over a period of months I thought about it and occasionally looked at the Mulberry website and pondered over the right colour. But I wanted to go to the store and buy my bag when it was the right moment, and it never seemed to be. If you’re going to spend £700 on a bag, you want it to be the right day, when you’re in a good mood, you want the sun to be shining and to know exactly the one you want, and it would be nice if you were in New York or Paris or Rome because you like buying things when you are travelling, so that every lovely thing you have reminds you of a holiday, and who you were with. Anyway, it came to the moment, and after so much thought and consideration, I walked into the Acne store, fell in love with a pebbled leather satchel and decided upon it, then and there, without really thinking about it. Mulberry never even got a look-in. I wasn’t thinking about being faithful to anyone, I was thinking about shape and weight and the feeling of the leather in my hands, but I unconsciously chose to make a significant purchase with a brand I know and trust – in terms of style and durability and quality, rather than with another I don’t regularly frequent.
I can’t help feeling that becoming loyal to a particular brand you love, repeat-purchasing the same items over and over again, does come down to basic human emotions – the desire for consistency, the need for trust, feeling safe, comfort, familiarity, but also it is so wound up with finding an identity – without wanting to sound too naval-gazey – one of the many fragmented factors of becoming you – a woman, an adult, an individual, a character. One of the nicest compliments I ever received was ‘I love what you’re wearing; it is so you’.
As much about the past as the future, it is finding a perfume that you wear throughout your life, like my grandmother, who always smelled the same. I never knew what her perfume was, but occasionally I will get a waft of it, somewhere, and instantly remember the way it felt as a child to hold her hand, the weight of the rings on her fingers.
There’s my friend, in her seventies, who always wears the most beautiful palette of greys and taupes, colours of mushroom and bone that always remind me of sitting in cafes discussing Sufi poetry and drugs and hanging on her advice about love, the nail varnish she always wore, by Paul & Joe, the colour of nougat. And the painter I used to model for, who I only ever saw wear the same shoes – faded black converse hi-tops. Of all his paintings there is one, a pair of black baseball boots, that I love the most, and when I wear mine they remind me of the time I wrote a terrible novel, lived in a beautiful large-roomed, high-ceilinged apartment on the Iffley Road and those slow months when I changed, and grew up, and fell out of love. But they’re happy memories, strangely, happy memories of a rather unhappy time.
I think that the clothes on our backs, the way we choose to portray ourselves to our colleagues, our friends, the strangers we pass on the street, to the world at large, is also so often rooted in feeling, in memory, nostalgia, in looking forward, in wanting to feel the way we did before again.