Is it really still appropriate to market sofas like strawberries?

By Charlotte Amos

November 15, 2013 | 4 min read

The serious jam Tesco got into this summer, courtesy of some half-price strawberries, was well-documented and, dare I say, rather gleefully from certain quarters. As a news story it was interesting enough to be splashed across most of the popular press but its legacy actually seems to have had much further reaching consequences. Hot on the heels of this prosecution came an Office of Fair Trading (OFT) announcement about the launch of its investigation into dubious promotions splashed throughout big ticket retailers such as Carpet Right and Furniture Village. Like the strawberries before them, it appeared that many sofas and other large furniture items offered at ‘50% off!’ had in fact only ever spent a few cursory days at full price.

How long it will take the investigation to conclude and what the outcome will be is of course unknown, but what is for certain is that a step change in discounting behaviour is needed. Regardless of the outcome, these investigations have irrevocably eroded the increasingly sceptical consumer’s trust – and yet the shopper will not hurriedly downgrade their expectations of ‘a good deal’ overnight.

It hardly seems fair but these retailers have no one to blame but themselves. At the height of the recession, the pressure for ever more audacious discounting amongst those on a race to the bottom meant you could barely walk down a high street on any given day without seeing a sale on. But times they are a-changing and with economic good news stories almost a daily occurrence now, the time is ripe for stores to start rehabilitating and refining their consumer offer.

Take John Lewis for example – you might as well; everyone uses John Lewis as an example these days don’t they? A stalwart of the sector, the department store has moved firmly out of Grace Bros. territory and into retail superstardom with a trusted quality offer, a strong and true value proposition ‘Never knowingly undersold’ and a cracking line in tearjerker Christmas ads. But where do they stand on discounting? Err well they definitely have a Clearance sale, perhaps twice a year, but I can genuinely never remember ever having bought anything in it as it largely seems to be seconds. Obviously not everyone can be a John Lewis but the evidence is there that extreme discounting is not the be all and end all.

Alternatively, there are other ways to discount without devaluing the brand. The outlet model is on the rise significantly in the UK. No longer a way of getting rid of excess stock to hardcore bargain hunters instead, as Deborah Owen-Ellis Clark, Retail Marketing Strategist for London Designer Outlet, explains: “With a careful discounting strategy, retailers can position themselves as giving customers access to their brand at a lower price point, without compromising on brand reputation.”

So with big ticket retailers potentially poised for a serious ticking off and the economy on the rise, could we see a return to the glory days when a sale is for January, not for life? When post-Christmas shoppers would rouse themselves from a turkey torpor and brave Arctic conditions to queue overnight for headline-making bargains and a new winter coat they’d been holding out for even though the cold snap kicked in a month ago? OK, maybe not this January but we can dream… after all emblazoning 50% off red stickers over every visible surface is so last year.


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