Open to the World, Covid or Not

At the start of the Covid pandemic, we all faced shortages at grocery supermarkets and while some of it was due to panic buying, the main culprit was supply shortages due to lockdowns imposed. It has been widely reported that due to lockdowns as well as economic and job uncertainty, many consumers were forced to change their shopping patterns and habits. While some changed their brands due to supply constraints, others traded down and still others changed their shopping channel by going online.

As lockdowns are being lifted (although in many places they are being re-imposed), retailers are reopening their doors to customers. In India, though, it is being reported that many of the big malls are still closed since many retailers fear low footfalls and rising costs of staying open. Meanwhile, companies have accelerated their digital and online platforms, investing more in technology for solutions to the Covid problem. In fact, in India, one of the biggest organized retail brands, Future Retail, that was saddled with huge debts is having to sell its business to Reliance Retail

Overseas, one hears news of still more store closures, as big retail brands try to rationalize their distribution. On the other hand, because China has recovered fastest from the pandemic, companies such as Starbucks and Apple plan on opening more stores in China. Against this backdrop, what does a retail brand with only one location in one city in one country and no branches whatsoever, do?

Liberty London, Regent Street, London, with its distinctive Tudor-revival building; Image: Luis Villa del Campo CC by SA 2.0 on Wikimedia Commons

Free Liberty London from the shackles of location

I put my thoughts and ideas down for just such a brand well over a year ago, well before the Covid crisis and thought it worth sharing now, when I look at all the opportunities that online shopping presents to customers and to companies alike during the pandemic.

Covid-19 must have adversely impacted 144-year old Liberty London, what with its lone location, and lack of tourist shoppers. Online shopping by Britons across the UK might have made up for some of the losses from the lack of tourism, especially for home-improvement merchandise like textiles, furnishings and home ware. The latest news, however, from the British retail industry according to a CBI survey conducted in August, paints a dismal picture on the employment front with many job cuts planned. Retail sales too had perked up in July but have fallen since, thanks to economic uncertainty.

I had the pleasure of shopping at Liberty London on Regent Street, on a trip to the UK decades ago, when I bought a couple of Waterman fountain pens for my ex-husband and myself. I found it to be a quaintly charming store, with its Tudor-revival exterior and plenty of old wood used in the interiors across several floors. I also found the merchandise very unique and distinctive, with an emphasis on printed textiles and other items that are not necessarily big and popular brands, but niche and therefore, exclusive. Distinctly different from the other big retailers, where I also had the pleasure of shopping along with my friends in London.

The textiles section at Liberty London, which forms the core of their business; Image: James Petts, London, CC by SA 2.0 on Wikimedia Commons

It was only a few years ago that I read in The Economist that Liberty London was designed to be constructed out of old timber from decommissioned British ships that go to make the Tudor-revival building. In all my years in advertising and brand communications, I had never seen any campaigns for Liberty London. Not even during Christmas, which tends to be big shopping and advertising season in the UK and some campaigns, especially for John Lewis, are always so talked about. I decided to pay their website a visit and also checked if they had a YouTube channel to see what the brand was doing lately. The website is clearly geared towards the online shopper and there’s plenty of room for improvement on the brand-building and engagement fronts. On YouTube, I have to say the few videos that I saw were terribly disappointing.

Building the Liberty London brand

Liberty London has the disadvantage of being only in one location. During Covid, however, that can be an advantage, since e-commerce and online shopping become the main shopping mechanism.

Even before Covid, I have been of the view that Liberty London needed to open up its shopping experience to more people around the UK and around the world through online shopping. Its distinctive merchandise and brand imagery make for a compelling brand story. You can read more about my thoughts on Liberty London’s brand strategy and campaign ideas by clicking on the link below.

In retail, it is often said that the mantra is “Location, location, location”, much as it is in the hospitality industry. Here’s hoping Liberty London on Regent Street will find more shoppers on the internet highway. During the pandemic and ever after.

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