Naming In The News

Rebranding Can Pose Risk, Challenges for Retailers

Article published Sep 17, 2006

MUNCIE — What's in a name? Maybe nothing. Maybe everything.

When mergers and acquisitions prompt businesses — particularly retail stores — to change their names, decades of shopper familiarity can disappear.

A little more than a year ago, Federated Department Stores bought more than 300 May Department Stores locations and announced they would all operate under Federated's Macy's brand.

The decision gave Macy's more than 700 stores nationwide but meant an end to notable regional chains like Marshall Field's — a Chicago institution — and L.S. Ayres, which had stores in many Indiana locations, including Indianapolis and Muncie.

The announcement was greeted with vocal opposition in Chicago, where the last Christmas shopping season under the familiar Marshall Field's name was treated like funeral services for a beloved family friend.

As Chicago Tribune columnist Dawn Turner Trice wrote last fall, "Renaming Marshall Field's indeed is a boneheaded move."

A Macy's public relations officer did not return a call seeking comment last week.

In Indiana, the changeover from Ayres to Macy's prompted a bit less angst, but some shoppers said they would miss the familiar Ayres brand.

Re-branding a store to reflect new ownership can seem like a gamble, but William Lozito, president of Strategic Name Development, a brand naming company headquartered in Minneapolis, said good corporate decisions can improve the odds.

"I don't know if I'd use 'gamble,' but there is a risk involved," said Lozito, whose clients include American Express and Turner Broadcasting.

The risk? Shoppers might take the opportunity to reconsider their retail alternatives, Lozito said.

Name Changes Nothing New

Long before Ayres became Macy's, Indiana consumers lost longtime retail mainstays.

One of the most notable changes came in the mid-1990s, when Hook's Drug disappeared from the Hoosier retail landscape.

John Hook founded his drug store in Indianapolis in 1990 and hundreds of locations followed. But Revco bought Hook's in 1994 and a sale — and name change — to CVS/Pharmacy followed. All that remains of Hook's now is a historic drug store exhibit at the Indiana State Fairgrounds.

CVS continued its acquisition-minded ways in recent months, buying Osco pharmacies around the nation and closing locations — including one in Muncie — that were near existing CVS stores.

Lozito noted that sometimes companies don't change the names of the companies they acquire. Limited Brands, owner of The Limited stores, continues to operate Victoria's Secret under that familiar name. He also noted that Williams-Sonoma acquired Pottery Barn but did not rename that similarly-themed home store.

Sometimes a retailer changes its name not because of new ownership but to be more appealing to customers.

Casual Male Big and Tall recently changed its name to Casual Male XL because of perceived customer "sensitivity" to the old name.

Appeasing People

Denise Williams is a Delaware County resident who described herself as an occasional Ayres shopper. She said she was not averse to trying Macy's.

"I'm sure I'll go," Williams said.

What did the new name mean to her?

"When I hear Macy's, I think of higher prices [than Ayres]," Williams said.

Lozito said the Macy's renaming sparked "minor protests" in some locations but indicated the full effects of the decision might yet be felt.

"These entities are local and they're embedded in the community," Lozito said. "They're part of the fabric of the community, and that's what will be lost."

"Macy's is doing what they have to do to appease people," he added. "They're keeping Frango mints in Chicago, they're keeping a parade here, keeping some decorations there. But in time, someone will look at the numbers and say, 'We can't afford this.'

"The risk you run with rebranding is that people will reconsider their purchasing," he said. Shoppers who have been loyal to Ayres or Marshall Field's might try other, similar retailers.

"The more they try to Macy-ize the entire country, that's where the risk will occur," he said.

Contact news reporter Keith Roysdon at 765-213-5828.