An intensely promotional year worked in favor of consumers’ fondness for the Abercrombie & Fitch and Victoria’s Secret brands but spelled trouble for retailers including Gap Inc., J. Crew Group Inc. and Kohl’s Corp.

Brand Keys, the New York-based consultancy focused on brand loyalty, surveyed 49,000 consumers about brands in 83 categories of goods and services for its annual Customer Loyalty Engagement Index, which measures the public’s perception of criteria including shopping experience, store reputation, merchandise assortments and value. Consumers volunteered the names of stores and products they prefer and, because the study spans all nine Census regions in the U.S., local, regional and even multiregional stores, such as Nordstrom Inc. and Saks Inc., were not included.

Among apparel specialty retailers, A&F moved up to the top ranking from number two in 2011 and the Victoria’s Secret division of Limited Brands Inc. moved up to second place from third a year ago. L.L. Bean, which didn’t crack the top 10 in 2011, finished third as it promoted its 100th anniversary, while J. Crew, the top selection last year, fell to number four. H&M moved down a notch to number five, American Eagle Outfitters Inc. was up a spot to number eight and Pacific Sunwear of California Inc. remained at number six.

However, Aéropostale Inc. and Gap’s Old Navy and Gap divisions lost two rankings each, descending to numbers seven, nine and 10, respectively.

Among department stores, Dillard’s Inc. retained its top ranking, but Kohl’s, which tied with Dillard’s for first place last year, fell to number four. Macy’s Inc. and The TJX Cos. Inc.’s TJ Maxx nameplate were up a spot each to numbers two and three. TJX’s Marshalls division and J.C. Penney Co. Inc. switched places, with Marshalls up to number five and Penney down to number six, while the Sears unit of Sears Holdings Corp. stayed at number seven.

Brand Keys doesn’t divulge the individual scores received by the brands, which it does provide to its customers. However, Robert Passikoff, president of the firm, noted that minor deviations from the prior year can translate into major changes in rankings. “Kohl’s was down just a couple of points, but in such a competitive category, that’s a lot,” he told WWD. “They were down tremendously on the value proposition — their deals apparently weren’t as good as everyone else’s — and also down on shopping experience, while the store reputation and merchandise range were about the same.”

Passikoff said customer expectations of brands have risen since the recession, although the increased “democratization” of information brought on by mobile devices like smartphones and tablets might be a bigger factor in the higher standards consumers have for the brands they buy and those where they shop.
“Unless you’re talking commodities, price is almost never the most important thing,” he said. “Conventional wisdom might hold that ‘it’s the price, stupid,’ but in reality you’re being stupid if you think it’s just the price.”

Consumers already were well aware of the high-low pricing promotions conducted by retailers and are now armed with technology that allows them to monitor prices even when they’re in the midst of a shopping trip. With so many retailers participating in planned and improvised discounting to attract customers, emphasis on brand differentiation and the shopping experience itself is more important than ever.

Passikoff contrasted the weak results for Gap, which had “the most beautiful advertising” but scored poorly on its value proposition, and the strong performance of A&F, which did well despite its more aggressive approach to price promotion. His conclusion is that consumers rank brands on their “ability to delight” and rarely make price considerations paramount.

People look for something that they can connect to emotionally,” he said. “That’s why all the luxury brands have been so profitable. It’s not just the 1 percent. People would rather save and buy a luxury brand because those brands stand for something.”

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