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5 Retail Lessons from Game of Thrones

As appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Off-Price Retailing.


Winter is coming in the retail industry, with technology and consumer preferences changing almost every aspect of when, where, and how people buy. It takes a savvy leader to navigate the process, and it’s likely not all retailers will make it through.





Though at first glance, Game of Thrones is a sensational world of dragons, giants, and White Walkers, at the heart it is a story of human relationships. The characters grow, change, develop throughout the series.


Life lessons learned in the epic are not just for the people of Westeros. Though the world of the Seven Kingdoms is much bloodier and deadlier than the real world, the competition among businesses and the corporate world can be just as cutthroat. Here are five lessons retailers can learn from Game of Thrones:

Complacency Will Kill You

Remember King Baratheon? The King was once a great warrior who won the War of the Usurper and claimed the Iron Throne from the Mad King. However, King Baratheon had become very comfortable in his role.


The once fierce warrior had really let himself go, spending his days eating, drinking, and hunting rather than ruling. As a result of his neglect, King Baratheon’s employees and family plotted against him, eventually overtaking the throne. Though overall King Baratheon was a good man with good intentions, he became very complacent, never trying to improve himself or his kingdom.


As retailers, it’s also easy to become complacent. To keep doing the same thing once you find success. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” as they say. However, failing to adapt or improve will give your competition room and get ahead.

Many retailers today are left with legacy computer systems, outdated customer service policies, and even slow-moving merchandise. Take a look at Borders, J.Crew, and Radio Shack. They were once on the top of the retail food chain. But, not taking time to keep up with changing customer preferences and technology allowed competitors to come up from behind when it was least expected.


Play to Your Strengths

One of the largest lessons from Game of Thrones is being true to yourself. Arya Stark is raised to be a Lady and encouraged to follow in her older sister’s footsteps. But, Arya is strongest and most true to herself as a warrior. Just like Arya doesn't have to follow her sister, retailers don’t have to follow in other retailer’s footsteps. Do what makes sense and comes naturally to you. Knowing who you are and what you’re good at will help you adapt to almost any situation. The same is true for your brand. Define your brand’s mission and stay true to it. Just because other retailers are adopting a new technology doesn’t mean it is right for your store. Every passing trend won’t be right for you either.


Trust Your Gut

Being a successful ruler in the Seven Kingdoms, or a leader in the retail industry both take a tremendous amount of strategy. However, Great leaders also have to trust their instincts. In season one, Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell, had a horrible feeling about going to King’s Landing to be the “hand of the king.” Yet, the king was his friend so Ned went anyway despite feeling the experience would not end well. Unfortunately, Ned was right and not long after going to King’s Landing, he loses his head (literally). 


Daenerys Targaryen on the other hand, trusted her gut when she realized she was the true Targaryen heir. She had a hunch she was immune to fire and took a risk by walking into flames to hatch her dragon eggs. But it worked. She emerged unscathed and stone eggs hatched into three baby dragons. By trusting her instincts and taking that risk, Daenerys goes on to be a powerful contender for the Iron Throne. 



Stronger Together

As the drama in Westeros intensifies, more characters realize they need to form strategic partnerships to survive. Daenerys Targaryen partners with Jon Snow, King of the North, to battle the White Walkers. The Night’s Watch partners with their enemies, The Wildlings, for the common cause of defeating White Walkers. 

Retailers can also benefit from strategic partnerships and diversity. For example, Casper and West Elm recently partnered up for a mutually beneficial relationship. Casper is an online mattress retail startup. West Elm is a high-end furniture retailer. Shoppers can now test out Casper mattresses in West Elm bed frames at West Elm retail locations. The partnership gives Casper a brick and mortar presence and helps West Elm reach a broader audience. Other retailers like Walgreens, are partnering with delivery services such as PostMates to offer on-demand delivery. This alliance helps Walgreens compete with Amazon Prime Now.


Partnering with local businesses or companies that offer complementary services can help expand your reach and offer a better customer experience. 


Anyone Can Become Powerful 

In the world of Westeros, many of the most powerful players are people born into prominent families. However, there are a few noteworthy exceptions. Lord Varys was born a slave and sold to a sorcerer who casts him out on the streets after performing blood magic rituals. Through street smarts, Varys becomes a council to the Mad King. He develops a network of spies throughout the Seven Kingdoms and stays a powerful member of the king’s council throughout the tenure of many rulers. 

Peter Baelish and Bronn are other examples of characters not born into a ruling family who become powerful on their own accord. Peter worked his way up to become Master of Coin for the Seven Kingdoms and became independently wealthy through owning several businesses. Bronn took advantage of an opportunity to help Tyrion Lannister when he was in need. As a result of his loyalty, Tyrion appointed Bronn Commander of the City Watch. 


In today’s retail landscape, startups have more power than perhaps ever before. Social media, product aggregators, and influencers have made it easier than ever for consumers to find new companies and new products. Retailers no longer need the budget and power of a national chain to become a household name. Clever concepts and savvy marketing have made entrepreneurs like Warby Parker, Stitch Fix, and OfferUp successful. 




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