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Written by Anna Murphy, Communications Lead
It’s fair to say that there’s a lot going on in retail at the moment; Brexit uncertainty, shifts in customer behaviour, squashed margins, a plethora of new digital channels and a growing public conscience and responsibility surrounding sustainability are all presenting issues in our industry. Held at the One Aldwych Hotel, London, the Little Earthquakes event brought together both retailers and suppliers to discuss the current challenges that the industry is facing and to hear from three key brands to hear the different ways that they’re navigating these stormy retail seas.
Chairing the evening was Retail Connections’ Chairman and Head of Innovation, Chris Field. He started: “What’s the truth? Let’s spend this evening between the optimism and pessimism of retail. What’s in front of you right now? At least retail’s never boring!”
First up to share his retail insights was Simon Russell, Director of Operations Development, John Lewis. Simon explained: “At John Lewis, we’re focusing on the services around the products. We’ve been around for 153 years and it’s fair to say now that our customers have bought a lot of stuff! But now there’s new emerging competition. How do you differentiate? And, once they’ve bought items, how do you keep them coming back?”
“We need to be WAC – what Amazon can’t. If you want to buy ‘stuff’, there’s bags of competition. Wrapping services around our products with the trust that our brand has is key; customers don’t want to buy ‘things’, they want to buy solutions.
“For example, if a customer wants to buy a ceiling light, that’s only half the problem: the other half is fitting it. We’ve trained our delivery drivers to offer this service. Another is with Waitrose; we know that our customers are often out of the house but need to get their food shopping delivered, so we’re trialling a service where customers can get a smart lock fitted so that our drivers have access and will put your shopping away if you’re out.”
Simon explained that John Lewis’ personal styling service has seen a huge uptake in customer engagement – up 42% up from last year. The service is completely free for customers, with no obligation to buy.
But it’s not just services that John Lewis are focusing on.
Simon continued: “We truly believe that investing in our staff is a big differentiator and makes a huge difference to our business and to the customer experience. We want our front-line staff to feel empowered to solve problems.”
Simon gave the example that in the mattress department, for example, those staff members are not only trained in the different mattress varieties, but are often sent to the factories to see the processes and different types being made, so as better to explain the reasoning behind prices or benefits of various models or fabrics used, etc.
“It’s been a huge learning curve for us to leverage our staff, but to succeed, you must bring your staff on the journey.”
Next up to speak was David Lovett, Lead Product Owner, Charlotte Tilbury Beauty. As a major Charlotte Tilbury fan, I couldn’t wait to hear more about this brand’s strategy…
He said: “Our challenge is being across multiple channels; it’s not just making sure we don’t run out where we need stock or getting stock in the right place. A Charlotte Tilbury store is instantly recognisable: it’s a crazy, glitzy, rose gold extravaganza.
“No matter where you are, you must have the same experience of the brand. So, the challenge for us is selling through other retailers – you lose a direct relationship with the customer.”
However, in an industry where the ability to personalise the customer experience is a driving factor in a retailer’s success, how are David and his team combatting this?
“Personalisation is very much a data problem,” he explained. “Make-up is one of the most personal things you can have: it’s on your face and it’s how the world sees you. We want our customers to feel a million dollars.
“We’ve been working on version 2 of a magic mirror. At Charlotte Tilbury, we have ten iconic looks; the original version of the magic mirror has a camera and touch screen and, using augmented reality, you can find the look that works for you.
“However, in the second version, you stand in front of machine and it ‘reads’ your skin colour, hair colour, eye colour or facial features, then recommends products based on these attributes, rather than “here are 500 SKUs, have a play”. It’s not just what to buy, it’s how to wear it. We’re helping people make the right decisions. The mirror is mimicking the knowledge and experience that our store teams have, just like a make-up artist would recommend.”
I personally can’t wait for this to launch and to try it out myself!
Last to share his thoughts was Rob Feldmann, Chief Executive, BrandAlley. BrandAlley offers premium brands at outlet prices, with limited sales and huge discounts.
As Rob explained: “To access the site, you have to be a member, so the sales are hidden behind a wall. This means that we have lots of customer data to play with.
“For us, we have to get new brands in the right way, but we also get new members. We can recruit 75,000 new members a month, only through digital marketing. From this, we convert around 15,000 new customers a month.
“We spend around £150,000 a month on marketing – across Google, social media, refer a friend schemes etc. With clever digital marketing, you can grow a business very, very quickly.”
But even with an ironclad digital strategy, Rob and his team are considering expansion into other media.
He said: “We’re now starting to think about billboards and TV; their impact is impossible to measure, but if you want to be a household brand, you need to do it. From next year, we’ll be exploring ‘old school’ media.
“I’m not saying that digital marketing isn’t amazing, but there are limits as to how fast you can grow purely on digital spend.”
And it’s not just BrandAlley’s future strategy that’s rooted in more traditional methods.
As Rob reminded us all: “A retailer lives and dies on its product offer and its customer service. Ultimately, you have to offer the right product, at the right price and offer the right customer experience. That’s how you survive.”
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