Has Marks & Spencer sparked a smarter way to increase loyalty?

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ll know that Marks & Spencer has just unveiled its new loyalty scheme, Sparks, to rapturous applause across the retail industry.

Hailed as ‘groundbreaking’ by the retailer, Sparks differentiates itself from traditional applications by rewarding both purchases and non-transactional activities, such as product reviews.

Accumulating large volumes of points will open up access to money-can’t-buy experiences, such as exclusive events and collection previews – which Marks & Spencer believes will foster a two-way relationship with their most loyal customers, tailoring the brand experience.

The retail industry has been quick to praise this new approach to customer retention, and not without reason. Our discount-driven culture has devalued promotional and price based loyalty; consumers now expect a good deal as standard. In fact, many are tired of having to make a purchase altogether to pledge their allegiance.

Instead, loyal customers are building a new role for themselves, in which their brand advocacy becomes part of the retailer’s marketing strategy. Today’s consumers don’t just feel satisfied when they’ve had a good experience – they blog about it, tweet about it, Instagram their new purchase, review the experience online, and so forth (something we discussed in our recent report about how social media can make or break customer relationships).

Smart retailers realise this and are finding ways to reward it.

However, Marks & Spencer isn’t the first. This type of non-transactional incentivisation is already being pushed hard in the hospitality industry. Starbucks, for example, has experienced tremendous success with its mobile app, which gives users custom offers, early access to new products, even enables them to pay at the same time as collecting points.

Even other retailers have forged ahead with experiential offerings for its most loyal customers. Harvey Nichols springs to mind here – the premium department store has made its entire programme mobile-based, using an app to fast track high value customers through to exclusive events and personalised privileges.

What’s seminal about Marks & Spencer’s Sparks, though, is its sphere of influence.

Regardless of the ups and downs it has weathered in recent years, M&S is a stalwart British brand, reflecting British people. Families have shopped there for generations, and trust the retailer to deliver to a certain level of quality. Therefore if Marks & Spencer are offering it, they’ll start expecting other household names to follow suit.

The battle isn’t won yet for M&S, though. Now it needs to integrate Sparks within its offering, to recognise true customer value across all channels. This is easy to do online, but it’s harder work in the store – and customers cannot feel they are being treated as a second class citizen when they choose the bricks-and-mortar route to purchase.

So in conclusion, Marks & Spencer’s loyalty scheme has the potential to ripple across the High Street, redefining how retailers value and reward their customers. But it will only truly hit the nail on the head if it’s part of a joined up omnichannel experience.

Argos’ Fast Track delivery is a real traffic driver – if it works in-store

An eyebrow or two was likely raised in the retail industry this week, when Argos announced its new Fast Track delivery service – same-day service any day of the week, provided the order is placed before 10pm.

While it might seem like a reaction to the UK launch of Amazon Prime Now to some, it makes a lot of sense. We’re about to hit the busiest trading period of the year, so taking its delivery services in-house gives Argos the opportunity to scale up workforce and logistics to cope with spikes in activity, such as Black Friday.

And as a multichannel retailer, naturally Argos is also rolling out the service into stores, offering free delivery to the customer’s local outlet – as opposed to the £3.95 charge for home delivery. Again, this is logical, as the cost to fulfil into store is going to be lower than home delivery (if the product isn’t sitting there already), and it takes some of the pressure off fulfilment networks.

Argos’ big money promise for store collectors is that they can collect the item within 60-seconds of being served, as the retailer’s stock management is able show estate-wide location and availability of products.

60 seconds is a big gauntlet to throw down – especially when you consider we’re about to career into the Christmas trading period. Its investment may give Argos greater control over fulfilment of Black Friday orders, but we can see the ‘quick click-and-collect’ promise really catching on as we move through December, and this could cause serious headaches.

Although Argos is taking on 1,000 extra staff for the Christmas period, those personnel are going to need to get up to speed quickly to cope with a potentially even bigger than usual late rush.

Its retail park locations and extended opening hours are a natural magnet for consumers fitting their festive shopping around a busy schedule, especially if they can secure speedy service at no extra charge.

But what seems to the customer like a simple act of picking something up, is reliant on a well-oiled machine at the back end. Argos has the inventory visibility, but it needs to perfect the chain of events between order and collection to deliver on time – and to expectation – in the store environment.

Argos will also need to upskill these temporary staff very quickly on how to work the technology required to complete transactions – and of course they will need a robust network to cope with the increase in order volumes. Customers are going to be twice as grumpy if they have to wait due to technical problems AND they are in a hurry.

As we mentioned in a blog post earlier this year, Argos is doing some really savvy things around technology, which reinforces its credentials as a cutting-edge, customer focused retailer. During this highly pressured trading period, let’s hope its new scheme is optimised for the tidal wave of store pick-ups as well as home deliveries.