Two strikes and you’re out

The store no longer operates in isolation. Walk down any aisle and you’re likely to see shoppers browsing their smartphone to check they’re getting the best deal, receiving consultative selling from a sales associate with a tablet computer, or paying for goods independently through a self-service checkout. But how efficiently do these technologies work in the bricks-and-mortar environment – and what’s the cost of a poor digital experience to retail stores?

Vodat recently commissioned research among 1,000 consumers for our latest report, Battle of the Bandwidths: Why customers are won and lost on the strength of retail networks, which reveals that many shoppers are feeling let down by the quality of digital services they receive. We found that more than a three quarters of consumers (78% of men and 76% of women) have encountered problems with slow running store technology in the past 12 months.

But even more alarming for retailers is the knock on impact on customer loyalty. Our research shows that while 30% of shoppers will give a brand the benefit of the doubt after experiencing slow running technology issues in-store, they won’t return if it happens a second time.
So how can retailers create a digital-ready store? Their number one priority should be to invest in a network that is business strength. Many organisations are falling into the trap of investing in software and hardware to bridge the online/offline divide, but failing to support this new technology with a robust network, capable of managing the increasing number of customer and staff devices logging on.

Our research has found that slow running networks are impacting the service shoppers are receiving within the store. Nearly all (95%) of the shoppers we surveyed have experienced network issues that forced them to wait up to 30 minutes for the problem to be resolved.

The strain of more technology being added to the bricks-and-mortar environment is already beginning to show. It is not only a matter of providing enough bandwidth capacity to ensure speed and performance; networks must be able to effectively connect all stores and other sites.

It’s clear that technical problems can dramatically affect consumer experiences. But for many organisations their biggest worry is that they don’t have adequately specialised staff to problem solve, either at a network level, or in-store. They know they need to invest in a resilient network and ensure failover systems are in place, but they want a solution that is crisis ready.

Alongside providing training to empower their staff with all the information they need, retail businesses should consider investing in managed data networks to address this problem. It is important to consider what level of support is on offer in the event of a technical problem.  By using a third party provider, retailers can tap in to their telecommunications experience and technological insight, rather than needing experts in-house. This provides access to support to resolve issues quickly and efficiently, as and when it is needed.

As retailers start experimenting with connectivity, both behind the scenes and to power customer engagement, it is vital they invest in solutions that are future-proof. Taking into account bandwidth capacity and management services will help create a network which is able to scale and flex as businesses and estates grow.

To find out more download our report Battle of the Bandwidths: why customers are won and lost on the strength of retail networks

How can retailers drive store sales in this climate of uncertainty?

The retail industry is not keeping pace with the growth of the rest of the economy, as consumers prioritise entertainment and leisure spending. Exacerbating this, the BRC’s recent Retail 2020 report forecasts the combined cost of the Living Wage, apprenticeships and rising business rates will as £14 billion in costs over the next 4 years – approximately 20% of industry profits.

It is clear the industry faces many challenges ahead, and that’s not even taking into account the repercussions of the UK leaving the European Union, the full impact of which we are yet to discover.

However, while the forecast may seem gloomy, we’re seeing a quiet revolution which is repositioning the physical store at the heart of the retail experience. As Helen Dickinson, BRC CEO, describes, ‘what customers are looking for is experience, excitement and theatre, and often the physical environment is a better place to do that’.

So how can retailers optimise the in-store experience to drive sales in this current climate of uncertainty? Here are three strategies being used to great effect on the UK High Street right now:

Create social experiences

James Daunt, MD at Waterstones, has refocused the once troubled bookstore’s efforts on creating a more social retail experience. The retailer’s new Tottenham Court Road flagship store features a bar and a popup cinema in the basements, and many of its shops feature cafés. Daunt calls it an ‘old-fashioned approach to customer interactions’. However, other initiatives such as book clubs and a reservation app show that Waterstones is clearly reinventing the bookstore for the modern age.

With Amazon launching 400 bricks-and-mortar venues in the US, it seems that the store is still central to the future of the bookshop, and Waterstones are taking the physical buying of books to new levels.

Rethink the role of the store

O2’s latest flagships in Manchester and London offer complimentary coffee and working spaces, similar to a model Apple developed for its larger format stores, which included WiFi and seating.

Both O2 and Apple encourage shoppers to spend time in their stores, irrelevant of whether they make purchases. Bridget Lea, head of stores O2, claims that the technology company has ‘ripped up the rule book of a traditional mobile phone shop and set out to create inspiring and creative spaces where people can experience and learn about the possibilities of technology’. O2 want people to spend time in these stores and come back regularly, whatever network they are on.

For technology and telecoms retailers, fostering a community and creating brand awareness is a significant part of the sales strategy.

Tackle the limits of physical space

There has been a lot of noise around bringing technology in-store, and sport retailer Adidas provides a brilliant example of how cutting edge tech can provide an outstanding customer experience and solve the very real retailer problem of limited stock room space.

Adidas’ shops have large digital displays, which add endless aisle capabilities, allowing them brand to display every shoe it offers, beyond what is available in that specific location. By using this technology, Adidas has found it can combine the online and in-store experience for the shopper, answering a real demand from customers to try on the products while having the choice from the full range of stock.

Speak to Vodat’s experts to find out how to increase revenue through technology-enabled customer experiences.

How can retailers make in-store a more flexible shopping environment?

For every positive story in the retail press at the moment, there seems to be a contrasting tale of lesser fortunes. For example, Ocado has announced a first-quarter jump in sales, with average orders increasing nearly 17%, and weekly orders passing a quarter of a million for the first time. Compare this to the wider grocery industry, where profits are falling and sales are stalling, and it’s clear that more needs to be done to keep customers satisfied.  It’s not a just supermarket thing either; only last week, John Lewis revealed a near 10% fall in pre-tax profit.

What makes John Lewis unlike some of the other retail brands to have suffered a dip in sales is that they simultaneously announced a plan to drive recovery. The department store chain is moving their services to 7-day delivery, driven by the “need to reflect how and when our customers are shopping with us” in the words of Managing Director, Andy Street, as “customers increasingly want flexible shopping and delivery times”.

The fact that John Lewis wants flexible shopping as well as delivery is important. The recent success of Ocado would indicate that fulfilment is high up the priority list for consumers, but convenience and seamlessness rank highly also. PWC’s Total Retail Global Report 2016 shows 55% of UK consumers cite convenience as their main attraction to online shopping, compared to just 37% being motivated by price.

Bearing this in mind, retailers need to focus on making the store more flexible and agile, in line with shopper priorities. Click-and-collect has been the first hugely successful cross over service in this area; 60% of consumer report they have used it, and a huge 98% recognise the concept. This illustrates that, despite drops in foot traffic, shopping in-store is still an important channel for most consumers.

So how can retailers create a store environment that not only attracts shoppers, but also meets their expectations and encourages them to spend? PWC asked a sample group of online shoppers how retailers could enhance their physical stores, and better alignment of in-store and online services ranked highly. With this in mind, we would recommend retailers focus on enhancing three core aspects of their bricks-and-mortar business:

  1. Increase communication between staff, and locations, to streamline the customers experience

Poor in-store communication has long been a problem for some retailers, but improving it needs to be a priority. We know that a third of consumers have abandoned a shopping trip because they couldn’t get the information they needed prior to purchase, while 4 in 10 have left a store and sought the item elsewhere. The industry needs to understand that consumers place value on the ability to check online stock quickly (32%) and sales associates with a deep knowledge of the product range (40%).

Alongside providing training to empower their staff with all the information they need, retailers should consider investing in managed data networks to address this problem. Giving sales associates connected devices can improve their access to knowledge about the customer, as well as giving instant access to stock information, store transfers, and transactional capabilities, but these will only run efficiently with a robust supporting network

  1. Improve systems to reduce waiting times

Shoppers, rightly, demand the speediest checkout experience (35%) possible, and retailers know queuing times can have a negative effect on sales. Yet many are working with overloaded systems, which can affect not only payments, customer queries, and processing orders, but also core tasks including inventory. This has huge potential impacts on customer loyalty, with a third (32%) of consumers not returning to stores with slow service, and 1 in 5 being put off buying from that brand over any channel.

In response, retailers should review their systems and consider updating them, or even just increasing bandwidth, to avoid technical downtime.

  1. Invest in the customer across all channels, to deliver a joined up experience

PWC’s report clearly demonstrates that technology is as important in-store as online. A fifth of customers are interested in store WiFi (22%) and most use their mobile phone as an important research tool when wandering the aisles. Alongside this, many shoppers would like to receive mobile promotions in-store, be able to access loyalty programs, and make mobile payments.

With 3 in 10 believing the quickest way to answer queries is to look up the question on their own mobile device, retailers can better facilitate consumer needs by ensuring there is a fast, secure WiFi offering in place, and also providing independent technology experiences such as in-store tablet information points.

To find out more download our report More than words – Why retailers and customers are becoming disconnected by the store network – and how to fix it

The secret to successful store expansion

Online retail is no stranger to positive headlines. In fact, it sometimes seems that all we hear about in the industry is the strength of ecommerce.

And it’s these types of stories that have put stores in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. Although 90% of all sales still happen in physical shops, there seems to be far more of a focus on the aspects of bricks-and-mortar that aren’t doing quite so well. For example, in the last few weeks alone, BHS, Greggs and Dixons Carphone have been making headlines regarding store closures.

One of the key reasons that stores close is because they don’t resonate with shoppers; in the interactive, instant world of digital commerce, store layouts and processes can appear outdated. However, this is something that can be amended – and there’s a huge appetite amongst retailers for getting the store right and growing its presence. New research by CBRE has revealed that retail estate expansion still remains high on the agenda, with 83% of retailers adamant that store growth will not be influenced by the rise of ecommerce this year. After all, there is no online substitute for seeing, touching and trying items before purchase.

The benefits of bricks-and-mortar haven’t gone unnoticed by e-tailers. Already this year, we’ve seen their eyes move towards the high streets, with the likes of Missguided announcing its first offline stores. Yes, the business is doing very well trading as it is, but if they want to grow even further, it makes sense to offer a physical experience as an alternative too.

So how can retailers optimise their stores for profit growth – and potential expansion if they get their formula right? For starters, today’s connected consumer is all about convenience and, as we well know, that doesn’t necessarily mean choosing between online or offline retail. Instead, shoppers want to switch between the two at different stages of their journey, and they need to know that retailers will allow them to be flexible in this respect.

Achieving this level of agility means incorporating some of the elements that shoppers love about digital platforms into the store experience. Some retailers are already way ahead of the game, launching concepts that aim to convey the ‘store of the future.’

House of Fraser, for example, recently experimented with shoppable windows, whilst Tommy Hilfiger has brought the runway to the store using virtual reality headsets. These are pretty ambitious of course; the store must focus on perfecting the basics before taking this kind of leap. Investing in more mainstream technology such as mobile POS is one good example of connecting the bricks-and-mortar experience through online functionality.

Another key consideration is the interaction between ecommerce and store activity through click-and-collect. Even though many retailers already offer the service, there are still elements of the process that frustrate customers. Perfecting the ‘collect’ part should now be a major focus for stores, making it a pleasant experience for those finalising their purchase. Enabling speedy payments technology, such as contactless, will be handy here, as well as ensuring the right amount of staff are there to keep the queues running smoothly. Streamlining the click-and-collect element will increase the opportunity to encourage further impulse purchases.

Of course, not all online browsing will take place at home. In an era of smartphone addicts, it’s now habit for consumers to rely on their devices whilst in a store too. Vodat International recently commissioned some research that revealed 54% of shoppers use their smartphones to compare prices in the aisles, 46% look up product information and 44% for personal reasons, such as checking social media. The bottom line is that consumers expect to be able to connect to the web whenever suits them – and that includes within the bricks-and-mortar shopping journey.

It may seem obvious, but there are still retailers that do not invest properly in strong WiFi to encourage this behaviour in controlled circumstances. In fact, 3 in 10 shoppers don’t find the current standard of WiFi unreliable. Retailers with sub-par WiFi are not only at risk of frustrating their customers, they are also losing a valuable opportunity to understand (and react to) their behaviour patterns. Provided they select the right provider, retailers will be able to interact with, influence and capture insight on consumers when they log on to the network.

It’s great to hear that retailers are feeling optimistic about the potential of stores, especially at a time when ecommerce is threatening share of sales channel. Gone is the time where stores and online were two separate things; the future of the store is very much intertwined with digital interaction. If they go about it in the right way, retailers can now harness the power of ecommerce in the physical environment, and use it to boost profitability.

Stay tuned for our new report – Battle of the bandwidths: why customers are won and lost on the strength of retail networks – which will provide even more insights into the connected consumer.

Morrisons invests in its staff – but in the right way?

Savvy retailers will already know just how important its staff are to their success. As the faces to their name, it’s essential that the happiness of the workforce is prioritised.

Morrisons is certainly attempting to do this with its latest move, which will see the supermarket chain invest a huge £30 million into facilities for its staff. Not only will this include a décor revamp, but employees will be treated to perks like subsidised coffee.

However, the change that is likely to result in the most enthusiasm from its workers is to wages. Employee benefits and pay is a hot topic right now, as retailers prepare the implement the new National Living Wage in April. And Morrisons is staying ahead of the curve on this one, promising its 90,000 staff a 20% pay rise to £8.20 an hour, more than the expected £7.20.

This is sure to boost staff morale– much needed considering Morrisons has been suffering falling sales for quite some time now. But are the changes actually going to help staff do their jobs any better?

Being the ones who work in the stores every day, store associates are the only ones who can really know what needs improving. Yet, they’re often the ones who retailers listen to the least. For example, new research from Miura Systems claims that UK retail businesses are losing millions of pounds in sales by not listening to staff who’ve spotted a vital need to improve store technology.

Today’s shopper is tech-reliant, so it’s no surprise that this is a major factor in how they rate a store experience. Whether it be a speedy checkout service, or the ability to browse the web as they navigate the shop, consumers expect technology to run seamlessly – and it’s often the staff they’ll blame if it doesn’t.

So, even with a free cup of coffee in hand, it’s unlikely that Morrisons staff will feel very motivated if shop floor processes aren’t optimised.

Miura also revealed that 72% of retail employees think customers are more demanding than ever before, even asking them questions when they’re serving others. With this mind, retailers should be doing all they can to help employees in high-pressure situations. Arming them with tablets so they can check product information and stock availability quickly, perhaps, or placing interactive kiosks in-store to allow shoppers to serve themselves easily when a staff member is unavailable.

A further 80% of retail staff said shoppers put pressure on them to hurry when there is a queue. In busy trading periods this can’t always be avoided, but it can certainly be improved. A speedy payment process is absolutely essential here; as the final stage in their journey, this is the memory most shoppers will take away when they leave. Therefore, retailers must in the most cutting-edge payments technology to keep queues flowing – such as contactless and mobile.

Of course, this is no discredit to what businesses like Morrisons are doing. Rewarding staff with treats is a great way to show appreciation for all their hard work, and happy store associates tend to be more productive. However, this work will do little good to the performance of their business if they’re not armed with the right tools to keep customers happy too.

Are fashion e-tailer’s attempts to venture offline Missguided?

It’s a great time for online retail. Hailed as the most convenient means of shopping, ecommerce is in the midst of one of its most successful seasons yet – December alone saw a sales increase by 15.1% compared to the previous year.

However, it seems that this level of success isn’t quite enough for some retailers; in a bid to grow even further, they’re looking offline too. Fashion e-tailer Missguided recently announced plans to open its first store in the UK, and it’s not the only one – the likes of Boohoo and Fabletics have also taken their first steps into bricks-and-mortar.

And who can blame them? News headlines about the death of the high street are fast becoming replaced with success stories. Services such as click-and-collect are providing stores with a new lease of life, with John Lewis being the latest retailer to praise the shopping method’s contribution to its strong festive trading figures. Meanwhile, some are even calling out for store opening hours to be extended, with 64% of retail workers in London supporting longer trading on Sundays.

So yes, heading to the High Street offers great potential for an online retailer. But there some things to factor in if they wish to replicate the great customer experience they create on the web.

Unlike ecommerce, the store has a helping hand in converting sales: staff. Personal service is something that gives bricks-and-mortar an edge over online shopping, so it’s essential that retailers make the most of this opportunity.

Offering great bricks-and-mortar customer service relies on the retailer’s ability to give consumers the same informative experience as their digital platforms provide. Yet, we recently found that 43% of shoppers voiced frustrations with inconsistent answers from staff. In order to address these communication challenges in-store, some leading retailers are equipping staff with tablets. This way they’ll have access to product information and stock availability at the swipe of a finger, making it far more likely that they can address customer queries.

This is especially important at a time when most shoppers enter the store with some level of product knowledge. Recent research from omnichannel retail specialist iVend Retail revealed that 68% of European consumers will research online before visiting a store – and clued up customers expect far more from retailers. These shoppers have already done their research, and just want to touch or try the item before committing to a purchase. In this case, staff members are far more likely to be faced with technical queries regarding the item, rather than general product information. In this case, a tablet device will prove even more valuable to your staff – they can’t be expected to understand the ins and outs of every store product on their own after all.

And not all shoppers restrict their online research to the comfort of their own homes. Instead, many are relying on their mobile devices to have a quick browse in-store, either for more product knowledge or to compare it with those available from other retailers. During the festive period alone, 41% of shoppers ‘showroomed’ when buying gifts in-store.

This shopper desire to use mobile in-store, combined with staff usage of tablets, means more devices devices than ever are connecting to store networks. Retailers that have not invested well enough in their network may be faced with a whole host of issues; slow running technology, intermittent connections and, in the worst case, complete connectivity blackouts. Not only will this be extremely frustrating to those working at the business, but most importantly, customers will be left disappointed too. Then, all the good work that retailers have done to blend their store and online experiences will be completely undone.

The battle for consistency between online and bricks-and-mortar shopping has been raging for years, and retailers like Missguided must tread carefully to ensure their in-person experience lives up to the digital hype. Much attention will have been paid to the marketing, store layout and such like, but it’s the network underpinning their store that will define their ability to deliver what customers want.

 

 

 

4 stores that are ripping up the rule book of bricks-and-mortar retail

Consumer patience with outdated stores is fading.  As discussed in our previous blog – make better communication your store’s New Year’s resolution – 43% of shoppers have voiced their frustrations with in-store service, and it’s fair to say that now’s the time to invest in new ways to impress and delight.

Of course, there are some retailers that are already staying ahead of the curve, innovating their traditional store formats to reinvent what physical retail means to shoppers. The future of the store relies on its ability to wow the customer every time they visit – here we list four stores that enhanced their experience to do just that:

McDonalds – build your own burger

There are countless fast-food outlets out there; couple this with the expectation of speedy service, and you’re in an environment where it’s especially tricky to stand out. However, McDonald’s has found a way to tick both of these boxes with its latest piece of technology.

The fast-food giant has added a ‘build your own burger’ kiosk to one of its New York restaurants, allowing diners to choose from dozens of ingredient combinations to create their ideal order. Founded with an easy-to-serve menu, it was certainly a risky move for the retailer, yet one that answered their customers’ cry for variety.

Cranleigh Bridal – virtual bridal party

Back here in the UK, a bridal shop in Surrey has found its own way to offer a unique experience to customers. Cranleigh Bridal is the first store in Britain to be fitted with a mirror that has integrated Skype capabilities, enabling brides to call friends and family to show them their dress choice. This really plays to the emotional investment in planning a wedding, significantly enhancing customer satisfaction.

House of Fraser – scan the glass

Black Friday is now an integral part of the UK’s retail calendar, and shoppers are taking notice. In 2015, House of Fraser used the event to pilot a new way to entice passers by.

The department store created shoppable windows, integrated with augmented reality technology in its flagship London store. Consumers passing the store were able to use the House of Fraser app to scan the glass for a full list of Black Friday deals, reserve items and pick them up from a collection point. It was a launch that was perfectly timed, appealing to busy festive shoppers when the queues were likely at their longest.

Tommy Hilfiger – straight from the runway

New York Fashion Week is a designers’ chance to showcase their latest creations to the world. A lot of time and budget is spent to ensure that the runway show not only highlights the clothes in the best way, but is a memorable performance. But while it’s easy for those in the audience to be blown away, what about the brand’s wider customer base?

Tommy Hilfiger has managed to include brand fans in its Fashion Week experience, with the help of virtual reality. Some its stores are kitted with Samsung GearVR headsets, allowing shoppers to watch a 360-degrees 3D version of the runway show, as if they were sat in the front row. This way, the iconic catwalk is brought to life instead of relying on press images to do the talking.

Have you seen any innovative stores of the future? Share your stories and images with us @Vodat_Int.

Make better communication your store’s New Year’s resolution

There’s no doubt that online retail has had its fair share of flattering headlines this year. Hailed as the speediest, most convenient way to shop, it’s getting harder for bricks-and-mortar to compete.

However, there is something that the store can triumph in – and that’s personal service. While it may be easy to drop a few products into an online basket, the advice and expertise of knowledgeable in-store staff is something that can’t be matched.

Yet, it seems that 2015 may not have been the store’s finest hour. Our own research showed that there’s still much work to do to perfect the in-store experience:

  • 37% of shoppers hate receiving inconsistent answers from staff
  • 30% of consumers have abandoned a purchase because staff couldn’t answer their question
  • 5 minutes is the maximum time customers will wait for a query to be answered before leaving the store

That leaves retailers with a very short window of time to wow the shopper. If they don’t do just that, they risk losing a once loyal customer – one who will no doubt share their negative experience with family and friends.

However, with a New Year comes a new chance to change bad habits. So why not make 2016 the year to perfect your in-store service? It all starts with giving your staff the tools to succeed:

Invest in training

60% of customers believe knowledgeable staff deliver better customer service. Yet, with changing layouts, new products and time-sensitive offers to contend with, it’s no wonder that your workforce may be left confused. Communication is key here; ensure each member of staff is briefed at the start of their shift, alerting them to anything that may have changed since they were last there.

Implement tablets

21% of shoppers want sales associates to be given point of sale technology. And, it’s a request that will make life a lot easier for your staff. Allowing them to walk the floor with a tablet in hand, ensures they will always be ready for that tricky customer question. They’ll be able to check things such as product information and stock availability at the touch of a button, before finalising the purchase with a speedy payment.

Empower customers

22% of consumers would like to see more digital information points in store. There are a number of reasons why your staff might be unavailable for customer queries – whether the queue is too long or they’re locating an order, for example. The point is, sometimes a shortage of sales associates to give a helping hand is out of your control. Therefore, it’s important to ensure that shoppers can help themselves if need be. In-store kiosks are idea, as it presents shoppers with an alternative information source when a staff member isn’t free.

Competing with the fast-growing world of ecommerce is no easy job for stores, certainly if they don’t have the right toolkit to support them. And, of course, implementing the above suggestions will help get 2016 off to a promising start – but without a reliable WiFi connection, your New Year’s resolution for a better store experience will soon be broken.

For more information about successful in-store communication, read our report – ‘Why retailers and customers are becoming disconnected by the store network.’

The #manonthemoon isn’t just a test for John Lewis’ ad team

When does the festive season begin? For retailers it was months ago, but for much of the public, the Christmas klaxon has been sounded in recent years by the debut of John Lewis’ Christmas advert.

This year is no exception, with the launch of its #manonthemoon commercial, a poignant piece highlighting the loneliness and isolation that this time of year can be filled with for many (John Lewis has partnered with Age UK for the campaign).

I’ll leave any critiques of the advert to the marketing experts; what I want to focus on are the consequences of yet another hugely successful initiative for John Lewis.

Ultimately, however they tell the story, retailers release big budget ads because they want to sell more in the run-up to Christmas. All being well, they should see a fairly swift uplift in online traffic, which will filter through to the store as well.

The challenge for these businesses is to make sure the beautifully crafted brand image showcased in their Yuletide commercials is upheld when customers reach the shelf edge – otherwise their overriding emotion is going to turn from awe to disappointment.

Christmas shopping is a stressful activity at the best of times, let alone when shoppers can’t get the item they’re looking for, they’re forced to queue for a long period of time, or they struggle to get questions answered by overstretched members of staff.

Now, I’m not saying John Lewis is guilty of any of the above, but generally speaking, customer experience in the store is an ongoing challenge for the retail industry. In our recent report: why retailers and customers are becoming disconnected by the store network – and how to fix it,  we discovered that almost half of shoppers have experienced frustrations trying to get queries solved in-store, and looked into the significant impact this has on long-term relationships.

What makes depth of service even more critical at Christmas is the fact that many consumers aren’t buying for themselves this time of year. As a result, they’re far more likely to be asking questions about the products they potentially want to buy.

Christmas isn’t a particularly loyal time of year – events such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday encourage people to shop around for the best price – but a good store experience can make a retailer stand out from the crowd, and inspire a newfound advocacy into the New Year.

Equally, a worse-than-expected encounter can dampen the reputation that marketing departments and agencies have spent thousands (in some cases, millions) of pounds creating.

With click-and-collect purchases expected to soar to record levels this festive season, store associates are going to be under enormous pressure to serve time-poor customers in a satisfactory and timely manner.

So as the nation passes its verdict on Christmas ad season, let’s hope the retailers putting out these yuletide offerings have the network infrastructure to follow through on the brand promise their stories portray.

 

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.