Is Mike Ashley the Only Hope for the High Street?

    Garry Lee | CEO

    Without nominating myself for the ‘Understatement of the Year’ award, the high street is not having a great time right now. Now as someone that’s been in online marketing and ecommerce for over 20 years, it’s easy to assume that I’d be at best ambivalent, or at worst, pleased about it. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a consumer I want a strong high street and as an online fanatic, I don’t believe it’s a contradiction to say that a strong high street is good for ecommerce.

    Despite appearances, Mike Ashley is not the only entity that can ‘save’ the high street. I firmly believe that online can do a lot to help its offline sibling through these difficult times. I don’t buy into the lazy response that ecommerce is killing the high street. The high street is not responding to a changing world – that’s the problem. If the internet killed Toys R Us, why is a company like Smyths Toys doing so well?

    Better people than me have written articulately about what the high street needs to do to survive. What I’d like to do is focus on a couple of the common themes and look at how online can help its big brother.

    It’s an experience, hopefully a good one!

    Starting with my personal favourite – make the high street an experience.

    The high street store will always struggle to compete on price and product. They’re burdened by higher overheads and cannot physically hold the same breadth of range. So, focus on the battle you can win, the shopping experience. Online we can do lovely things to entertain and engage a customer, but we cannot provide a physical experience and this is where stores need to focus. Make it about the shopping experience, not the product. Make it about the customer having fun, not price. 81% of consumers still see the store as a vital part of the shopping experience and still prefer the experience of shopping in store to shopping online. We need to focus on creating that experience, making it so enjoyable and compulsive that the customer is eager to return to store to do it all again!

    Great you say, but how does online help offline create a great instore experience? By creating awareness and building the anticipation! Remember the days when you saw adverts in store for their website and even got codes to drive you there and save money? It seems like madness now, but it happened. Well, roles have reversed and what we need to do online is remind people that stores still exist and how exciting they can be. Use exclusive codes that can only be redeemed instore, promote unique events being run locally or put the focus on the experience of actually handling a product or trying something on.

    Do all this via campaigns that build the anticipation over time. Let’s say a store has an exclusive instore signing session with someone from a film, a band or sports team. Promote it early, allow people to sign-up online to meet them, have a series of communications in the run up hyping the event and subtly pointing out what else is available in store. Importantly, don’t leave it there. Follow up the offline experience online, maximise revenue opportunities and encourage greater long-term brand loyalty. Nike have a great example of this.

    Make it personal

    Now let’s change tack and think about one area we know that online does really well, personalisation. Don’t get me wrong, we are still only scratching the surface and a recent survey highlighted that 31% of consumers wished their shopping experience was more personalised but compared to a couple of years ago the improvements seen in this area are huge. So how can we use this to help the high street?

    The obvious answer is to continue down the route of ‘localisation’ that we’ve seen over the last few years. The smart stores are pushing themselves as the local option, and not just the independents, the big chains have been getting in on the action too. Waterstones have done a great job since leaving the HMV group, empowering store managers to make their store unique, in a way that works for the local community. Local Waterstones focus their instore experience on the ‘real people’ that work there, with handwritten, signed recommendations on the bookshelves. Let’s not forget that Waterstones and its hardcopy books are rather up against it with the prevalence of the Kindle. As an owner of both – these handwritten notes and trusted recommendations are the thing that entice me into my local Waterstones.

    The good news is, with the profiles we hold on customers online, we are able to accurately segment and target people towards their store and start that ‘local’ promotion before they go. Online can become the catalyst for them seeking out their local store. Start with some simple ideas. For example, if a store has a promotion on a particular type of product, profile people in your online base:

    • who live near that store, and

    • who have shown an interest in that product group previously, or

    • who your analysis shows likely to be interested based on previous purchase habits.

    Use the information to highlight to the customer that their local branch has a promotion on these items and give them a discount or ‘added extra’ code to use in store.

    Promote your staff, which are a key advantage of the offline retail experience. Tell customers about the people that work in your store, run fun pieces about them or highlight their expertise. Show the store online, use virtual imaging so customers know what to expect when they arrive and remind them how much fun a real store visit can be.

    Get the basics right

    Clearly there is one classic technique that is already utilised online to drive revenues and footfall in store – instore collection / Click & Collect. Many stores offer this option, although I’m still surprised that some don’t, and how the experience can differ. First, get the basics in place – instant response when you order, offer SMS and email alerts and follow up if people don’t collect within a specific timeframe. Also, don’t try and upsell too aggressively before they enter the store. The number one goal has to be getting them instore, after that focus on getting them to do more instore. You need to make the experience frictionless and for the customer to come away thinking they would do it again. If it’s a complete nightmare, time-consuming and difficult, odds on next time they’ll just fork out the £3.99 for home delivery and potentially never set foot in store again. Consider evolving the concept by encouraging the user to download the app, so when they walk into the store, it recognises them and the item they’ve ordered or reserved can be located for them quicker – make it all about the customer.

    Additionally, one of my personal bugbears is searching for a product online and discovering it’s not available instore but can be shipped from online to my work / home address. Why not offer to send it to my local store if I’m interested? You’ve got a far greater chance of me picking up something else while I’m in there and maybe returning in the future. By not giving me that option, you’re essentially telling me that your stores are inferior, and I should focus on you solely as a pureplay retailer. This is fine, but go the whole way and don’t waste time having a store. If you have it, use it and encourage customers to use it.

    Finally, and this really is a no brainer, allow people to return online purchases instore. You give yourself another opportunity to sell to the customer, for them to ‘experience’ the store and potentially swap, rather than return, an item.

    Haven’t we met before? PS – I’m not a stalker…

    The other area that can be immediately actioned is to give the store staff more information about their customers. In its simplest form that is adding to the EPOS profile of the customer so that when the person goes to pay you can give them the best experience possible. Let them know about the offer on trousers they might have missed (because you know they viewed them online) or give them a free sample that their previous purchases would indicate they’d like. But we can take this much further.

    As instore technology evolves, informing store staff of the arrival of existing customers becomes possible. I know most people recoil from the idea of using this information to approach customers, but as with all technology, it’s about using it in the right way. Good store management is about talking to customers, helping them, advising them and building relationships. What if that conversation was more informed because the staff member knew that person was a VIP customer that had bought or looked at specific items? Or if we’re more comfortable keeping it on a technology level, utilise your app when someone walks into the store and send them an offer for an item you know they have an interest in but haven’t purchased. Then imagine a shopping centre, taking that to the next level and spotting that customer in your vicinity, and sending them a PUSH message that encourages them into your store.

    This is all possible right now. Maybe for a lot of retailers it’s too advanced or limited in its reach, but it shows what a combined online and offline business can achieve.

    The potential exists to continually evolve and improve the customer experience instore, and online must lead the way on this. Ultimately, a combined offline and online strategy will be the most distinctive way for a retailer to stand out, for all the right reasons.