retail revolution won’t be all click and no brick

Tim Steiner, CEO of Ocado, announced confidently at last week’s BRC annual lecture that, “the high street is dead, so, long live the Internet.”

Whoa! Hold on there, I hear you cry. What about all the savvy retail brands that are building omni-channel models, enabling their bricks and mortar offering to work symbiotically with their online activities? Well, I have bad news from Tim who thinks that omni-channel is no more than a term traditional retailers use to delude themselves that bricks and mortar retail spaces still have a role to play in the online paradigm of tomorrow. Is he right?  Well, before the palpitations get too bad let me put your mind at rest. The simple answer is, No! In fact, his point of view couldn’t be further from the truth and this is being evidenced by a number of successful retailers, one of whom I will talk about in a moment.

Whilst he is correct that the Internet is forcing the traditional retailer to adapt and some are experiencing pain on the way, he misses the all important point that as part of their adaptation to a rapidly changing retail landscape, many of the savvier retailers are now delivering an omni-channel experience to their customers and  reaping considerable rewards. They have a unique advantage that pure play internet brands like Ocado do not have, and that is true brand engagement with their customers, in other words an emotional connection. An internet purchase without social interaction and the very tactile nature of a retail environment will always be largely driven by price, a decision made without emotion.

For the more traditional retailers who have not yet grasped the omni-channel nettle, let me demystify it for you. Basically, it’s a seamless approach to the customer experience through all available shopping channels, where all the channels form part of a holistic customer journey.

Successful exponents of omni-channel include the John Lewis Partnership with its £1 billion Internet sales. JLP is a huge omni-channel success story and the company’s commitment to the concept is underlined by its recent appointment of Mark Lewis the ex MD of eBay. Mark was once a pure-play internet marketeer like Tim Steiner, but there the similarity ends. Unlike Tim, he sees stores as vital to the future success of retail brands, particularly at JLP where a new trading model has been rolled out, which links ‘bricks’ with ‘clicks’ in a seamless way that benefits both. Their recently launched Exeter store for example, successfully integrates terminals into a ‘showrooming’ approach to their retail offer. The figures speak for themselves, John Lewis’ internet sales increase locally by up to 30% following the opening of a new format store. And, in an inspiring piece of management wisdom, the company has also made the raising of internet sales figures part of the remit of regional store managers, who are then responsible for both stores and internet sales levels in their geographic area. The ‘cherry on top’ is added with another little known fact, a very high percentage of those customers collecting  internet orders in-store also buy something when they collect their order!

So, whilst forming part of a holistic customer journey, the retail store has two other benefits up its sleeve that an Internet counterpart cannot offer; emotional experiences and true customer satisfaction driven by personal interaction and staff. Whether internet brands like Amazon, Ocado and eBay like it or not, we Brits still list ‘going shopping’ as one of our most favourite leisure activities.  It’s both a social and emotional pursuit. As designers, we can support the retailer in terms of the emotional experience, creating interiors that both entertain and inspire, but the customer satisfaction is down to the retailer and the quality and knowledge of their staff, again please refer to John Lewis, a very hard act to follow in this regard.

So, my message is one of hope for traditional retailers that create a truly omni-channel offer where the retail spaces emotionally engage and where customer service excels will not only survive but thrive. Old fashioned retail is dying out, long live omni-channel!

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