From the recent demise of big names such as Maplin and Poundworld, to others, like Debenhams and M&S, who are taking an axe to their store estates, there’s no doubt that bricks-and-mortar retail is facing challenging times.
Often, the same reasons are cited for the difficulties faced by these retailers: excessive business rates or rents; lack of consumer confidence; the relentless growth of online shopping; or the uncertainty around Brexit.
These are all plausible explanations, yet often the most significant reason for retail failure lies closer to home: that the businesses which struggle are the ones that simply aren’t very good.
Stories of retail success tend to generate fewer headlines than those opining the “death of the high street”, yet there are plenty of green shoots if only you look.
On many high streets around the UK, distinctive and marketing-savvy independents are seizing the opportunity to give consumers something different, filling some of the holes left by departing multiples.
At the same time, the big-name stores that are doing well are the ones, like Joules or Hotel Chocolat, that get all the basics right: great products, appealing stores, a strong brand, a coherent multichannel approach, and an embrace of what Hotel Chocolat boss Angus Thirlwell calls the “social aspect of shopping”.
Indeed, retailers and commentators regularly point out that bricks-and-mortar retailers – if they cannot compete on price or convenience – have to offer customers consistently engaging “experiences” if they are to survive and thrive. As Tailor Made London founder John Buni rightly suggests, “the retailers that offer something interesting and discoverable will succeed.”
Intimacy of interaction
Just as Joules celebrates its “fantastic team” of instore brand ambassadors, and Hotel Chocolat “the knowledge and warmth” of the people who run its shops, it’s self-evident that the roles of retail staff are core to delivering customers the memorable experiences that they crave. Online shopping offers many advantages, but it is yet to replicate the intimacy of a real-life interaction, the nuances of face-to-face conversations, or the ability to touch, smell or (sometimes) taste a product.
Similarly, there is a tendency for some observers to highlight technologies like beacons or artificial intelligence as the way forward for physical retail, while perhaps neglecting the human needs that make shoppers desire real-life contact in the first place.
Rather, there is a case for technology such as digital signage or mobile point of sale to be used selectively in ways that complement and enhance those human engagements.
Points of distinction
With all these thoughts in mind, it is therefore a no-brainer for physical retailers to celebrate and focus on the genuine points of distinction that a high-street shop can offer, with customer service as the “battleground” on which success is sought and won.
It’s not about trying to out-technology online shopping, but to be all those things that online retail isn’t: surprising, personable, and joyful.
Sports retailer Decathlon, for example, which has recently been growing its presence in UK town centres as well as retail parks, is clear that “amidst a backdrop of high street closures, physical stores must offer a customer experience that cannot be replicated online.”
Similarly, at the scale of the town centre, research by Loughborough University has concluded that “it is by developing the fullest possible understanding of the customer experience, and using it to attract customers to visit and return, that our town centres are most likely to survive.”
Evidence-based customer insight
It’s not surprising then that for many of the retail businesses that are doing well, having ongoing conversations with their customers – whether that’s instore, via social media, or by gathering feedback at the point of experience – is part of their DNA.
Engaging with that feedback helps to hone the customer experience, ensure the product offer is right, keep the brand on track, and potentially prompt new ideas in the business.
Collecting and learning from customer feedback data should not just be the preserve of big-name retailers, either.
US-based “Retail Doctor” Bob Phibbs recently noted that “many smaller retailers feel they get a pass when it comes to data collection, analysation and implementation. You don’t.”
On the contrary, Bob is clear that “it is only when you have robust data about your customer that you can understand who they are and predict what they might like.”
Quantifying great service
Unfortunately, not all retailers recognise that a combination of an energised team and inspired customers is the way to grow sales and successfully navigate the evolving high street – partly because they haven’t got the data and insights to prove it.
Instead, as the retail consultants at Retail Remedy note, staff are sometimes the first thing to be cut in the interests of “cost saving”. Even then, they suggest, those team members that remain will tend to focus on tasks that relate to productivity – rather than on customer service – because of that pressure from head office to reduce costs, and because productivity tasks, such as remerchandising, are easier to quantify and measure.
However, the danger is that these badly informed head-office decisions “create a poor customer experience”, and have a negative impact on the brand and sales – thereby leading, chances are, to even more desperate cuts.
So, there is clearly an argument for using an insight-gathering tool like Surveyapp in a scenario such as this.
Doing so is not only a statement by head office that it genuinely places value on delivering great customer experience – but it also starts to generate the data and insights that allow customer service to be measured, rewarded and enhanced just as much as productivity.
Graham Soult is the owner of retail consultancy CannyInsights.com, and works with Surveyapp to identify and write about retail, marketing and customer service trends.