Retail Week Live: Lessons for Physical Retailers


“Be blue in a room full of red.  Be the rebel against dull. Bring your shoppers on a journey.” 
Mike Coup, Sainsbury’s CEO, speaking at Retail Week Live 2017

For two days in March, the O2 Intercontinental in London’s Docklands was alive with the sound of musing as industry leaders, keynote speakers and retailers from around the country gathered for Retail Week Live. The event brings together retail professionals from around the world to share knowledge, innovations and success stories. Here’s just a small selection of the things we learnt from this year’s thought-provoking event.


People first, technology second

No surprises here, but a reoccurring theme explored what it really means to put the customer first. Intrinsically understanding your clientele means you can deliver what they want, as opposed to what you would like to sell them, providing your business with a simple, but often overlooked edge.  But how do you achieve this? Our very own Customer Experience champion, Andrew Howarth, says, “In a physical environment it is all about people; hence I suggest keeping the tech element light and agile and letting your people get on with creating the experience!” 

Whether we like it or not, in this digital age, technology plays a part in every corner of our industry. From payment gateways to systems that control security and staffing, we have more useful tech at our fingertips than ever before. However, it’s important to remember that technology should be there to help us make good business decisions, not make decisions for us. Although new advances in consumer tracking, artificial intelligence and virtual reality can play their part, they’re no substitute for good old fashioned customer service and, dare we say it, common sense. So ensure the technology you use is people-centric – if it doesn’t serve your customers and staff first, then it is likely that it’s serving someone’s ego instead. In our experience, most shopper needs are relatively simple; adequate staff, full shelves, short queues and efficient and friendly customer service. Get these basics right, and your customers will keep coming back!


Look after your people and your people will look after you

Richard Branson once said, “the customer doesn’t come first; your staff do”. Did he mean that he doesn’t care about his customers? Of course not! But it stands to reason that if your employees are happy, then that will feed through to shop floor, resulting in a better experience for your customers.

Lots of experiments have been run to figure out the exact recipe for employee happiness, and the results are always the same – it’s not about money, it’s about engagement. That starts with hiring right in the first place. John Timpson of Timpsons says, “We hire on personality and then teach them skills”, which is a valuable lesson to keep in mind when building your team – having the right attitude cannot be taught, but pretty much everything else can.

But the job doesn’t end there. Hiring the right people means you’ve got an opportunity, but make of that opportunity what you will. You have to work hard to ensure every employee feels involved in the success of your business, whether that’s a stock room assistant or your Branch Manager. With responsibility comes the power to make a difference, and it is this that researchers agree is the most impactful factor when it comes to employee motivation.

However, when you run a multi-branch retail operation in which most decisions are made at Head Office, how can you ensure everyone feels involved? This disconnect between C-level decision making and sales floor staff was something that StoreTech set out purposefully to address. And the answer, it turns out, was to simplify – the problem with most analytics tools was that the interface was designed to be used by senior members of staff who had been trained to disseminate the data that the software spewed out. By simplifying the design, we achieved our goal – the ultimate democratisation of data, without losing any of the value. Simple, clean and intuitive dashboards which update in real-time are positioned discreetly in areas that all staff have access to. This means each team member can see how the sales floor is performing with regards to sales, conversions and average yield, all in real-time. It’s an act of trust – it tells your employees that they are every bit as important as your senior team members, which is very empowering. And by showing them how they can take personal responsibility for the success of the business, rather than simply telling them, you’ll quickly see them using their initiative to implement changes that impact the bottom line on a day-to-day basis.

Learn more about StoreTech


The lowdown on the high street

These days you’d be forgiven for thinking that everybody prefers to shop online, but statistics show that this is simply not the case. Most customers still prefer to see and touch a product before making a purchase, and although online sales are increasing, figures show that visiting a store is still preferential. Take Halfords where 85% of orders are Click and Collect – while customers may enjoy browsing online, evidently, they still want to go into the store to complete their purchase.

So why are so many retailers emphasising digital over their physical stores? Although eCommerce channels aren’t generating more revenue, one perceived advantage is that it’s easier to track sales and thereby prove ROI of various marketing initiatives. But this is a misconception at best – it’s never been easier for physical stores to gather the same sorts of data that online stores can, and then go on to operationalise that data to prove ROI and optimise operations. Armed with the right in-store analytics tools, and safe in the knowledge that your customers still prefer an in-person shopping experience, there’s no reason why your physical stores can’t surge ahead of the online competition.


Create experiences that activate customers

“Retail is the most human of industries.”  Chris Brook Carter, Retail Week.

The greatest advantage you have over online stores is your ability to connect with your customer. Providing a human touch creates a shopping experience that is so much more engaging than clicking a mouse. It can be relatively simple, such as putting extra staff in changing rooms, offering customer perks such as loyalty cards, or redesigning the shop floor to make a more appealing physical environment for the shopper – but it can go so much further. The brands that are making the biggest waves are the ones that are crafting truly remarkable experiential events that encourage customer participation.

Take The Dining Club by Ikea for example – a two-week event that invited families and friends to cook meals together in a pop-up DIY restaurant. There was also a café serving Swedish delicacies, ‘Food for thought’ workshops and a product showcase area, which included a virtual reality kitchen. It encouraged people to engage with the brand in a unique way, inviting patrons to do so much more than simply walk around the store.

But you don’t have to have the sort of space and budget that Ikea has at their disposal. If you sell beachwear, you could partner with a local lido and host a pool party. Smaller fashion stores could open after hours and run workshops on layering or accessorising. Or host a murder mystery evening that allows your customers into areas of the shop they’d never usually see – the stock room, behind the tills or the back office. If you have multiple stores why not embrace technology as part of the offline fun and build in a competitive element, encouraging participants to share their experience online to win prizes?

The event has to be fun and unique to work, and it will certainly take time and energy to plan and execute well. But, on the upside, these sorts of events are almost impossible for competitors to copy and, if successful, you can use them more than once to engage different segments of your audience.


The future is bright

There are those who believe that technology is the death knell for physical retailers, but nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, competition from the digital space, paired with extraordinary advancements in technology is pushing bricks & mortar stores to great new heights. Individualising window displays according to who is passing, heat sensors on racks, floors and ceilings, which measure footfall and smart mirrors that make recommendations are just a few of the innovations that retailers are looking at for the future of their stores.

Although a lot of this technology is still a little way off, it’s important that you make cultural changes now to avoid getting left behind. The pace of change is accelerating fast; “it’s like walking up a hill and stopping for a sandwich… four people will pass you” lamented industry veteran, Lord Rose. The question is, how do you make sure you’re ready?

Take a look around. Have you filled your desks with tech innovators and early adopters, or are your people comfortable with the status quo? The truth is, most businesses probably need both, but if you are leaning towards the latter, and your Monday morning meetings fill with cries of “but that’s how it’s always been done” or “why fix it if it isn’t broke?”, then you may need to make some changes.

Start small by making data, rather than intuition, an integral part of how you do things. Empower your staff with smart apps and digitise inefficient processes. Make retail technology part of your culture from the ground-up, and you’ll find it much easier to stay in the race when the starter pistol fires.


If you’re interested in seeing how Ikea, Clarks, River Island and Monsoon are using smart technology to increase sales by 10% and decrease costs by 12%, then schedule a free 1:1 strategy session with one of our Retail Customer Experience experts. In just 30-minutes we’ll show you exactly what tools they are using, and demonstrate how you can get the same results for your stores.

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