TUI Group – the parent company of travel agent, Thomson – has digitally revamped a number of its stores to maximise trends relating to omnichannel retailing.

Speaking at eCommerce Expo in London this week, Doug Glenwright, general manager of retail transformation at TUI, admitted travel agents are not known for their innovation.

“But travel agents were one of the first groups of retailers to be hit by the advent of the internet and we feel we’re one of the first to be coming out of the other side and best maximising omnichannel,” he said. 

Glenwright said the travel agent needed to understand how to connect the online and in store experience as a third of its customers still use a Thompson store to shop for their holidays.

“Customers like the reassurance of coming into store,” he said. “A holiday is ultimately a very large transaction, which happens periodically, so it is particularly important to reassure customers they’re booking the right holiday.”

But over half of Thompson holidays are booked through the website. “So why invest in retail when we know it’s a declining channel and we want to be more digitally orientated moving forward?” asked Glenwright.

Culture change

He also said TUI had to change its culture to understand the different values that come from different channels today. “Shop windows are a living breathing 48-foot advert on the high street, which can help drive people to the website,” he explained, suggesting retailers need to understand that sales from different channels influence each other and should not be viewed by the finance department in silo. 

“Separate P&Ls and costs is nonsense in today’s world,” he added. 

“We very rarely talk to anyone using just one channel, even our most loyal retail customers are looking on the website for inspiration before they come in – we have to play catch up as the customer already knows more about their holiday than we do when they visit a store.”

Glenwright also noted that research from Conlumino stated shops help to build a brand’s reputation as customers have 30% more trust for brands they can feel and see on the high street. 

Rather than becoming a business using technology in the “heart and soul” of everything it does, Thompson chose to use technology as an enabler in its stores. He used technology not to necessarily facilitate sales in the form of kiosks, but to provide customers with a better in-store experience when booking a holiday.

Technology and implementation

The retailer worked with strategic design agency, 2020, to integrate Samsung screens and Scala digital signage software, which Glenwright said were chosen for its scalability. 

Thompson used its Bluewater store to test a number of technologies, including floor to ceiling immersive screens instead of store windows. “A big screen isn’t new, but it is a new opportunity to engage with customers,” explained Glenwright, who said the screens are used to showcase holiday destinations rather than displaying deals for holidays. 

Meanwhile, inside the store, Thompson used lighting and the smell of coconut suntan lotion to put customers in a relaxed holiday frame of mind. On the technology front, it installed an interactive map on the wall to be used by customers as a searching tool, which – due to its large size – also inspires other customers. “It’s very much ‘keeping up with the Joneses’,” said Glenwright.

But the technology needed to be simple. “We wanted to solve a problem for customers and we needed the tech to be usable so anyone could interact without having a degree in IT.” 

More screens were used on smaller interactive tables, while the waiting area was designed like a swimming pool and used screens to display social media interactions and reviews. 

“We still have brochures available, but we encourage customers to talk to us if they want one,” he added. 

Content and experience

“Our shock was how few retailers integrated technology into the experience. Yes, they put in kisoks and digital signage and the technology may look beautiful, but what is the purpose it’s serving?”

Glenwright said the Thompson digital signs helped to bring its products to life much more than it could have in the past through brochures or videos on fixed desktops at a table. “We blew the video content to larger than life and made it an immersive experience, we’re blessed from a travel perspective to have amazing content and we’re making sure that content is constantly being updated and refreshed automatically.”

The travel agent first revamped its store in Bluewater shopping centre at the end of 2013 and Glenwright said it saw sales more than double, and almost triple, over the first year. “We also improved the sales of our in-house products, increased average spend by customers and reduced our discounts – we found customers are willing to pay more for the right holiday and it’s up to us to find that right holiday and inspire them to purchase.”

Scalability was also important for the project, with Glenwright saying he wanted the software to work from an 80-inch touch screen all the way down to a 10-inch tablet. Thompson has now extended the new digital signage concept to 30 of its 630 stores across the country, including high street stores and flagships – the latest of which to be redesigned was Stratford in East London which was revealed in July this year.

“Immediately when we applied the design, the eCommerce guys said they wanted a map online too,” said Glenwright, when asked how the technology ties back to eCommerce. “We have all of that content, but we need to consider what is appropriate for customers – do they want the experience online as well? But we have delivered a basic version of the map on the website.

“Content is at the heart of everything we’ve done,” he added. “We developed first for our web platform and then made it applicable for retail.”