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Opinion: Robert Hocking on why creating retail delight will eventually deliver on balance sheets

Twenty years ago I listened to Canada’s retailer of the year share how he’d gone from bankruptcy to owning a store of renown and profitability on the basis of applying common sense to the customer experience. I had reason to think of him recently on a retail tour of three of the UK’s biggest flagship department stores. At one, experience reigned supreme; at the other two, disinterested staff and poor visual merchandising resulted in zero emotional connection. What a difference an experience makes.

The visits inspired me to track down that same Canadian retail leader, Donald Cooper, to understand his thoughts about the retail experience and how he created his store, Alive & Well.

Cooper was born into a family whose legend was linked to a sports equipment brand that at one time employed 3,000 people. “Because I was a manufacturer, I’d been listening to retailers complain for 20 years about…everything,” Cooper says. “Success was due to their brilliance; failure was beyond their control. I started formulating what a great retail experience would be like. I could think of tons of reasons not to do things, but always one reason to do it: it will blow people away and our competitors won’t have the creativity and courage to copy me.”

When he won retailer of the year, Alive & Well was not only profitable with sales per square foot almost three times the national average, it also became famous. He says the difference was his relentless drive to create extraordinary customer value and delight in the experience. “Most businesses lack this kind of clarity, but it all starts with commitment,” Cooper notes. “And commitment is different than ‘goals;’ goals can be missed, commitments are ‘soul’ based.”

While times have moved on, the essence of his strategy remains sound. He created a pirate ship play area in the center of his store because “Women can’t put on clothes with kids screaming to go home, and it’s my problem to solve the customer’s issue.” He found that women often came to the store with husbands, a species less than enamored with shopping, in tow. Thus, he created a “man zone” featuring massage chairs and TVs to keep them distracted.     

He allowed shoppers to take an unlimited number of items into the change room, explaining that they’d take in 27 pieces and buy 23 of them. His view is that brands are always prattling on about trust, “But what says, ‘I don’t trust you’ more than a sign that says ‘maximum three items in the change room?’”

When he introduced free diapers in the washrooms competitors said, “You’re nuts, people will steal them.” But Cooper feels retailers should expand their hearts and minds. “Many retailers today believe that if you give the customer an inch, they’ll take a mile,” he says. “My view is that if you give them a mile, they won’t take anything.” When designing his store, he simply asked, “How would I want to be treated?”

Ironically, the one business retailers fear most is Amazon, yet in that company’s 2013 letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos wrote of a philosophy similar to Cooper’s: “We are internally driven to improve our services, adding benefits and features before we have to. We lower prices and increase value for customers before we have to. We invent before we have to. These investments are motivated by customer focus rather than by reaction to competition. Proactively delighting customers earns trust, which earns more business from those customers, even in new business arenas. Take a long-term view, and the interests of customers and shareholders align.” So, the company that makes every retailer question whether there’s a future for bricks and mortar – serving customers through a digital platform that lacks all the levers of a physical store – has customer delight at the core of its DNA.

Having experienced a prior retail bankruptcy Cooper was all too familiar with the sector’s competitiveness, so as he reconsidered how to improve his prospects with Alive & Well he asked himself where the joy was. “Maybe this is the only remaining competitive differentiation,” he says. “We sold women’s clothing, a commodity. Yet women sometimes drove four hours to get to us. People didn’t make the effort because of what we sold, they made the effort because of how we sold it.”

Steve Jobs once said that he wanted the app buttons on the iPhone screen to be so beautifully designed people would want to lick them. As designers of retail, every day we compartmentalize the rational, measured by spreadsheets, from the creative, measured on aesthetics. But, too often in the battle between them, what’s lost is the instinct and common sense to craft simple delight for our customers.

Robert Hocking is head of strategy at Saatchi & Saatchi X