Comment: UK fashion retailers leading Europe's digital drive

When it comes to delivering a great customer experience in a digital world, British fashion retailers are performing ahead of their peers in France and Germany, finds Kurt Salmon's 2015 Omnichannel Fashion Survey.

According to the research, which included all the major fashion retailers in those countries, the Arcadia brands, Topshop, Wallis and Miss Selfridge, were the highest placed companies. The Brits demonstrated greater maturity overall, having worked hard to enable technology and services to enhance the shopping experience.

Retailers were assessed on four dimensions: social, online, mobile and cross channel, and the latter is still an area where improvements can be made by everyone. For even the top performers, managing the customer journey across all channels, communicating the brand proposition successfully online and in store and executing against increasingly demanding customer expectations, is proving challenging and, no doubt, costly.

When it comes to execution, department stores achieved, on average, the highest scores for store operations and their supply chain. Both House of Fraser and John Lewis offer an extensive range of delivery options, with the former including a midnight cut off for next-day click & collect and same-day delivery within London and Birmingham and the latter home collection for customer returns. Both retailers provide a fast order collection experience and pre-collection support in the form of emailed maps outlining the location of the desk in the relevant store. Staff were found to be well informed and well equipped to support customers with out of stock items while in store: an area only 50% of surveyed retailers succeeded in.

Beyond service, both House of Fraser and John Lewis achieve strong brand consistency using signage, displays and visual merchandising to successfully connect physical and digital channels. This is particularly noteworthy given the range of brands and broader customer proposition of both retailers.

Top marks for cross channel merchandising were achieved by Burberry, Topshop, Jack Wills and Selfridges; all of whom have very strong brand positions generally.

Topshop was the best executor of overall customer experience across the four dimensions. Along with House of Fraser, these two retailers excelled in managing the customer journey and helping shoppers to interact with their brands across channels. Both provide store stock checking functionality on their websites, mobile sites and apps: integrating stores into their online channels and giving web and mobile visitors a compelling reason to venture onto the high street.

Only 25% of surveyed UK retailers provide this functionality compared with 30% in Germany and 50% in France. In this area UK retailers are missing a huge opportunity to drive traffic to their store estates. Once in store, barcode scanning functionality integrates online channels into the physical store and shoppers get instant access to online content, including customer product reviews and cross selling suggestions.

Some 73% of surveyed retailers have a mobile app but only 50% include barcode scanning functionality. Of these, only six retailers, including Topshop, Miss Selfridge and Wallis, incorporate store stock visibility, enabling customers to check availability at an alternative store if an item is out of stock or they want to buy closer to home.

Jack Wills achieved the survey's online experience top spot, primarily due to the clear, uncluttered design and user friendly layout of its website. The site incorporates all of the best features of mobile and tablet sites: pared back but considered content, a simplified navigation pane, large touchscreen like icons and larger than average product images. The click & collect booking process is particularly smart: displaying a large map, image of the store front and opening times.

Swedish/German premium retailer Marc O'Polo achieved first place in Europe for its mobile site. Most notable are its mobile optimised look-books that are easy to shop, featuring editorial content and cross selling suggestions. Another nice feature of these style guides are the total outfit cost calculations that appear against each look. Loyalty features prominently on the app's homepage with rewards relating to additional services and events, rather than points.

In the European survey pure-plays achieved generally very high scores for mobile and website functionality, unsurprising given that their resources can be focused on a narrower set of channels. They offer a wide range of delivery services to compensate for a lack of store presence. In the UK the standard delivery services offered by Shop Direct's online stores, for example, are faster than the average service offered by other retailers, whether those are pure-play or omnichannel. Next-day delivery is offered by 62% of pure-plays surveyed in Europe, compared with only 40% of vertical retailers and 33% of global brands.

The rising popularity of click & collect could present a challenge to the pure-play customer offer, but an increasing number are partnering with collection service providers to remain competitive. Shop Direct's brands, such as, offer free next-day click & collect via Collect+ for orders placed up to 9pm, while Asos offers unlimited free next-day click & collect for orders over £100.

French retailers excel with check & reserve services. For the six retailers who have enabled this service, customers cannot only check stock availability in stores, but also reserve an item for collection within one hour. No retailer outside of France was found to be offering this service.

Excluding pure-plays, Selfridges had the best social media score with its extensive presence on various channels and varied content that consistently relates to current product offerings, events and promotions in store and online. It also excels on customer service via its social media channels, with customer enquiries and complaints typically answered in a few hours. 

British fashion retailers can learn from the French and Germans in terms of recognising and rewarding customers across channels. In Germany and France, 60% of retailers support an omnichannel loyalty programme compared with only 45% in the UK.

The ability to acknowledge and incentivise customers across all channels should be on everyone's radars. The top performers for cross channel excellence: House of Fraser and Etam, both run points-based loyalty reward programmes that recognise customer purchases regardless of which channel they shop.

High scoring retailers are finding ways to capitalise on their digital investments, using them to encourage cross channel interaction, drive traffic to their stores and then deliver engaging experiences that draw on their digital, physical and team resources. Pure-plays have set the bar high in terms of online and mobile customer experiences and traditional bricks & mortar businesses are rising to the challenge.

Attention must now turn to how all of the best practice from online: easy navigation, customer recognition, effective cross selling, instant support and engaging content is replicated on the high street to deliver first-rate experiences from browsing to buying, receiving and returning.

The Kurt Salmon team writes a regular column on technology in retail for Essential Retail.

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