'Your retailer is ready to see you now': the rise of store appointments

The Watches of Switzerland Group launched its ‘By Personal Appointment’ service this month, becoming another retailer to refresh its proposition in light of the Covid-19 crisis.

Customers of the jewellery retail group’s Goldsmiths, Mappin & Webb, and Watches of Switzerland chains can now book an appointment online with their local store for a consultation in the shop, on the phone, or via video conferencing platform Zoom.

Online bookings for one-to-one appointments have become a more common part of the UK shopping experience since retailers reopened after temporary closure due to the coronavirus pandemic. They sit alongside wider retail trends around store traffic management, click & collect, and ‘curb-side’ product pick-up tech.

Craig Bolton, executive director of The Watches of Switzerland Group, says his company has secured 13,000 appointments for one-to-one consultations, either in store or virtually, in the last two weeks alone.

Some 20% of those bookings were made directly by the customer via the new system, with around 40% of in-store traffic coming from appointments, including those made by staff as part of their traditional client outreach.

Bolton expects the booking time to see the retailer will grow in popularity, with walk-ins – especially in mall or high street sites – dwindling.

“Pre-Covid, nearly all of our business was walk-in, like most retailers,” he explains.

“I don’t believe things will go back to what they were, maybe ever, but certainly not for a long period of time. Bookings will be people’s chosen method of interacting with us.”

Watches of Switzerland reopened stores after lockdown accompanied by a new online booking system for appointments (image credit: The Watches of Switzerland Group)
Watches of Switzerland reopened stores after lockdown accompanied by a new online booking system for appointments (image credit: The Watches of Switzerland Group)

Accelerating plans

Booking an appointment for a department store visit, particularly in the world of premium or luxury brands, is nothing new. But the process appears to be gaining traction across the wider industry, particularly in speciality retail, and it is becoming more centralised within organisations.

Outdoor pursuits equipment retailer Ellis Brigham Mountain Sports, which has 17 stores across the UK, is fast-tracking its pre-Covid-19 plans to create more of a concierge-style service in its shops. And appointment booking technology plays a central part in that process.

Chris Rigg, retail director at the company, describes making a “three to five-year leap” on the retailer’s previous roadmap.

“We were already building a future where it would be much less product in stores, and much more of a concierge service,” he explains, adding that, since lockdown lifted, it has significantly widened the range of appointments it offers to cover more ranges.

All of these changes are part of wider plans to more closely align its website and stores.

“We definitely see a future where a customer’s first interface will be with the website, where they will find our stores, and book appointments – consumers are loving that,” adds Rigg.

Rival retailers Cotswold Outdoor and Snow & Rock, which are owned by the Outdoor and Cycle Concepts (O&CC) group, also rolled out online bookings for in-store consultations and fittings as its shops reopened following lockdown. Runners Need, which is part of the same organisation, introduced the booking tech for running gait consultations, too.

Watches of Switzerland’s appointment platform is provided by Setmore, Ellis Brigham uses Qudini for its online booking service, and O&CC has opted for eTermin’s platform. Retailers’ eagerness to adopt their software is justification, in some cases, for many years of extolling the benefits of their platforms and services without huge uptake in the sector.

New systems, new era

Imogen Wethered, CEO of Qudini, which she co-founded in 2012, says: “Whereas clients may have previously taken six to nine months to sign a deal, we’ve got clients moving forward and making decisions within a month, including big enterprises.”

Such a newfound willingness to deploy appointment booking technology or virtual queuing tech – the latter is offered by providers such as Qudini and Ombori – comes at a time in-store traffic management has arguably never been more important.

So many retailers simply will not survive at their current size if they don’t get customers spending in stores again quickly, yet they need to be strict on the numbers entering shops at any given time. That’s quite a dichotomy to contend with.

Samantha Dover, senior beauty and personal care analyst at Mintel, a research company, says: “In the world today, retailers need to help consumers understand how they’re going to run in-store services, and how they’re going to do it with social distancing et al.

“There’s a lot more reassurance needed, and booking systems can provide that.”

Wethered adds: “This period will be a real defining moment for retail and the different systems within it – and we’re hoping to see that we will be one of those systems.”

The rise of the virtual queue

Through its partnership with Qudini, Ellis Brigham is set to introduce virtual queuing capability for consumers in its stores. People will be able to turn up at the shop, secure a time for a consultation and join a virtual queue via their smartphones.

Ellis Brigham offers multiple one-to-one appointments in its stores (image credit: ellis-brigham.com)
Ellis Brigham offers multiple one-to-one appointments in its stores (image credit: ellis-brigham.com)

“In our Covent Garden store in the past you might have waited in line for an hour or more, now you can be added to a queue, go for coffee or do what else you need to do, before receiving a message saying ‘your appointment is ready’,” says Rigg.

Mobile network O2 has been using this system in its UK stores for several years, and the company put it front and centre of its reopening strategy after lockdown. Grocery chain Asda is also trialling the technology in a supermarket in Middleton, Leeds, allowing shoppers to check in via QR code or mobile if the store is at full capacity, and then wait in their cars or nearby until they receive the green light to enter.

Wethered is biased because it is her company’s technology supporting those services, but she argues queue management of this nature will be particularly important if social distancing rules stay in place into the winter months. The question being, who will want to wait in the rain before gaining entry to their desired store?

“Some retailers are handing out umbrellas to customers in the queues – why don’t they just use a virtual queue?” she queries.

How to manage shopper traffic and safety concerns while keeping stores profitable and desirable under new operating conditions has become retail’s latest big challenge. Online bookings and virtual queues are emerging as popular solutions to solve it.

iStock photo credit: bgton