Big interview: Vodafone head of retail Martin Roberts

Mobile phone business Vodafone is set to speed up the roll-out of its new-look stores in May, as the company looks to boost its presence on the UK high street over the next 12 months.

Vodafone announced at the start of April that it will create around 1,400 jobs by opening 150 new UK stores this financial year, and is investing £100 million in growing its store estate and introducing new-look stores that it hopes will provide its customers with an improved shopping experience.

The new stores – nine of which have already opened, including in Swindon and Walthamstow – feature dedicated tech areas, and clearly-defined sections where customers can receive help and advice. With recent research showing that consumers see the benefit of being served at different points around a retail store, Vodafone is also putting significant focus on mobile point of sale (MPoS) in its new outlets.

Martin Roberts, head of retail & online at Vodafone, told Essential Retail: "If you go into one of the stores we've highlighted, you will see us using tablets.

"We're not only using them to manage customer queries; when you enter a store you'll be greeted by a concierge who wants to understand how we can give you the best service.

"In our old formats we had static computers at a desk; now we are embracing technology with tablets that can be disconnected from the cradle and can actually be used around the store to share information and share knowledge, allowing us to be much more flexible in terms of serving the customer well."

MPoS is certainly a growing trend in retail, with another major player in the mobile space, Carphone Warehouse (CPW), already using 5,000 tablets as an assisted sales tool across its UK store portfolio. CPW's CEO Andrew Harrison recently spoke about the importance of technology-led companies practicing what they preach in the way they serves customers, but a study published earlier this month suggested that in-store tablet usage is still not widely prevalent in British retailing.

Following a survey in January 2014, technology vendor Omnico Group found that just 10% of British shoppers have experienced tablet devices in-store, despite their growing usage in domestic life.

The research suggested that, while the majority of shoppers have yet to experience an in-store tablet, they do have a clear idea of what they want from the service. Half of the 2,007 survey respondents said they would like sales assistants to be equipped with tablets so they can check additional inventory if a shelf is empty, while 53% would like to be able to check inventory in nearby stores.

According to Roberts, the use of in-store tablet devices is already garnering some encouraging results for Vodafone.

"The early stages are showing that it's a much more effective and efficient transaction," he noted.

"Some of our customers are in a hurry, but we can still provide a really great service by utilising technology. Technology speeds up transactions, making them more fluid and more effective. Customers are sharing with us that they really like that, particularly when they are greeted in the store."

Another in-store trend that has been picking up momentum over the last year is the use of technology to cater for a family shopping experience.

In shoe retailing, Clarks and Jones Bootmaker have been using gamification on iPads for the feet-measuring process to help keep younger customers engaged and entertained during a procedure that many parents can find laborious.

The larger format stores Vodafone is rolling out as part of its current growth strategy contain children's areas, where the younger members of the family can play games on iPads. The facilities allow parents to buy phones and seek technical advice while their offspring are kept entertained.

"We have created kids zones, which allow parents to be a lot more relaxed when we are serving them, allowing us to look after them – but also allowing the kids to have a bit of fun," Roberts explained.

"We're getting great feedback from customers about the introduction of that. We don't want our customers to be pressurised, we want them to be at ease."

In a retail world where a connected, multichannel environment is necessary to ensure businesses can serve customers in the best possible way, it is clear that Vodafone is following a path of using technology to enhance its physical retailing environment and vice versa.

Roberts acknowledges that many of its customers research products and services online, but prefer to continue their transaction in-store, so the company is "absolutely focused on online being integrated with our stores".

"There are so many journeys that customers have when they come into our stores and we are equipped to be able to embrace those and use the technology we have in the new stores," he added.

"We are always looking to understand and embrace new technology, and we will review and look at any opportunity to improve service to make the experience better for our customers."

After an initial flurry of store openings earlier this year, Vodafone will be picking up the pace again now the Easter break has been and gone. New stores will be opened across the length and breadth of the UK, from Scotland to Cornwall, while the company's existing store estate will also be modernised with new layouts and features over time.

"We will restart opening our new stores in May and will continue opening them through until year-end," Roberts explained.

"We'll be progressively ramping up our roll out of new stores nationwide. The second week of May will see us start to advance that programme again. We'll be moving at pace."

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