Big interview: Clarks innovations manager Chris Towns

UK shoe retail brand Clarks recently unveiled its first men's-only shoe shop, with the opening of a three-week pop-up store in the heart of London's West End.

The Seven Dials outlet near Covent Garden is one of a host of brand-building exercises the company is currently undertaking as it continues to develop its business in the UK and on an international scale.

Another feature of the business is its growing technological focus in terms of shoe design and the way it interacts with its customers. To coincide with UK schools' half-term break this week, the Clarks team has situated itself in another pop-up, in Cribbs Causeway shopping centre near Bristol, to test its new forward-thinking foot measuring tools.

Clarks now has a patented iPad foot measuring gauge in all UK stores and in 13 global territories, and the tool, which has an app capable of quickly generating complex algorithmic calculations, is used when measuring children's feet. The long-term aim for the system is to take it to locations such as ice skating rinks and bowling alleys, giving consumers a modern way to measure their feet when they need to do so.

The technology is the brainchild of the Clarks innovations team, which is headed up by Chris Towns who told Essential Retail that the tech has been well-received by those who have used it in the shopping centre environment.

"Part of the roadmap with the iPad foot gauge wasn't to keep it in store – it was to take it out on roadshows and allow it to be mobile.

"This really was a critical point and it gave me the opportunity to show and explore with the consumer what we had, as well as let the business understand its capabilities."  

This week has also seen the first outing for the infant foot gauge, which is based on an iPad Mini, and is aimed at young children who are too young to stand up when getting their feet measured.

Using a patent-pending stylus, the Clarks staff member can draw around the child's foot in the colour of their choice and create a digital recording of the measurement.

"I wanted to make sure we had a digital touch-point for everyone who came in, which matches our USP of providing the best possible fitting shoe," commented Towns.

"Immediately we get the child's focus on the task at hand and it keeps them entertained while we measure their feet. The motion of drawing down one side of the foot and across the toes means we can provide pinpoint measurements."

More pop-up stores showcasing these foot-measuring tools are expected to appear around the UK next year, and there is also more new technology currently under development. One example, which Clarks hopes will take shoe retailing to the next level, is a mobile app that enables people to make their own measurements at home, order online and have their footwear delivered to their destination of choice.

It's a solution for those who may be too busy to visit a Clarks store, says Towns.

"We now have a fantastic working prototype which for us is incredibly exciting because it enables us to have a really personal touch-point with the consumer in their own home, which can bring our brand to life but also ensure the measurement they take is an accurate one," he added.

And with Clarks in the first wave of retailers to partner up with emerging mobile payments provider Zapp, the obvious question is how will this innovative new part of the customer transaction journey be implemented at Clarks?

"Clearly arming our staff with tablet devices isn't just about measuring feet – it's the stepping stone and springboard for all of the things we know tablets can bring consumers.

"Mobile payments, stock checking and finding product information are all on the roadmap for us to develop and grow, based on an understanding of what our customers and staff would like to see."

Towns has been working at Clarks for 15 years. Just 12 months after joining as a product designer, he was given the role of innovations manager and asked to build his own team and help bring a fresh perspective to the organisation.

In retail today, the input of innovation managers and the departments in which they operate are becoming central to board-level decision-making, particularly as tech platforms continue to evolve so rapidly and consumer shopping habits change faster than they ever have done in the past.

Tesco and John Lewis are among the companies who rely on these teams to develop their multichannel strategies. And it is a natural direction in which retailers need to head if they want to expand and thrive in a competitive marketplace, according to Towns.

"Innovation is the only way that large organisations that have reached capacity are able to grow further – by thinking and approaching things differently," he explained.

"Innovation is exciting. People see innovations as must-have products – just look at Apple – it's an emotive and exciting item to have. In the race to gain market share, companies are employing innovation managers, people who can think laterally and can bring new ideas to business and keep them agile and able to move quickly."

When Essential Retail caught up with the Clarks innovations team at the start of 2014 it was clear the company wanted to be more than a shoe retail brand. The tech development over the last few years and the mobile-focused plans it has for the future show the business is on that journey, and is bringing new ideas to shoe retailing.

And the recipe for achieving such success, according to Towns: "Think differently, act rapidly and try and be the first in everything we do."

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