Big interview: Hawes & Curtis head of eCommerce Antony Comyns

Gartner's most recent Digital Marketing Spending report said that global businesses' highest marketing technology investment in 2014 was directed towards customer experience.

The term "customer experience" is one of the buzz phrases of the moment in retail, too, with companies operating in the industry typically looking to evolve from the process of simply shifting stock to a position of serving consumers when and where they want, in the most convenient manner.

Enhancing how the customer views its relationship with the brand is high on UK shirt maker Hawes & Curtis's list of priorities for 2015 as well, with the Jermyn Street-established business investing in a number of tools and techniques to help it grow sales and increase online conversion rates.

Head of eCommerce at Hawes & Curtis, Antony Comyns, told Essential Retail this week that the key aims for the 25-store retailer at present are to extend and improve its product range, grow online and "get multichannel working well"  not to mention development on an international scale.

The company is currently running a 'five shirts for £100' deal to try and entice a new customer base. It is an offer that just so happens to undercut fellow shirt retailer Charles Tyrwhitt's 'four shirts for £100' deal, suggesting it is not just the grocery sector that is embroiled in competitive pricing battles in UK retailing.

"We're a little bit cheaper than we wanted to go at this stage but generally it's always a tough month so you need to be relatively aggressive to get the sales," Comyns explained.

"In shirts, it's very competitive and the products are seen as something of a commodity rather than a real fashion item. Loyalty is not quite as strong as other sectors, although we have a good customer base that keeps coming back. We are just being fairly aggressive at the moment trying to gain new customers."

One online tactic that is helping to encourage customers to take up of this offer and to allow the retailer to upsell in general is the introduction of retail technology provider Peerius's product listing ads (PLA) widget as part of Hawes & Curtis's Google Shopping campaign.

Working with Tulip Digital, Hawes & Curtis has invested significantly in pay per click (PPC) marketing, and customers searching for shirts through Google Shopping are now taken to a landing page that includes eight other shirt options. These recommendations are based on agreed configured strategies for the particular product ad, which will have been optimised and tailored to an individual's previous behaviour and preferences.

If no personalisation data is available for an individual customer because they have not previously visited the site, the Peerius PLA widget defaults to traditional merchandising strategies, such as 'relevant similar items'.

"On our PPC site we're trying to drive people to a particular product, and we are spending a lot of money on negative keywords to make sure people are directed the right way," Comyns remarked.

"If you search 'men's white business shirt', for example, various algorithms help produce a selection of eight shirts. More than likely one of them will at least start consumers on a journey through our website, and whet the appetite to an alternative shirt to the one they initially clicked on."

Comyns says his team can use this information to gain an understanding of a typical customer journey, which is data that can then be applied across the rest of the business.

"What we're trying to do is to work out the best way to get a customer to find five shirts really easily and to understand what we always need in stock," he added.

The eCommerce boss admits that before starting to work with Peerius the process of including relevant similar items online was manual, unscientific, at times inaccurate and, as a result, "massively time-consuming". Since bringing the vendor on board to help with its PPC campaigns, Hawes & Curtis reports that its bounce rate has reduced by 10%, conversation rates have increased by 26% and revenue per session has jumped by 32%.

Meanwhile, online represents around 25-30% of overall business on most weeks, and eCommerce is expected to grow as a percentage of sales in the coming years.

If displaying the right products for individual shoppers is an acknowledged customer experience enhancer for online retailing, today's retailers also tend to be in agreement that it is crucial not to disappoint customers in the final mile of the shopping journey: the delivery of the product.

Late last year Hawes & Curtis added the product pick-up point company Doddle to its delivery offering, and Comyns believes the organisation fills a necessary gap in the fulfilment market. Doddle has opened hubs in and around UK stations, allowing customers to have their online orders sent to a location they most likely will pass on their routes back from work.

"One of the things Doddle is doing that others are not and cannot is that they have changing rooms at the collection point," he explained.

"You can order goods, have them delivered, try the garment on and if you don't like it you give it back – it's really no fuss. For me click & collect is the most convenient way to receive goods. With the likes of Collect Plus and Doddle now in operation, people will start realising that it's way out there in terms of customer service and experience."

In addition to addressing online customer service and product relevancy, Hawes & Curtis is looking to add to its two international stores in Germany and the Middle East, in the months ahead. The German, Australian and US markets are key focus areas, with Comyns suggesting the business will take an online-first approach as it looks to gain traction in these new territories.

Like many retailers, the company is also on the hunt for a commercially-minded data analyst to crunch some of the numbers and assess the online patterns that can help Hawes & Curtis further improve its understanding of customers. This comes at a time when the business is looking to add more lifestyle products to its range and keep pace with changing consumer behaviours.

"We manufacture the majority of our own shirts so we're really focusing on improving fits all the time – the way people wear shirts is very different to six or seven years ago," Comyns noted.

"You watch the news and hear about obesity, etc but if we didn't know what was going on out there we would be sure that the population is actually getting slimmer [based on how people now wear shirts]. We are concentrating a lot on product and we're bringing in our own range of shoes, jumpers, coats, jackets and other lines. By the middle of the year the business will look quite different."

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