Interview: Rohan using technology to get the fundamentals right

At the National Retail Federation's (NRF) Big Show and Expo in New York earlier this year, former Walmart US CEO Bill Simon addressed the industry delegates in attendance saying the retailers that will be successful in the future will be those who use technology to help support and enable fundamental operations and service propositions.

His point was that despite the wide range of new tools filtering into the industry promising to transform retail organisations, the businesses using technology well to aid the core retailing processes will be the ones to succeed in the near future.

And that appears to be the mantra being followed at UK-based outdoor equipment and travel clothing retailer Rohan, where sales and profit are on the rise following a turbulent period around the time of the financial crash back in 2007-08.

Over the last three years the company has gone from a trading loss of £1.5 million to a break even position and now to a £1.6 million profit, and retail director Ian Palmer says that it is "lots of little things that have made a really big difference". The appointment of a new managing director, Roger Cann, whose goal was to get everyone in the business to ensure they were doing lots of elements of their jobs differently, has seemingly had a major impact.

"It's reassuring because if the market turns against us again like it did in 2008, the loss of one of those things we've changed isn't going to make a great deal of difference because there are plenty of other things that are working," Palmer told Essential Retail.

Rohan's operational amendments over the years have included slight tweaks to price points, as well as the way its stores are presented. Another key part of the recent encouraging growth story, according to Palmer, has been the way the business has gained a better understanding of its customers' in-store behaviour.

In the last few years, Rohan has been working with ShopperTrak to help monitor customer footfall and conversion. Palmer said that partnering with ShopperTrak has helped shape the retailer's store strategy.

"We got involved with ShopperTrak because we wanted to understand more about the people who were coming into our shops and it became clear we didn't know a lot about them!" the retail director explained.

"We had a lot more people coming in than we thought and we were selling to a lot fewer. What was particularly concerning was the sheer number of people who would come in and turn around without having bought anything. The reality was the shops were getting busier and converting at a low rate but we were missing huge opportunities because hundreds of people were turning up in our shops every single day and we weren't selling to them."

Prior to investing in ShopperTrak's orbit and beacon technology, the company had effectively just been people counting at the store entrance, with the previous assumption being that most people visiting were loyal customers who purchased something based on what they had seen in the Rohan catalogue.

"It was interesting from the start to see that rather than spending more money on sending out catalogues or buying more data on new customers, we had an opportunity staring us in the face with hundreds of people coming in, not spending time in our shops," Palmer noted.

"Rather than spend more money on getting new people in, we could spend a bit more time on the shop, the layout and how we present ourselves within the shop to make more of the people coming in."

Palmer admits to being embarrassed that the things the company found out were aspects of retailing his team should have known already, for example the use of the technology has prompted the business to treat Sunday trading more seriously.

"Sales figures indicate Sunday is one of the quietest days, but as soon as we started getting the traffic figures through we acknowledged Sunday was the smallest day for sales but it is around four hours shorter than other days," he said.

"If we then look at it by hour, it's one of the busiest days of the week – it's busier than a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Yet we were not staffing it effectively."

Changes were made at Rohan to ensure a manager or a deputy manager would always be working on a Sunday, while training for Sunday staff was improved.

Palmer added: "It needed to become a day where we focused on sales because we had as many people coming in as there were at other times of the week. That led us on to look at hours within days and to increase hours around certain times of day."

The ShopperTrak orbits are in seven of Rohan's 57 shops and the beacon is in one store, with the technology giving hour-by-hour information on traffic, which is matched up with the EPoS data to gauge conversion rates. Store managers have their own logins and can access personal dashboards to see their statistics for the week, as well as being able to see how other shops are performing.

"You have to be careful with engendering competition, as the moment something gets competitive people start to manipulate the figures," Palmer explained.

"When we had the bean counters [previous counting system] we had staff who would duck under them or they'd try to cover it up when groups came in. What I love about the ShopperTrak technology is that no-one can interfere with it. It sits on the ceiling out of reach and sends the information to me via the internet so I can pick it up – I know it's accurate."

Rohan has also recently upgraded all of its Aures tills to a new model from the same manufacturer, while as click & collect continues to grow in popularity among its customer base, the company will be looking to introduce systems that allow shoppers to access technology in the store and place an order for later collection.

The business is moving in a positive direction, and Palmer is expecting more encouraging results to come.

"We've just finished financial year-end in January and sales beat the previous year again, despite the closure of two shops, while profit will be up on the £1.6 million we quoted the previous year," he explained.

"Already we're in week five of the new financial year and we're 4% up like for like. Despite the market being tough, the fact we're getting better at serving people who come into our shops – rather than getting more new people to come in – and the fact we're getting better at presenting ourselves is having a huge impact on the business."

Visitors to RBTE, which takes place at London's Olympia between 10-11 March, can hear more from Ian Palmer on the use of in-store technology to improve business processes. His presentation 'Enhancing The Customer Experience Through Location-Based Analytics', alongside ShopperTrak's EMEA CEO Bill McCarthy, will take place at 15:50 on Tuesday 10 March.

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