Interview: Customer service the silver bullet for Fat Face

Retailers looking to invest in new technology and systems should consistently ask what impact these solutions will have on customer service and the overall customer experience, according to Paul Wright, head of eCommerce at fashion retailer Fat Face.

Talking to Essential Retail at NetSuite's SuiteWorld event in California last week, Wright was keen to emphasise how important it is for businesses not to introduce technology for technology's sake, saying there are some significant retail examples of over-complicated tech "getting in the way" of the ultimate goal of providing customer satisfaction.

With the retail technology market in a seemingly healthy state, defined by start-ups and established companies alike promising a range of new tools to help retailers navigate their way through a particularly disruptive period of change, it would seem there is a chance of retailers losing focus on their long-term aims.

"The silver bullet is good old fashioned customer service," Wright remarked.

"I go into so many stores where the lure of sexy technology, such as iPads and kiosks, can be brilliant, but only if they are linked back to customer experience. Some retailers are doing it very well, but there are some examples where tech is just getting in the way and impacting customer service."

Wright's role as head of eCommerce is combined with being in charge of marketing at Fat Face, and he sees the two divisions as having a natural overlap in terms of working together to meet customers' needs. In retail there seems to have been a natural evolution of marketing roles into digital management, and now those same job titles are being angled towards customer experience.

Zia Zareem-Slade at luxury department store Fortnum & Mason (F&M) is a case in point. Having headed up eCommerce at Selfridges for a number of years, she joined F&M in 2013 as customer experience director and recently led a project to re-launch the retailer's website, showing how the eCommerce and marketing functions of a business are becoming increasingly entwined.

Wright commented: "The benefit of eCommerce is that it's rich with data; you find out so much about your customers every single day, every single hour.

"We know what's happening, how they like to shop and what preferences they have; you get instant feedback. All of this can be used to drive more efficient strategies in the wider business. In marketing, we spend lots of time talking to customers through focus groups or on the phone.

"My role is to take all of this customer insight and turn it into executable sales channels, as best I can. I don't have the fancy job title yet – I should have a word with my boss and try and get something sorted out!"

Wright said Fat Face has been considering new customer journeys and "connected customer experiences" since 2010, when consumer usage of mobile technology and eCommerce truly began to impact the retail sector.

Working with eCommerce provider Venda and digital agency Huge, the fashion retailer looked to redefine the experience it offered online shoppers by trying to distinguish its web platform from the competition.

The original iteration of the new-look website was responsive from a desktop to a large tablet, but since NetSuite's acquisition of Venda in 2014 Fat Face has been able to tap into new technology and roll out the latest version of its site with responsive web design for smartphones and every other device available for customers.

"We started trying to replicate the best bits of the in-store browsing experience, which is hard when everyone is talking about redefining retail around web," explained Wright.

"Customers have shopped on the high street for a lot longer than they have online, so what is it they love about the high street? We took all the customer best practices and built the website around it."

One would assume that knowing and understanding customers should always be a central part of any retailer's philosophy, but the process arguably starts from scratch when expanding into new territories.

International expansion is very much on Fat Face's immediate agenda, with US stores likely to be added before Christmas 2015 following the launch of a dedicated US website last month. Wright said that providing a "solid experience" on a website first is "absolutely crucial" in starting the customer engagement process in a new market.

Locations for any new US stores currently remain private, but what seems clear is that Fat Face will be taking a customer centric approach to the development of shops and eCommerce. Sometimes this can simply be achieved by sitting down and having a conversation with the target market, which is exactly what the retailer plans to do.

"You get so much out of a half an hour chat with customers, asking them 'what are you looking for?'," explained Wright.

"Fat Face is a brilliant brand that fits into people's lifestyles extremely well: it works in city centres, seaside towns, market towns. It has a proven background in the UK and the US will be an interesting playground to expand the business further."

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