Interview: Tiger UK managing director Philip Bier

Last week saw the Danish general merchandise retailer, Tiger, open its first store on the London Underground network, and the business's UK managing director, Philip Bier, is eyeing further openings of this type in the year ahead.

Commenting on the partnership formed with Transport for London, which has seen a smaller footprint Tiger store open at St James's Park station, Bier told Essential Retail that it has been "a very encouraging beginning to what I hope should become a long-term, multiple relationship".

"London Underground has a desire to get the retail offer more on trend with what's going on generally in retail, and we fit very well into that," he added.

"We can change that offer to become more of a travel offer by making the departments in the store slightly different and prioritising SKUs that are more appealing to an underground shopper rather than a conventional shopper. That's where we see ourselves fitting in."

Lots of the talk around the retail industry's relationship with the London Underground and the retail industry has revolved around using stations as destinations from which to pick up online orders, with the idea being that they make for convenient locations and allow commuters to fit  shopping into their everyday routines. Asda has opened around 24 click & collect hubs in and around London stations, while Tesco and Waitrose have dabbled with this type of format.

For Tiger, which does not have a transactional online site, this is not the strategy. For this particular retailer, it's all about expanding its presence rather than connecting online and physical channels. In addition to London Underground stores, there are shops planned for Southampton, Oxford and Reading in the year ahead.

"We have an expansion programme that is repeating the success of what we have achieved so far, rather than a desire to expand into areas that are new to us," Bier, who runs Tiger UK's operations in the south-east of England, explained.

"We want to repeat successes we have had so far rather than looking at new inventive ways of expanding."

The Tiger approach

Although not ruling out ever launching a transactional website in the UK, Tiger has no imminent plans to develop its online proposition this way. The business is currently upgrading its web presence but it is "still a web presence as opposed to a web shop", according to Bier.

Changes include introducing relatively standard features such as eCommerce technology that filters store searches based on a consumer's postcode location, while last year saw Tiger's social media team – based in Denmark – launch its own emoji keyboard that can be downloaded and used alongside native phone emojis in mobile messaging.

The 'Designed-by-Tiger' characters which feature on many Tiger products are reflected in the new range of emojis, which have been launched to boost brand engagement with its customers.

Tiger has always looked to introduce the UK to Scandinavian design that the country may not otherwise have discovered, but this year sees the retailer work alongside Japanese artists such as Misaki Kawai, to help produce more unique products. The low price point in stores, which sees the majority of goods sold between £1-£3, is also a stand-out feature of the company's proposition, while music is also acknowledged as a major contributor to the customer experience.

Tiger does not run its own in-store radio station, as retailers like Spar, Superdrug and Subway do, but, instead, founder Lennart Lajboschitz has played a central role in developing a playlist of classic songs from the 1960s-1990s, which are broadcast on good music systems.

"The music we play is very influential – we hear that again, again and again," said Bier.

"It's unusual these days to listen to music on speakers. It's not unusual to see people dancing in the shops. I love it when we see it – it's what we want people to do. I'm not exaggerating, but it happens most days."

So can we describe Bier and Tiger as rock 'n' roll retail? "I wouldn't go that far, but if you want to say that it's fine with me!"

The big European question

Bier has an intriguing standpoint when it comes to whether the UK should remain as part of the European Union (EU) – a subject the British public will vote on in June's referendum. As a Danish citizen living in Britain for 30 years but without dual nationality he does not have a vote. But his wife and children are British, and the company he runs seemingly benefits considerably from being part of the EU.

US president Barack Obama has been criticised this month for weighing into the leave or stay debate this week, but it is only natural for senior politicians of other nations to have a viewpoint on such a significant vote. For the retail industry, which employs people from multiple countries and trades in different territories, there are also many questions to ask ahead of 23 June, and Bier sees the referendum as "potentially the most important vote in generations".

"Of course, the EU is a bureaucratic dinosaur that could do with a great deal of reform," he acknowledged.

"But in the next 50 years I have no doubt the British interest is aligned with the European interest, therefore it is a clear-cut 'remain in' [for me] and be part of it, influencing, rather than being an outsider who can't influence a common European policy."

Bier added: "Tiger has great benefit of Europeans wanting to come and work in our shops.

"I think 26% of our staff are European or EU citizens – a significant part – right across from area managers, to store managers to sales assistants."

Tiger prides itself on trying to find a point of difference that allows it to stand out from its competitors, but it is continuity and consistency that its UK managing director seeks when it comes to this summer's vote.

Reflecting on the freedom of movement aspect that comes with the UK being an EU member, he said: "It would be a disaster for Britain if that doesn't remain."

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