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Interview: Doddle chief exec Tim Robinson on store formats and expansion

In the rapidly developing retail sector of the 21st century retail formats can go from relevance to redundancy at such speed that some of the most established companies in the sector have been left reeling.

But a new generation of stores – and of entire categories – is springing up to meet the new demands of shoppers. Fast, agile, and free of the history and baggage of more familiar names, these retailers use new formats, new locations and new technology to quickly embed themselves in the lives of their customers.

It would be hard to have imaged Doddle a decade ago. The store chain is essentially based around a logistics product that solves the difficult ‘final mile’ delivery challenge for online retailers, giving customers a convenient place to collect their parcels and to despatch returns. A third of branches feature changing rooms, so shoppers can try their fashion purchases on at once and send them straight back if they don’t fit.

Originating from a Network Rail project to create better logistics products, Doddle launched in 2014 with access to an enviable network of locations in prime rail stations, where commuters could pick up their online purchases on the way home from work. Doddle still works with Network Rail - though the rail company is no longer a shareholder - and the brand has already modified its store format, its locations, its technology and its in-store service model. “Change management has been a big part of our focus. For traditional retailers there often isn’t that ability,” says Doddle chief executive Tim Robinson.

Doddle’s name reflects one of the key elements of its proposition. “It’s about making something very complicated as simple as possible. It is very complicated behind the scenes,” says Robinson.

Doddle’s first store – before it adopted its name – was a ‘dark store’ in Milton Keynes, used as a testbed for systems and a demonstration for investors. It used a layout designed in-house from the point of view of logisticians. “It wasn’t that good. It looked like a parcel depot, with scales dominating the counters. It looked liked a purple Post Office,” says Robinson. “But it let us test the concept.”

The brand worked with Glazer to develop its brand and communications, appointing an in-house marketing team to develop its store format – one that has evolved further as the company has expanded. The colour palette and branding developed by Glazer remain, but the stores are more user-friendly. Rather than go straight to terminals to input a collection code from their phones, customers now speak directly to a person. Counters have been replaced by pedestals so there are fewer in-store barriers.

While the technology behind Doddle drives its expansion, customers don’t necessarily want to see it in action. “People walk in and they want to talk to a human,” says Robinson. “We have taken a lot of the hard-wired things out, enabling the tills to go and letting you talk to a colleague sooner.” ‘Humanising’ the process has sped it up. The brand aims to let customers enter the store and get their parcel in less than 90 seconds.

The changes have also allowed the brand to occupy smaller spaces. Its stores, and increasingly its concession spaces in host stores, average around 1,000 sq ft, two thirds of which is back-of-house room to organise and store parcels. Early experience also disproved some of Doddle’s assumptions. It had been thought that parcels would dwell in stores for an average of two and a half days before collection; on average they are collected in 17 hours. Average parcel sizes are also smaller than expected, because online retailers are so adept at packing fashion items efficiently.

“Those early stores gave us massive exposure and footfall,” says Robinson. “But when you move out of the big cities, railway stations aren’t always the best locations. Convenience is the core driver of our network decisions.” Doddle is working with supermarket operators and retailers including B&Q and Cancer Research to find space for new sites in high footfall locations. “We have a strong relationship with Morrisons, and want to be in every branch by the end of 2017,” he adds. Robinson hopes to see a Doddle presence in 1,000 locations by the same date.

Doddle has also developed relationships with large employers, such as Goldman Sachs, to help them cope with the volume of parcels that can be delivered to busy office buildings after lunchtime shopping sessions; it is in discussions with supermarkets about using spare capacity on their home delivery networks, and even offers a Doddle Runner service that will deliver parcels to locations close to its store for £1. “Though due to health and safety reasons, they can’t actually run,” admits Robinson. “They tend to use the bus.”

Robinson’s ambition for Doddle is that customers become so used to it using it that it becomes like a utility – employed frequently and becoming integral to how they live. And customers who adopt the Doddle service do tend to use it a lot. While many users of new services will use them once and not return, those who use Doddle more than twice will have used it an average of17 times this year, he says.

As a chief executive with a background in logistics Robinson could be expected to have a firm grasp of figures, and he doesn’t disappoint. But one in particular would seem to justify his confidence in the appeal of Doddle: “People were very excited when 51 per cent of John Lewis Christmas sales were online. What’s important for us is that 75 per cent of those sales were click and collect.”

For companies like Doddle, that would seem to prove the adage that change creates opportunity.