AS Watson on health tech, robots and in-store experience

Essential Retail speaks with Malina Ngai, group chief operating officer at AS Watson, to learn more about the use of technology in the health and beauty space. The beauty retailing group operates stores in 24 markets around the world and claims to open a new store every seven hours, while refitting several hundred every year.

In this Q&A, the Superdrug parent company talks about using technology to improve the in-store experience as well as developments in robotics and digital health.

Tell use how the health & beauty space is growing in the markets you operate in? The health and beauty space is growing and every market has a different story to tell. We see a higher demand for new technologies in China with scan-and-go and app payments so shoppers don’t have to go to the cashier, while in Europe there is a bigger appetite for celebrity.

Why are customers demanding new store experiences? Customers are demanding more newness including in-store shopping experiences and new and trendy products, especially those that are social media worthy. But shoppers also demand a seamless offline and online experience.

One example of seamless online and offline is the new ICI PARIS XL concept stores. It showcases a new way to present beauty products, encouraging product trials and allowing beauty-enthusiasts to share their experience and create tutorials in store and share them directly on social media.

Talk us through your favourite in-store technologies? A couple of my favourite technologies are StyleMe and Digital Beauty Advisor – both of which are proving popular with customers.

StyleMe is a magic mirror service that allows customers to try makeup effects virtually by leveraging augmented reality (AR) technology. While the Digital Beauty Advisor allows customer to easily access in-depth information about products and watch how-to videos by simply scanning the product.

You’ve also launched a robot to serve customers in China? Is she a gimmick to attract attention or could you see her being rolled out further? Bonnie is our first robot staff member and the feedback we have had is fantastic. It might seem like a gimmick at first but this changes when customers experience the knowledge and service Bonnie provides. Customers want to try new technologies and the robot format adds to the experience. I’m sure more technologies will be deployed in the future.

In the UK Superdrug is clearly seeing a market for services to draw customers back into the store. Do you find you have to encourage customers back in-store as they are shopping more online? And is services the way to do this? Online and offline are equally important in our customer strategy, they both complement one another to bring more to the business. And we observed that those who shop with us both online and offline would spend 2-3 times more than those who only do single channel.

You can buy everything online today, so our approach is to offer shoppers experiences and services they can’t get in a digital space. Our beauty and health service strategy is working really well for Superdrug, offering services which you can’t get online with great price, including eyebrow threading, nails, tanning, sexual health services and holiday vaccinations.

Male grooming services available at Superdrug in the UK
Male grooming services available at Superdrug in the UK

Health is a huge trend in the UK and beyond. Tell us how you are using technology to capitalise on this? There are definitely a lot of opportunities in healthcare market and we anticipate the trend for health and wellbeing products and services grow throughout 2019.  

From a technology perspective, one of our biggest successes is Superdrug who is leading the market on using technology. Superdrug’s Online Doctor service helps customers to access healthcare at the touch of the button. The custom-built software enables doctors to quickly and safely asses a high volume of patients, advising them and prescribing medication where appropriate.

"From a technology perspective, one of our biggest successes is Superdrug who is leading the market on using technology."

In 2017 Superdrug also launched an NHS prescription service allowing patients to order and manage their NHS medication online and have it delivered to their house free of charge or arrange collection from 800 stores. The integration with the pharmacy infrastructure allows the business to quickly and safely get medications to patients.

And since 2017 we have been promoting health segment by the #GetActive campaign, which was a huge success throughout Europe and Asia, where we launched a series of social campaign to educate tips of living a more healthy life.