Big Interview: Bathstore chairman Simon Burke

Being a true mobile, multichannel retailer entails successfully linking all platforms at which a customer can interact with the brand, and it is fair to say that some businesses in the industry are doing a better job than others at achieving the necessary operational balance between their stores and digital platforms.

It is clear from recent financial results announcements, including the latest trading update from home and fashion retailer Next, that one of the greatest challenges – if not the greatest challenge – in modern retail is establishing how to sufficiently connect bricks and mortar with the online business.

The rise in popularity of the mobile device as a tool for eCommerce and general information gathering has been touted as the potential conduit to align these two separate arms of an organisation. But are retailers really doing enough to realise this potential?

"Retailers are talking about being mobile friendly, but many just mean they've adapted their screens for use on a mobile device," says Simon Burke, chairman of bathroom specialist Bathstore.

"What they are not doing is actually taking advantage of the elements that are different about mobile – the actual location-based services are one of the most obvious of those. Mobile vouchering, too – that's another thing that retailers are generally failing to take advantage of."

Figures released earlier this year by digital analytics provider comScore showed that 64% of UK mobile users owned a smartphone and one in five Britons used a mobile to purchase goods online in December 2012 alone. There is plenty of similar data to confirm this trend of growing mobile usage, and Bathstore is an example of a company that is investing in the platform to ensure its brand appears in the places where potential customers are apparently spending so much of their time.

Burke doesn't believe that consumers are particularly eager to buy a bathroom suite on their phones, though, but he says it's important to offer easy access to the company through a phone and a specific mobile adapted Bathstore site should be ready by October 2013.

"It's for things like being able to detect where a customer is if they are asking about stores – we want to tell them exactly where their nearest store is," he explains.

Investment in technology has been an essential part of Bathstore's strategy since ex-MFI boss Gary Favell joined the business as CEO last summer. Burke, who in the past has held CEO roles at Irish supermarket group Superquinn and toy retailer Hamleys, joined the bathroom retailer's board towards the end of 2012 to help maintain this tech-led momentum.

Online currently represents 10% of sales at the retailer, which represents a 25% increase on a year ago. Asda announced recently that it expects 75% of customers to conduct both online and offline activity with them at Christmas, and it is this level of multichannel sales activity that Burke thinks Bathstore can emulate in time.

"One of the nice things about working with Bathstore is that it's moving forward fast and is quite a technology-savvy business," he remarks. "It appreciates the power technology has to improve the business and is very keen to devote time and resource to bringing that about. Other retailers talk about it but actually take very few risks."

One investment that is already proving fruitful, according to Burke, is the deployment of Anthill's sales management system which helps manage quotations and orders across the whole business, whether they originated in-store or online. It is designed so that "customers don't drop through the cracks" and are constantly within easy reach of Bathstore's sales team.

Quotations go onto a central record and a customer can retrieve the quotation at home to review or alter it. Equally if they've started the shopping process at home, they can enter a store and talk to a member of the Bathstore team.

Burke comments: "It's completely agnostic. Home or store – it works exactly the same way. The only difference is that in-store you get some advice from a colleague, and we find that this is something people like.

"It doesn't matter at all what order this process happens – and this is how I think the online part of retail needs to be working. It should be a seamless integration where it's part of the process. It's not a separate channel or business off to one side – it's a completely seamless experience from the customer's point of view."

As well as the new mobile site, this autumn will see other tech innovations emerge from the Bathstore business, with a new website and a refreshed online CAD system that will improve the process for shoppers who want to generate bathroom ideas at home. The retailer already has the facility to allow images from customers' Pinterest sites to be downloaded in-store and used for inspiration in the design process.

"We've probably put more capital expenditure into tech-related development in the last year than anything else," notes Burke.

"Frankly, we wouldn't be very comfortable expanding the store base in the current market. We've got 167 stores and that gives us very good national coverage. Why would we want a load more?"

On the subject of new stores, there have been moves to improve the existing portfolio in the last few months with a new-look store opening in Harrogate, Yorkshire. The shop has been designed to look much more like a showroom than other Bathstore outlets, with the aim being to inspire customers and help them envisage how their homes could look.

Alongside providing the technological capabilities through the revamped "magazine-style" website and CAD design tool, Burke and Bathstore seem fully aware of the importance of visual merchandising in-store. Sales of tiles, splash-backs and other bathroom accessories have reportedly been encouraging at the Harrogate shop since it opened in its new format at the beginning of July.

"It's very early days and we don't want to come to any judgements, but if it continues like this I think you'll see more stores like the one in Harrogate very soon," Burke acknowledges.

Burke is also chairman of arts and crafts retailer Hobbycraft and he is working alongside the management team at the Dorset-based business to find ways to replicate in-store experiences on the internet.

Much of Hobbycraft's strength lies in attracting groups of people into stores to work on their latest sewing, artwork or other preferred hobbies, and there is potential to replicate this feeling of community online. As a result, the retailer is working on ways to harness this through social networking, but the plans are currently very much in development stage.

"Features like social can engage customers, increase loyalty and offer something different," argues Burke."This type of platform is congruent with the Hobbycraft brand."

Making multichannel work is an ever-evolving project for retailers UK-wide and, as Burke points out, it is no easy task to choose the right strategy – the goalposts are always moving and there's always something new to consider.

The retail exec is sure there will be further challenges facing retail businesses in the not-too-distant future.

"A lot of retailers are finally getting to grips with the internet and seeing there's a lot of opportunity there, the problem is that there's a new wave of tech around the corner that they will need to adapt to," he warns.

"There's mobile for a start, but 3D printing is going to be massive to retailing, manufacturing and perhaps the whole economy. It's frightening and reminds me of some of the scenes from Star Trek."

3D printing is not the only recorded case of science fiction predicting the future, but that's arguably a debate for another time and place.

For now, the satisfaction for Burke and Bathstore lies in beaming up online customers into stores and vice versa. By not treating technology and digital platforms as alien concepts, but instead integrating them into the physical store environment, retailers can build their customer numbers and see their businesses grow. 

What’s Hot on Essential Retail?