RBTE 2016: Maplin CEO on the difficulty of differentiation

It is getting more difficult for retailers to differentiate in an increasingly digitally-led business world, according to Maplin CEO Oliver Meakin.

Talking at RBTE in London on Wednesday, the recently appointed chief exec said that certain aspects of a retailer's proposition which were once seen as unique offerings are becoming the industry standard.

Fast fulfilment, such as online ordering for next-day delivery up until 10pm pioneered by fashion retailer Next, and endless product ranges all in one giant superstore, which were promoted as the height of convenience by the large supermarkets in the 1990s and early 2000s, have been made widely available by the advent of technology.

For Meakin, who was addressing delegates dressed in a blue Maplin sweater, service and the overall customer experience have become the key differentiators now in a digital retailing environment.

"Ultimately I believe that differentiation is going to be incredibly difficult in almost all aspects of a retailer's offer, save service and advice," he commented.

"Service and advice is not just about store colleagues. It is about every interaction that a retailer has with customers depending on their shopping mission. Ultimately, every retailer will be able to offer every fulfilment option that a customer needs. Fulfilment is not going to be a differentiator in the future."

Meakin acknowledged that own-brand product lines, particularly in the fashion sector, still offer a unique selling point (USP) for retailers – but this, alongside depth of range, is becoming less of a USP in the technology industry.

Due to the distribution model and overall transparency that the advent of digital retailing has brought, it is also difficult to stand out for availability and pricing.

"Pretty much every retailer I know in our sector does brand price guarantee on products so price is no longer a differentiator or certainly won't be as we go forward," noted Meakin.

"It comes down to service and advice."

The CEO also used his presentation to reflect on wider retail technology trends, saying that a growing number of retailers are spending more on colleague training to ensure they can offer the required level of service and advice.

And when asked a question from the audience on the concept of robots taking people's jobs in stores, he said: "Human interaction is going to very difficult to replace.

"I struggle to see artificial intelligence taking on a big role in retail in my time as an executive."