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How UK retailers aim to engage and retain omnichannel customers

All retailers are on a journey when it comes to dealing successfully with customers who want to shop with them across multiple channels; some are further along the path than others.

There are many cases of retailers creating new job titles to better meet modern shopper requirements, while the business of getting to know customers in order to personalise their experiences is top of the agenda in many organisations.

Shoe retailer Dune Group and luxury fashion player Anya Hindmarch are two businesses grappling with these challenges. Essential Retail recently sat down with tech-focused representatives from those organisations and others to hear about their respective strategies.

The discussion, held in partnership with Manhattan Associates at RBTE 2017, shone a light on the intense pressure retailers are under to engage and retain customers.

“When I first joined the business [in 2001] we had total control over brand and brand values,” explained Anya Hindmarch’s chief technology officer (CTO) and chief operations officer (COO) Dan Orteu.

“Nowadays it is far more chaotic with the brand being discussed and redefined on social media platforms. It is a huge task just keeping track of what is being said and an even bigger task to interact and influence the direction of the conversations.”

Getting closer to customers is a target for many retailers, who believe they will be able to sell to, retain and delight shoppers if they understand their previous purchase history and other behaviours. There are various tactics to achieve this goal.

‘You have to have mPoS in store’

A notable trend over the last five years is for retailers to arm store staff with tablet devices, encouraging them to approach customers on the shop floor and display ‘the endless aisle’ of stock. If the product is not in that store, it can be located from the warehouse or an alternative shop.

Multiple software platforms exist for this clientelling process, bringing CRM data from across the business’s trading channels into one central system for the store associate to use to their selling advantage.

It is one example of the reshaping of the store, allowing retailers to get the most out of their physical space.

Dave Abbott, retail omnichannel manager at Dune, said: “You still need the focus point of having a till in stores but it will evolve over the years – you can’t strap every bit of kit to store assistants.

“You have to have mobile point of sale (mPoS) – if you're not doing it, it's a worry – but you still need a focal point for operations, etc. A mobile till is good for flexing up and down and for queue busting. It’s essential to have the flexibility.”

Anya Hindmarch is looking to ramp up its clientelling process in stores, further digitising an interaction that has been acted out for years in luxury fashion in the form of ‘little black books’ and personal relationships between store managers and regular customers.

“At a store level, luxury fashion is still often quite old fashioned with store managers having little black books in which they store valuable customer data. If they leave that valuable data can be lost to the business,” noted Orteu.

“There’s an interesting piece of work around what clientelling apps can be put in store to support and enhance the conversations stores are having directly with their customers.

“We want to enhance the experience, ensure it is always on brand and allow people to click through and purchase easily. In high-end fashion, the personal relationship between store manager and their customers is closely and carefully guarded.”

And this is where the store comes to the fore in modern retail, according to Alex MacPherson, solutions consultant manager at Manhattan.

“Despite the rumours, the store is not dead – quite the opposite in fact,” he said.

“In a world driven by digital engagement, now is the time for retailers to embrace the capabilities of the store and spend time modelling the interaction to match the connected customer experience.”

MacPherson added: “The best way in which to do this is for retailers to embrace the ways in which the store can now provide a new ROI by acting as a showroom for later online purchases. And with 44% of UK retailers looking at new in-store technologies as a business priority in the coming year, there is no better time to make that change.”

What’s in a name?

Multiple new job titles have been created in response to changing customer behaviours, be it the chief customer officer, head of digital or some of the more specific eCommerce monikers such as head of user experience.

Two months ago Orteu himself became Anya Hindmarch’s CTO and COO, combining the technology part of the business with everyday operations.

He remarked: “We decided to combine the roles of CTO and COO a couple of months ago. Having a COO who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the business system is a definite advantage in a world where systems and process are ever more interdependent.”

Reflecting on the company’s technology journey, Orteu added: “We have essentially finished replacing all our old legacy systems and what I call the “heavy lifting” is done.

“I’m now in a great position of being able to roll out new and exciting functionality quickly and cheaply. However it’s often up to me to drive the change and to ensure that the rest of the business understands the art of the possible.”

And in May, Dune Group created a new job role in line with industry changes. Abbott said: “We now have a marketing & eCommerce director and we have joined the two departments reflecting that these areas are moving closer and closer together.”

Ex-McDonald’s digital innovation manager, Rene Batsford, who also took part in the discussions, welcomed the blurring of the channels in modern retail.

Batsford, who has worked at many retailers where his responsibility has been to help break down organisational siloes, commented: “It’s all part of the maturity of eCommerce, bringing those two camps together.

McDonald’s has a digital director who reports into the chief marketing officer, which is good. If you’re online it makes absolute sense to combine those.”

Other challenge

The retailers discussed the topic of shopping as a leisure activity and the challenges that brings, with Orteu saying Anya Hindmarch has held various pop-up events and dinners in its stores – and even had a sleepover for shoppers – in an attempt to engage customers.

“If we don’t make the in-store experience exceptional then consumers will just spend their precious leisure time elsewhere,” he noted.

Retaining customers is not about giving things away for free, according to Batsford. “It’s about personalising and contextualisation.

“At Mothercare for example, it's a case of knowing when your baby is three months old and working out what can be done for you. If you’re harvesting data, do something with it rather than asking people to fill in forms to win an iPad, etc. Yawn.”

For Dune, one key target is to be able to identify people as they arrive in store, as long as the customer wants this type of interaction.

Abbott said: “From a store level, it’s a case of how can we get the one-customer-view in-store? The email address – which is an ideal identifier – isn’t revealed until the end of the in-store experience, which can be problematic for achieving that goal.”

Expectations are high

Be it clientelling, self-service or the ability for customers to use their own mobile devices in store, technology in a retail environment is now central to enhancing the customer experience.

Batsford, who has also been global head of IT at beauty brand Molton Brown and head of IT at sandwich chain Eat, said, IT staff have historically not been customer centric. But they no longer have a choice but to think about how their actions impact shoppers, he added.

“A lot of times businesses have the money, get all the toys in but do not make the most of them because they are disjointed. It’s just a time thing and they will catch up.”

The truth is there are no simple solutions to how to serve the modern shopper, except to try and keep pace with their demands. When commentators and analysts look back at this period – the early digital years – it will be defined as a real reset moment in the industry’s history.

The shift from straightforward shop retailing – which remained barely unchanged for a large part of the 20th century until the internet arrived – to today’s all-encompassing omnichannel retail environment requires so much more than just a click of the fingers and a new three-year plan.

“The pure plays have transformed customer expectations – 24/7 shopping, online fashion consultants, vans that deliver same day and wait while you try things on,” said Orteu.

“And they do all this in a world were making a profit is often not a requirement. Matching this kind of frictionless customer services has been hugely challenging for traditional bricks and mortar.”

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