Having worked in Retail for over 20 years, we were delighted to be asked to co chair an event with Rant & Rave at the prestigious retailer Fortnum & Mason.

There were a number of themes that were discussed throughout the day along with delightful drinks and fabulous food – only what one would expect at Fortnum & Mason.

What We Talked About

We’ve all been to workshops and forums before, but being at Fortnum & Mason clearly set an expectation for a different approach. We wanted to get a good, collaborative and involving discussion going around three themes, with full audience participation.

The themes were:

  1. Innovation
  2. Emotion
  3. Channel

To support this Rant & Rave brought in graphic recording artist Chris Shipton who captured all the three sessions in a true “a picture paints a thousand words’ way. Here is our story about the event as a whole.

So What Did We Find Out?

For me perhaps the biggest revelation was how ‘Open’ people were prepared to be. This was a real honest discussion about what was going on in UK retail – widely acknowledged to be one of the toughest to stand out in.

There was no single reason for this, but perhaps what summed it up for me was one of the participants end of day comments to me:

“It was great to get so much straight talking and bulls**t free insight across a wide range of things that affects us every day”

The other things that struck me was how much ground we covered. So much so, that we will be following this ‘Summary’ up with a short series exploring each of the 3 themes in more detail.

Yes that’s great, but what was the one big thing that came out

Well there was one thought that we came back to a few times, directly, or implicitly, and that was:

“Customers Want Cohesion”

Let me explain. Put simply this means they want to be able to deal with a company – and in retail this usually means a Brand – without having to work too hard to get at the products or service been offered.

Whilst we were talking to retailers – ergo the Brand owners – a lot of what was talked about could be split into 2 groups.

  1. How the Customer wanted to be dealt with consistently and appropriately across all the different ways the brand could – a lot of this had to do with things like ‘recognising my current dealings with you when I contact you’.
  2. How the business couldn’t do this because of hard/complex/costly it was. Or because ownership of the Brand relationship was shared – franchise outlets for example.

Trust Me… I’m a Brand

This cohesion point was present in all the themes – which makes absolute sense to us, because amongst other things, we come from a Brand Marketing background – the hard working data led version!

At the heart of this thinking is a simple concept – consistency builds brandsinconsistency kills them – quickly.

Retail is about creating an emotional reason to buy from you, in preference to a competitor. This is such a fundamental human desire it actually fuels all behaviour.

And never has the retail challenge been so great to create this trust to purchase. Whilst there is accelerating Customer choice, and the demand for Brand Cohesion is growing, the ability to deliver it is fragmenting.

Innovation – How Important Is It Really?

Perhaps the single most illuminating point here was:

“Don’t become distracted from what’s Important by Innovation”

There was a lot of discussion about the use of innovation as an alternative to sorting the basics out – perhaps because sorting the basics is actually incredibly hard and/or not the type of work that gets a lot of profile or reward.

Whilst not a specific of the day, this is a bit like developing an ‘app’ so the customer can self serve a product from the shelves of your store, only for them to get there to find it’s:

  1. a) gone or is out of stock
  2. b) been moved
  3. c) waiting for the replenishment team to come back from a briefing

Which brings us briefly, and neatly onto the role of Technology, as Innovation & tech often go hand in hand. Well first, as the point above illustrates there is a lot of innovation to be had in process and approach that requires no code.

But the point we want to bring out is the very thing that drives a lot of the Cohesion Challenge – web base access, innovation, and collaboration between consumers to ‘open up’ retailers, has also brought a significant opportunity.

Over 80% of everything that is done in business needs technology and that used to mean BIGcost and RISK using Legacy and/or Enterprise solutions. There is now a growing breed of ‘Open’ systems that can sit on these solutions, effectively liberating the customer data needed by the colleagues to serve the Customers consistently.

Emotion – The Key Differentiator?

Running a retail business in the UK today involves a lot of discussion about margins, which to keep things simple, means you need to spend a lot to earn a little. Yet we are faced with a bewildering growth in complexity.

Complexity of channel, increasing sophistication of the Customer, both in terms of the information they have access to and the technology they use (UK personal technology spend is now approaching £3,000 pa) and finally shift in brand power between manufacturers, retailers and consumers.

Yet the one thing people still value more than anything else is an emotionally engaging purchase experience:

“Emotion is how retail adds value – which retains & increases margin”

Clearly Rant & Rave have made emotional engagement between Customer & Colleagues a cornerstone of their Voice Of Customer (VOC) approach. It’s this type of cut through to relevant data that is in demand by both Brand & Customer, even if the customer doesn’t explicitly ask for it.

Anything that helps bring a brand closer to its Customers, by providing immediate and relevant feedback, that can be actioned, is gong to provide a competitive advantage. In other words increasing the engagement between a brand and its customers in the things that (emotionally) matter to them.

Channel – An Omni Channel Strategy?

When we talk about the need for cohesion, the usual suspect that moves into view for any breakdown, is the need for an Omni-Channel Strategy (I have taken to calling this the Ominous Channel Strategy).

At best Omni-Channel requires a tactical response, but now is not the place for this. I mention it because during the session hosted by Danielle Anderson of Harris & Hoole there was one of those great revelations that happen once in a while….

“Great Digital is invisible Digital”

In order to stand out on a crowded space – coffee shops in London – Harris & Hoole decided to take something good (the Starbucks loyalty scheme) and make it great.

Flick/Duncan

Flick/Duncan

The start of this process was to really spend a lot of time and effort understanding what made a great H&H experience for the Customers. Then look for ways in which it could be delivered better (more cohesively if you like) and that made commercial sense.

Only when this was done was the delivery of it looked at. In other words – they didn’t start with Digital – they ended with it. Then they made sure they delivered exactly the experience their ‘Artisan” coffee customer wanted.

So what they did was create an ‘App’ that knows who you are and what you like – and shares this with the barista serving you (a process the customer controls), that lets you pay for your coffee – because it talks to the till, and keeps on top of your likes, dislikes and coffee history – because it talks to the CRM system.

But… and this was the big but… it is set up to allow you, the Customer, to simply walk into your favourite H&H, be greeted like they know you and offered your usual coffee (which you can change). Then simply walk out with it without ever taking your phone out of your pocket – if you want.

Oh and by the way, this was done in a way that actually saves H&H time, so they get to serve more coffee and make more money, whilst offering their Customers a cohesive (with their brand values) experience with technology that remains invisible. Go try a coffee at one of their venues – we did!

Summary

So there you go… a great event that really got under the skin of some of the issues and more importantly, opportunities facing UK Retail.

I have only scratched the surface of what was discussed. Hence why we have decided to split the learnings across 3 more articles – keeping reading.

But to bring it back to where we started. If you want to succeed in Retail today, focus on the cohesive delivery of your brand. We know it’s not easy.

But putting Digital & Omni Channel strategies before this, it is almost certainly going to reduce the Customers (and your Colleagues) emotional engagement with your brand, and that’s going to shrink your margins – quickly.

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