William Morris, the designer, famously said “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”. It occurred to me over Christmas that we could apply the same sentiment to the changing face of UK Retail. If a store isn’t fundamentally useful or temptingly beautiful then it simply won’t survive long term.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder but what I mean by a ‘beautiful’ store is somewhere that offers an experience that you simply can’t get elsewhere, not least of all online. Somewhere that is exciting, where you can touch, feel and try the product, somewhere which is inspiring to look at and where you are made to feel special. Brands like Apple and Hollister and shopping centres like Westfield have created retail experiences and product so desirable that people are simply compelled to leave their homes to visit.
Useful is somewhat harder to define. To be really useful in retail terms, customers firstly need to have absolute clarity about what it is you sell and what makes you the specialist in that market. They must have confidence in your ability to deliver the product or service quickly and efficiently. You must deliver great service consistently. Lots of retailers may think they are specialists, however do their customers agree? To me, the perfect example of this is Timpsons. There is no ambiguity about what they do – they are true specialists and they offer a useful and good old-fashioned service along the way.
Like many people, driven by lack of time and pure convenience, I did most of my Christmas shopping online. I was lucky, all my purchases arrived promptly, making the whole process very efficient, however I couldn’t help but feel a little sad at having missed the frisson of excitement from actually visiting a shop and looking at tangible product. However, without the ultimate ‘useful’ option of online shopping, I would really have struggled to get the job done. Not all online retailers get it right, however they are fundamentally ‘useful’ in that they save us time – so critical in today’s pressured world and this is why they are becoming so dominant, at the expense of some of their bricks and mortar competitors.
However, when we returned to the office in the new year, I compared notes with my colleagues about our positive retail experiences and the following stood out.
B&Q – not the obvious place for a delightful shopping experience – but it was just that. I was greeted on arrival by not one, but two employees, one of whom helpfully explained that I could sign up online to receive special offers. While browsing around their Christmas decorations, I received a jolly “Good Morning Madam!” from the Manager, leaving me to wonder whether I had, in the manner of Marty McFly, inadvertently been transported to the 1950’s! When I asked for assistance in finding a product, I was cheerfully escorted to the correct aisle and on my way to check out, I passed a group of children doing an early morning arts and crafts workshop, their Dads hovering nearby. It felt vibrant and inclusive, despite the fact that my purchase of lime-scale remover (?!) was in fact, completely mundane.
John Lewis – here I was genuinely inspired by the range of products, all displayed beautifully. The store was packed and everywhere I could see staff buzzing around, often in dialogue with a customer. This was the retail we know and love – a busy, exciting store with lovely brands, an ambiance which encourages browsing and if needed, helpful and knowledgable staff. Here I was genuinely tempted to part with more cash to supplement my online purchases.
And finally Kiddicare which my colleague described as “functionally brilliant”. It was easy to park with wide aisles (big enough to accommodate a double pram). The range was amazing with clear signage and pricing and the service was exceptional with staff being customer-focused rather than task-focused. They have a reasonably priced café and soft play area which resulted in significantly increased dwell time, despite having lively 20 month old twins in tow!
In my opinion, in years to come we will see one of two things in our high streets and shopping centres. Either businesses selling a useful product or service (and doing it with a genuine affection for the customer) or beautiful stores where you can spend time and where you are made to feel special. As ruthless as it seems, the market is ‘de-cluttering’ and I can’t see that there will be latitude for those retailers who fall within the middle ground.
By Sophie Mackenzie, AdMore Recruitment- Specialists in Retail and Hospitality Recruitment, Search & Selection, Talent Management and Career Development.