Sales through Service: What Mothercare can learn from John Lewis

Two recent items of news prompted me to write this blog and talk about sales through service. Firstly, it was announced that Nick Henwood had been appointed as the new Director of Retail Operations at Mothercare and last week John Lewis announced another fantastic set of results with in store LFL sales growth of +9.2%.

My earliest childhood memories of retail and shopping were in Mothercare. I can still remember, in clear detail, the store in my home town High Wycombe.  It had a large window at the front of the shopping centre and I can still feel the sense of excitement walking past the window looking at some of the toys before we went in (the equivalent now is Apple, some things never change!).

When my twins arrived in May 2011, my wife and I firmly entered Mothercare’s core market. It felt natural to shop at Mothercare and while we often shop on the internet I do value good old fashioned one to one service and advice. Having twins is expensive, a new pram at £900, a subsequent pushchair at £400, in addition to two cots and well, two of everything.

Unfortunately for Mothercare it was not a positive experience. I was never approached and offered help. When shopping for a pram, we found there was limited stock and the service was non-existent (in store stock is irrelevant when you have the internet website on a computer terminal at the counter). If I walked in to most other retail businesses with £900 to spend on one item the sales assistants would fall over themselves to help me. I struggled to find sales assistants and when I did it was clear that their station at the till was far more important. This wasn’t a store specific experience and on the few times I have returned over the last year it has always been the same.

Interestingly I have had similar experiences at the Early Learning Centre, Mothercare’s sister company. The Kingston store has nice wide aisles, a good range and a fantastic play area at the rear of the store. The play area has been a godsend as it has afforded me the opportunity to allow my twins to safely let off some steam while out shopping, thus ensuring a dwell time other retailers can only dream of. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say I have probably been there most weekends over the last 16 months. I make regular purchases, however, I would happily spend a lot more but for the same problem described above. Recently I visited the store and there were 4 sales staff stood around the till chatting, oblivious to a shop full of customers. I walked out without having spent any money.

When I contrast this with my experience at John Lewis it couldn’t be starker. I didn’t shop in JLP previously, seeing it firmly as the preserve of my parent’s generation. I couldn’t have been more wrong and my shopping experiences in the baby section have been nothing short of fabulous. Staff are always available and cannot do enough to help. They are confident, knowledgeable and offer useful advice. This isn’t ground breaking, innovative retailing as some analysts would attribute their success to.

In the modern arena there is a huge pressure on retailers to innovate, identify and target their customers through multiple channels, to offer great value and to do everything the internet does, but better. However, it is clear that the retailers whom have instigated significant cultural change in customer service have benefitted enormously. DSGi is a great example; they have not only invested heavily in their store formats but also their people. Their store format changes were accompanied by a cultural shift in service. Great sales results have followed.

I have met quite a few people whom have worked for Mothercare over the years and they always talk about the pride that Mothercare employees have in the business and I do not doubt this for a moment. However, it is clear that the service offer is lacking and needs to change. I imagine that they are somewhat concerned about actively selling as traditionally we Brits don’t like being sold to. Try telling that to the customers in the Apple stores. Their staff do sell, not through a hard sell, but through unmitigated enthusiasm. As a nation we are beginning to crave, and expect, a different level of service. In short, we are beginning to like being sold to.

Nick Henwood has a big job on his hands at Mothercare, not in my opinion because of the much publicised reasons regarding store portfolio or margin pressures, but because he will need to engage a workforce to change it’s views on what good customer service is. This will be a massive cultural shift for a loyal and long serving workforce. Nick comes with a great track record with a career spanning M&S, Sainsburys and more recently Autoglass where he transformed the customer experience. Coupled with other significant appointments, Mothercare look well positioned to make the changes required to secure the brand’s future.

Interestingly the mobile phone retailers have come from the different end of the spectrum in recent years. Known for their unscrupulous activites, they have had to regain consumer trust and engage, rather than sell, to thier customer base. In this middle ground there are some very talented retailers that would do a great job at Mothercare...

Jez Styles @JezAdMore


Is the recession creating a lost generation of Middle Management in Retail?

There has been a lot of publicity recently about a lost generation of graduates and school leavers who cannot find work.  Equally the steady rise in redundancies that has continued unabated throughout and beyond the recession has affected large numbers of people. Those of you who are in work will naturally feel relieved that you are in employment and ‘safe.’ At the start of the recession the vast majority of recruiters and businesses used the ‘sell’ of job security as a means to both retain and attract talent. The vast majority of candidates placed this at the top of their wish list for their next job. Of course this was going all the way back to 2008 and for some as early as 2007 when Retailers starting cutting costs with dark clouds gathering in the US over the sub-prime crash. Large numbers of retailers have taken the opportunity to soak up this surplus of talent. Between 2009 and continuing through 2011 it became common place for Retail Directors to take Regional Manager positions, Regional Managers to take Area Manager positions and Area Managers to take Store Manager positions. This downwards pressure on the job market has continued and there are plenty of businesses out there whom are still capitalising on the opportunity. Another product of the recession has been Operational restructuring. Store closures aside this tends to predominantly affect Area Managers through to Retail Director level. Large numbers of retailers have quite simply removed a layer of management, typically at Regional level. As a result a large number of chains now have a model where an area manager will lead a group of up to 40+ stores and report directly to the Retail Director. It’s a big jump for a Store Manager to make and an even more unlikely move for an Area Manager to move to the one and only operational role above them. So to recap, there are less layers of management, less positions and increasing numbers of senior operators whom are settling for a role that is a step below where they have operated previously. That safety that candidates have been flocking to in recent years is beginning to look like stasis or to be more dramatic a career trap.  How long are you willing to sit it out? The reality is, depending on whether you are a glass half empty/full type of person, we are likely to see recession / negligible growth for at least another 3-6 years. Given that lots of people have been in lockdown mode for the best part of 3 years, the risk averse among you will potentially not be looking for a promotion or external career advancement for up to 9 (YES NINE) years. Guess what, when you start looking for a job at that point, your drive and ambition will be challenged and to be realistic you will probably struggle to make another move upwards. Are you feeling quite so comfortable with being safe now? Interestingly there have been more of those elusive ‘passive’ candidates coming on to the market at the start of 2012. The Executive’s candidate board that is Linkedin is testament to the change in mind-set. Lots of candidates see no issue with loading their profile on to Linkedin with the hope that they will be ‘found’. I suspect that a large number of these people will take a more aggressive approach to their career advancement in 2012. Will those that do not be left behind?