Keeping the high street alive

Understanding the customers’ needs and wants at a local level as well as the broader brand values is what keeps the high street alive says Debra Walmsley, group director of retail at Leapfrog Research.

Debra Walmsley
Debra Walmsley

As you battle your way through the crowds this Christmas in the hope of finding that elusive special gift, you could be forgiven for thinking that the high street has seen the back of the recession. Terry Leahy and Stuart Rose have both been quite bullish about the green shoots of recovery coming through after what has been a bruising year for the retailers. Price and promotions have remained the main tools in the marketing toolkit in 2009, while the market has become increasingly competitive as online retail has become synonymous with great deals. Comparison sites are in abundance and a cheaper product is only ever a click away.

Consequently, the high street must now more than ever, offer a richer and more bespoke experience to keep shoppers walking through the doors into 2010 and beyond.

Location, local catchment dynamics and competitive set can all play a major role in the success of any given site in a retailer’s estate. Whilst the drivers of performance are often well understood at a macro level, drilling down to how those play out on a site-by-site level is often overlooked, and yet this approach can pay significant dividends.

Understanding customer needs and wants in any given catchment allows retailers to flex range, stock, promotions and other levers to maximise the store’s profitability.

One example of this would be staffing ratios. Too often, these are determined by footfall measures alone rather than intent to purchase, which can vary by location. Those retailers that invest in understanding this driver at a local level can flex staff counts accordingly to minimise lost sales opportunities or reduce costs.

Similarly with range, there is a temptation to stock the whole range of each product in every store and yet in smaller footprints the capacity to stock every variant is often not feasible, risking customer disappointment.

Again, understanding the local catchment can help flex the range to optimum effect and to identify where technology may be able to extend the range and where to limit it.

In a research context, asking customers to help decide the priorities for a store quantitatively by using ‘trade-off’ techniques and qualitatively by expressing preferences can help guide stocking policy. Used alongside staff local knowledge this information can help determine the range mix at a site level.

The biggest question is how can retailers retain the integrity of their brand identity with such a high degree of localised differences. It’s clearly important to retain the big picture and as with any brand there must be central tenets to the brand communication. And yet, the most significant element of a retailer’s brand communication – the in-store experience – is often the least well researched.

The store design itself is the first part of this communication, and much of this is communicated and absorbed at a subconscious level. The discipline of semiotics can be used to great effect here to break down these subconscious ‘codes’. The lighting, fixtures, merchandising, use of texture, colour and language are all important factors to ensure that the in-store atmosphere reflects what you want the brand to communicate.

As an example, if ‘trust’ is central to your brand the store fit should communicate this. Consider what codes other retailers are using to good effect to communicate trust, and what you can learn from this. This can really help to frame the design brief to ensure brand consistency.

Staff are also key to the brand communications and the interaction between staff and customers is a critical touchpoint of the brand experience and in many cases staff are what differentiates online from high street experiences.

Staff, as your brand ambassadors, can add value through their knowledge and experience in helping customers make a decision and increasingly it is this customer engagement that marks out the successful retailers from the not so successful ones. After all, ensuring the consistent delivery of good service remains central to retail best practice and should not be forgotten.

In essence, to maximise the profitability of individual outlets it is essential that retailers combine the big picture brand elements – ensuring that the brand messaging is consistent across every touch point – with site-level detail.

Retailers have listened closely to customer priorities in the downturn, with a particular focus on price and promotions, and as we emerge from the recession, there are considerable opportunities for retailers to increase their market share by engaging with their customer on an individual store level.

The implementation of such a customer-centric strategy relies on understanding customers on both a local and national level in order for elements such as range, staff, stock, promotions and store design to work hand-in-hand.

This will mean consistent but bespoke and engaging communication with customers in stores. Listening and responding to your customers’ needs is the secret to keeping our high street alive.

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