Time to brush up on your floor play?

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Retailers could be throwing money away on their brand communications because a third of customers are turned off by the in-store experience, according to exclusive research. And this is being exacerbated by online channels raising shoppers’ expectations.

Today’s retailers are under exceptional strain. Rising commodity prices, a post-recession environment and competing with widespread discounting means shops are now under more pressure than ever to get people clicking online and visiting their physical stores. And increasingly, good service forms the basis to achieving that goal.

Research among 3,000 consumers exclusive to Marketing Week reveals that it is crucial consumers’ actual shopping experience matches what a brand has promised in its communications. Half of those polled by agency Live & Breathe say they look forward to visiting a high street store because of the image they have of a brand, only to be disappointed by poor product availability when they arrive.

For Owen Catto, managing partner at Live & Breathe, retailers must match the investment they make in brand communications with what they put into enhancing a store environment.

“Don’t spend all your money on external communications and then let the retail space not work hard enough,” he warns. “The value that the brand extols in its communications is what people buy into. But when they get to the store, they find a disconnection between those values and the retail reality.”

Women have more of an issue with this than men, with 50% saying that the quality of goods is disappointing, compared to 38% of men who have the same concern.

Service is also a big issue for people: 38% say that shop staff don’t live up to a store’s image.

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Brand perceptions that are negative to start with can also hinder in-store footfall. As many as 35% of people say they avoid going into a particular store because they don’t want to be seen as one of its customers. This is fairly evenly split between men and women with just over a fifth saying they avoid certain shops occasionally and 4% of women and 6% of men claiming they do it frequently.

But Catto suggests that retail brands can develop their store environment to help change such perceptions. For example, retailers could better manage the flow of customers through a shop to minimise queues. Nearly 90% of those polled say they have given up buying something because of a long queue, and 45% say they like shopping online because there are no crowds.

“I like the idea that online retail is making bricks and mortar stores up their game, and that should lead to better shopping experiences,” says Catto. He adds that new store layouts are already reflecting this. Arcadia Group, for example, has been rolling out a new store format since it integrated fully with department store Bhs in 2009. Revamped stores feature a variety of Arcadia’s other brands, as part of a ’house of brands’ push by the retailer.

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An area where clothing brands have an opportunity to make their service stand out is in giving fashion advice. Many people (37%) will ask those they are shopping with for an opinion on how something looks, but 12% say they ask a sales assistant.

Catto dubs this “the John Lewis effect”. “If you can make yourself known for having really good customer service and staff, it is a reason for people to come to you first; and they will buy from you because you engender trust,” he says.

Retailers should also be aware that shoppers could be abusing retailers’ goodwill by returning items they have already worn. As many as 18% of people admit having done this. This is more prevalent among men, with 23% saying they occasionally or frequently get refunds for used goods, versus 13% of women.

“People are becoming more clever and will take more and more from the retail experience without actually purchasing,” says Catto. Retailers can help prevent this behaviour by building a better relationship with customers, he suggests: “It is a quid pro quo relationship. If you can demonstrate that you give reasonable value, good service and a nice retail environment, customers will be less likely to try to get one over on the retailer.”

While investing in staff is one way to back up marketing claims, many retailers are experimenting with technology to enhance the shopping experience, says Catto. New Look in Birmingham, for instance, has cameras connected to mirrors in its changing rooms so people can view outfits from several angles.

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But in spite of people’s familiarity with technology and the rise of social media, they are less than keen to text a picture of themselves in an outfit to a friend – only 3% say they do so at the moment. If shoppers do this, the most likely platform is Facebook, with 34% uploading their pictures versus 24% who send texts.

Shoppers are, however, willing to use their handheld technology in other ways. A quarter of survey respondents say they use mobile internet to see if they can find the item cheaper elsewhere and 22% will trawl other shops for the same reason. Men are more likely to do this than women, with 28% comparing prices online versus 22% of women.

This has prompted retailers such as Best Buy to launch apps to help secure shoppers’ loyalty. Best Buy is trialling an app called Shopkick, which gives smartphone users ’kickbucks’ when they enter a store which they can cash in as discounts.

Working out how to respond to shoppers using their mobiles for price comparison is a key challenge for retailers, claims Catto. He suggests that they could embrace the changes in the retail space by presenting a store as a ’showroom’ to cement online purchases.

Many brands have introduced a click-and-collect service online; a method that has proved popular with customers. The survey shows that 30% of people don’t like waiting at home for deliveries when they have bought something online. But click and collect gets people into stores.

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“Click and collect is a very smart thing for retailers. A key challenge for them is (encouraging) footfall, and it is one way of guaranteeing it,” says Catto.

Retailer Pets At Home introduced a system last year where customers can pay for goods either online or when they pick them up in the shop. Retail operations manager Dave Poole says people often spend again in store after making their original online purchase.

When it comes to price, the discount-hungry mentality of British shoppers seems entrenched. A quarter of those surveyed say they require a 50% discount before buying an item they don’t really need, but one in ten would buy it with any kind of discount. However, a quarter of women and 28% of men claim never to buy goods they don’t need.

While shopping online has become popular, Live & Breathe’s survey shows that the physical retail space is still an important part of brand building, and done well, it can foster loyalty and encourage purchasing.

The frontline

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Alison Upton
Marketing director
Cotswold Outdoor

Contrary to what the research suggests, people look forward to going shopping in our stores, and in terms of range, our products are selected by experts with over 20 years experience.

A lot of our customers use online to research and they certainly want to know what brands are out there, but they still value advice in-store. There are always going to be people buying purely on price, but in the outdoor market, the kit you are using has to be fit for purpose.

We find that more people ask for advice than the research suggests. They will go into one of our stores because they value the expertise of our staff, who will ask people where they are planning to go and what they will do to give an informed recommendation, whether that be hill walking in the Dales or an expedition in the Pyrenees.

Staff are trained to assess whether people are just browsing or looking for something in particular.

Earlier this month, we launched a benefit scheme called Explore More, which isn’t a discount card, but is about meeting the needs of our customers by giving them previews and offers and regular prize draws.

We want to give people a real flavour of the outdoors and the scheme will help us get to know our customers better, so we can talk to them in a more targeted way.

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Sarah Hawkind
Marketing and PR director
La Senza

I’m not surprised that almost 90% give up buying because of a queue and I completely agree. But the only time we tend to have big queues is around Christmas, when we have staff handing out sweets to keep people engaged.

But I am surprised that discounts appear to be more important than good service because I think it depends on the customer type.

Our customers want the whole package – they want a great product at great value. We don’t tend to do money-off vouchers; we prefer to do promotions at key times of the year and we try to be great value from the very beginning.

Service is an area that can be quite inconsistent. We try to train every one of our staff to provide good service.

But you are relying on sales assistants to deliver the service according to how you want to be seen as a brand. From our research, a lot of customers want to come in and browse and don’t want any service. But clearly if we are offering bra fitting, it is very important that someone is there to help.

Where they do want service, we try to make sure it is as good as possible. We have done a huge amount of work on customer segmentation and there are a lot of people who want to self-help, so we are looking at how we can play an advisory role without people there to help.

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Colin wagstaffe
Marketing director
Signet (H Samuel, Ernest Jones and Leslie Davis)

This kind of research is useful to remind us that the customer – online or in-store, shopping lover or shopping hater – is the person we need to be listening to and basing our service levels upon.

The breadth of shopping channels now available to consumers means they are increasingly more discerning – they receive instant, personal service and response from online shopping portals and begin to demand this within stores as well.

Being able to shop through a variety of channels is both a challenge and an inspiration to bricks and mortar stores. The clarity of websites, immediate response provided and informing customers should drive improvements in the in-store experience.

Learnings need to be shared from the purchase decision process and the factors that influence the final sale.

Men and women do shop differently – we often see couples split up in our stores with many of the male half of a partnership making their way to the watches and women being happy to browse and linger across the whole store. Online and in-store service, messaging and layout needs to adapt to these differences.

Multichannel learnings aside, real shops are not, by any means, dead. Shopping in-store is an exciting, personal and sensory experience.

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