Harvey Nichols’ marketing boss on transforming the brand through a focus on customer experience

Shadi Halliwell admits she joined a brand that “needed polishing” but as she announces her departure believes she has overseen a new strategy that positions it for future growth.

harvey nichols nail bar
Harvey Nichols’ new nail bar is part of its renewed focus on customer experience

Customer experience is at the heart of the Harvey Nichols brand. In consumer group Which?’s annual ranking of the best and worst high street shops for shopping experience, the luxury retailer jumped from 21st to third with a score of 79%, putting it on par with John Lewis and making it one of the most improved brands in the survey.

For Harvey Nichols’ marketing director that was recognition of the work she and boss Stacey Cartwright have been doing over the past three years to turn around a brand that Halliwell admits “needed polishing”.

“This was a brand that hadn’t necessarily done anything wrong but hadn’t done anything and need polishing. I felt there was opportunity, opportunity opportunity,” she enthusiastically explains.

“I did a lot of mystery shopping and realised that actually no one knew what Harvey Nichols was about. The staff didn’t know. The customers didn’t know. No one had figured out who we are and what we stand for.”

Halliwell joined Harvey Nichols from O2, where she had spent 23 years working her way up to brand director. The move to Harvey Nichols was a big change, but Halliwell says she wanted to find out if she could be a good marketer without a multi-million pound budget like she had at the telecoms giant.

Her first task was probably the biggest – figuring out Harvey Nichols’ brand strategy. That started by interviewing customers and staff to ask them what Harvey Nichols stands for as well as what the brand had been doing right and wrong.

No one knew what Harvey Nichols was about. The staff didn’t know. The customers didn’t know. No one had figured out who we are and what we stand for.

Shadi Halliwell, Harvey Nichols

Unsurprisingly, almost everyone gave her a different answer. But what stood out, she says, is that while Harvey Nichols may be a relatively small player both in the luxury and the retail markets, “size doesn’t matter”.

“Our size is beneficial to us,” she adds. “The core part of the strategy is we are not a department store we are a large boutique and that means access, ease and experience. That allowed us to offer a 360-degree service proposition.

“We want people to come in to find an outfit and then be able to offer them the opportunity to have a quick blow-dry, get their make-up done. Then she will leave the store not just with a dress but with a pair of shoes, a great hairdo, fantastic make-up and a huge smile on her face as well.”

The key realisation was that service in the luxury sector is often “crap” and that Harvey Nichols could differentiate by offering something extra.

“I realised very quickly that [in the luxury retail sector] people hide behind product because they are selling £3,000 bags,” she says. “What we saw was that we are servicing people who can probably afford 50 £3,000 bags but also the person who has saved up all year or is spending their 21st birthday money. Our strategy is we want our customers to stand out, to be unique, to be fearlessly stylish. That’s a massive ambition because that is saying we can dress our customers better than anyone else.”

Focusing on the customer experience

To do that, however, Harvey Nichols needed to change its service proposition. Halliwell admits luxury retail can be intimidating for many people and that all the different concessions can be confusing for someone that has simply come in to buy a trench coat.

What was needed was an experience that aligned across the store, whether they worked as a beauty consultant or in the fashion department. And so it launched a Style Academy, a two-day training programme that would enable its staff to offer advice and help people feel “fearlessly stylish”.

The first day taught everyone about colour, cut, shape, hairdos – how to style people. The second focused on the questions to ask to find out what the customer was looking for. “It has transformed our business,” says Halliwell. “Our strategy is not just about marketing and brand but about how it becomes all encompassing across the business and how we train staff.”

The idea of being a boutique rather than a department store has also seen Harvey Nichols move away from the typical concession set-up. For example, in the beauty department, all the counters have a Harvey Nichols “ribbon” and the company tasked individual brands with coming up with unique counters to make the experience in its stores stand out.

“With a Mac counter, for example, the shopper doesn’t know if they are in New York, Shanghai, Paris, they are all the same,” explains Halliwell. “Instead we wanted to put our mark on it by giving the brands a space to create something totally different. The Chanel counter is a one-off. It is Harvey Nichols with the brands on top. That gives us the authority we deserve in beauty, where we have a lot of heritage.”

harvey nichols menswear
The revamped Harvey Nichols menswear department

That idea has been extended into fashion. Gone are heavily branded sections for Burberry or Louis Vuitton in favour of an easier shopping experience. “We have concessions but you can’t see them,” she comments. “We realised the barriers were irrelevant to the customer. If they come in wanting to buy a trench coat they want to be able to find trench coats. And it means staff can work across concession to get looks for them and not be stopped by some imaginary boundary.”

There has been a total revamp of two floors of menswear, while the accessories department has also been made over, at the flagship Knightsbridge store [there are plans for similar revamps across the brand’s 15 store estate]. The Beauty Lounge has been overhauled to offer more treatment space and even has its own front door and concierge service.

There has been a focus on giving people more reason to come to the store than simply to shop. There is a men’s grooming parlour, a cocktail bar, cafés and, up on the floor fourth state of the art treatments such as 111Cryo, where customers spend £90 being subjected to temperatures of -90 for the promise of a huge endorphin rush and burning up to 800 calories.

Unsurprisingly this has taken a toll financially. With huge sections of the London store shut during the work, including its front door, sales were up just 1% for its 2015-16 financial year while pre-tax profits halved to £2.6m. Yet Harvey Nichols believes it is a price worth paying to get its brand back on the map.

Aligning the brand

Halliwell has also had a job to do to get its marketing more aligned. In her role as group marketing and creative officer she is responsible for marketing, content, digital, loyalty and visual merchandising.

However, she says that when she joined the windows had one message, while stores were saying something else and advertising promoting something else. “I said we need to be one voice. I didn’t want to squash people creatively but we had to have a key message that the visual merchandisers could then interpret how they liked, the stores do their thing and advertising do its things. Because of that we get great bang for our buck. Together, we get the best share of voice we can with the limited budget we have.”

What Halliwell hasn’t changed is the “tongue-in-cheek” image the brand portrays. Its latest campaign for its luxury jewellery department features a Northen Bald Ibis, considered critically endangered, wearing a £200,000 necklace. It follows hugely successful campaigns including ‘Love Freebies’, which used CCTV footage of shoplifters to promote its new loyalty app.

harvey nichols jewellery campaign
The campaign for Harvey Nichols’ jewellery department features a Northern Bald Ibis wearing an expensive necklace

“As a creative platform, that tongue-in-cheek attitude has really allowed us to talk about the insights that aren’t spoken about in research groups,” she says.

“When we launched the loyalty app we were trying to come up with a campaign that wouldn’t make everyone yawn. And we tapped into that idea that everyone loves a freebie, whether they’re rich or poor. And that campaign made the ITV news, it won a Cannes Lion.

“We have a small marketing budget so we have to get people talking. In magazines, jewellery ads are all of beautiful women wearing beautiful jewellery. But we only have five spots so we need more than a three-second dwell time in print. So we thought about rare and came up with the rarest bird we could and stuck a gorgeous piece of jewellery on it. We punch so much above our weight.”

Attracting promiscuous shoppers

One of Halliwell’s major projects has been to launch Harvey Nichols’ loyalty app. Halliwell admits the brand was 10 years behind in loyalty despite loyalty programmes becoming key to building a relationship with consumers.

“Customers demand that if they’re going to be loyal to a brand they want something back. It’s like a friendship; if you aren’t imparting your part of the deal they’ll go elsewhere,” she says.

harvey nichols loyalty app

The app offers points based on spend, but also experiences and a way for the retailer to talk to customers one-on-one. It has beacon technology in-store so that it can offer treats such as a free coffee or highlight new products or events. And every quarter customers can get cashback, or opt to spend their points on experiences such as a blow dry. They also get exclusive access to deals and sale previews, for example.

It has required big changes to her team. There are 55 people in the marketing division across point-of-sale, email, content, the app, PR, CRM and digital. Halliwell says she had to bring in digital expertise as the business focused on areas such as SEO, PPC and affiliate marketing. It also needed to “beef up” its CRM team to make the most of the opportunity the loyalty app afforded to the brand.

We want our customers to be fans because fans forgive. They are going to be promiscuous but if we do all the right things they’ll always gravitate back to us.

Shadi Halliwell, Harvey Nichols

Halliwell says the app has “excelled” with members visiting more regularly and spending more frequently. “I can’t give the exact numbers but it’s compelling,” she explains.

“People now expect something back and I think once you start being seen as giving something back, that adds an element of loyalty. We want our customers to be fans because fans forgive. Of course they are going to be promiscuous because there is a whole world out there. But if we do all the right things they’ll always gravitate back to us.”

All of this investment in the store and customer experience might seem counter-intuitive given the rise of online shopping. But Halliwell doesn’t see it like that.

“You have to have both now. We have a very efficient transacting website that shows product off as best it can but makes it easy for customers to order and transact. And then we have the stores,” she says. “We’ve got food, hospitality, hairdressers, beauty treatments; we can do everything in here.”

She also doesn’t believe that the rise of digital has fundamentally changed marketing. “The fundamentals of marketing, the discipline of understanding customers and delivering against their needs is exactly the same. The way you talk to customers and the tools have, but marketing hasn’t changed.”

There was a long to-do list when Halliwell joined Harvey Nichols, but most important was a focused strategy that ensured everyone across the business understood the retailer and what it stood for. Halliwell might now be leaving for “new opportunities” but you sense her successor will find a brand in much better health than the one she started at three years ago.