‘There’s a desire for real life things’: Primark’s marketing boss on the strength of the high street

Primark’s marketing boss Michelle McEttrick joined top marketers from Boots and Waitrose to discuss how retailers can offer more in physical stores.

Despite accelerated take-up of ecommerce during lockdown, there is a “swing post-Covid into the desire for things in real life”, according to Primark’s chief customer officer, Michelle McEttrick.

Last year, the budget fashion retailer began building out its digital proposition including offering click-and-collect services on kidswear in 25 North West stores. In April, it expanded the trial to a further 32 in response to a rise in footfall.

CEO of Primark parent company Associated British Foods, George Weston,  said at the time the initiative is driving bigger basket sizes, which is leading to higher value sales.

Strong footfall drove a 15% sales increase in the UK in the 24 weeks ended 4 March 2023, compared to the same period last year. Revenues for the whole ABF business, which includes its sugar, grocery and agriculture brands in addition to Primark, were up 21% to £9.56bn.

Speaking on a panel at Advertising Week Europe this week in London, McEttrick did not speak directly about its digital offer but noted the business is “firmly based in bricks and mortar”.

Primark expands click-and-collect trial as footfall rises

Primark is “in competition with your couch on a rainy Saturday”, she said, adding that when it comes to opportunities for consumers to part with their cash, they want “real life” experiences.

She claimed Primark is “really smart” in recognising this by adding more experiences to an in-store visit, from beauty services and barber shops to in-store Greggs outlets.

“It’s really just thinking about what are the partnerships that we can bring in to help people have a bit more of a day out,” she said. “Because we’ve seen the UK High Street landscape shrink in terms of the breadth of offer,” she added, noting Primark’s “commitment” to being present.

The shape of retail in 2023

McEttrick believes there’s a return to pre-Covid retail “on the horizon”. “We might see more of a return to […] real convenience propositions, click and collect being on the rise again,” she said.

Speaking on the same panel, Nathan Ansell, customer director at Waitrose, agreed with McEttrick on how physical retail is evolving. “There’s definitely a yearning for almost a reimagination of the retail experience to make it more engaging,” he said, adding that for physical retailers, customers need to be able to “find a reason” to come in-store.

The fallout from Covid is still impacting in-store retail, Ansell said, adding as retailers have “stripped back” on counters and other elements of the customer experience during lockdowns, and now may be suffering from a lesser customer experience as a result. He added that customers “want value”, nonetheless.

But in the pursuit of a seamless customer experience, have retailers made mistakes? Ansell suggested so: “There’s been a relentless pursuit of removing all the friction from the online customer experience, which in one respect is good,” he said. However, “I think that’s often left us with quite an antiseptic experience online”.

Waitrose unveils brand refresh in bid to become ‘more relevant’He added that retailers should be thinking “broadly” about how they integrate a “really good physical retail experience” into the online journey, as it’s a “huge opportunity”.

“It’s an advantage if you can get it right,” Ansell added.

Value is “front and centre for every retailer at the moment,” said Pete Markey, chief marketing officer at Boots. But, he cautioned, that’s not about being the cheapest, but offering “true value for money”.

“Customer loyalty is more important than ever,” he added, noting how the changes to Boots’ Advantage Card, which have made the experience more personal and gives additional offers beyond points, are “like a marketer’s dream” given how close the brand can now get to its customers: “the right offer at the right time for the right channel”.

How different are customers in 2023 to how they were previously? “The core consumer needs largely [have] stayed the same,” said Markey. However, “in terms of [how] we all want really good value, that’s probably been heightened.”