Tuesday, March 8, 2011

3 things high street stores can learn from their online cousins

In a previous post, I wrote about how bookstores are closing down and that competition from online and supermarkets had squeezed the market. It's not just bookstores that are closing down either. Across Britain, town centre vacancy rates rose to 14.5% at the end of 2010, up almost 10% on 2008. There are myriad reasons for this, including businesses running on credit for too long and a store rental system that massively favours landlords; however one factor that has resulted in a permanent cultural shift, is the move to buying online.

Britain leads the way when it comes to ecommerce in Europe, with online representing 10% of UK total sales. So what can high street stores learn from online? I've listed three ideas below that could be adopted by physical stores and whereas they won't alter any shift to online they should improve the customer experience and the shop's chances of survival.

Tell me what I want, what I really, really want
One of the things that online does really well is that it offers you the personal touch. Most stores know who returning customers are and what they've bought before and so they tailor content and related products that best suit their interests and tastes. This enables online to effortlessly up-sell and cross-sell, tempting us to buy more.

Online we're individuals and we're treated to a personal and highly enriched experience. However as soon as you walk through the front door of a shop you're just a face in the crowd, presented with the same static products that everyone else sees. But that needn't be the case.

Stores will strategically place products in aisles or sections of the shop that they know sell well together. The tea is generally in the same aisle as the biscuits, for example. However I don't think they go far enough.

How many times have you gone to buy some shoes in a department store and been presented with suggestions for jeans or a handbag that will go well with them? Small flat-screen TVs with footage of models wearing clothes or accessories that go well with the items I'm looking at would encourage me to shop further. How many times have you picked up some flour at a supermarket and next to it seen a leaflet for a kick-ass cake recipe that demands you buy eggs, sugar, chocolate etc.? Not many in my experience and these are all lost opportunities.

Capturing customer data
Cos, the exceptional older brother (with a higher disposable income of H&M) is the only shop I have been in that has asked me for my e-mail address. As I waited for the store assistant to bag up my extremely tasteful shirt, I wrote my name and e-mail address on a card. It took me less than a minute. They now send me regular updates and special offers, including invites to events where they launch sale items to people on their list before the general public.

Why don't all stores do this?

They do! What about the Nectar card and Boots Advantage card?

Okay, so maybe the trend of storing customer data started offline, however in my experience it's not caught on. Other than the sign up at Cos and the leaflets for loyalty cards, I have not come across one example of a store asking me for data so that they can keep in touch.

I would also push for the supermarkets and even Boots to simplify their sign up, lock you in quickly and easily in-store and then hit you online for more information. At home and online is the point where you have more time and are happy to fill out an application form. It would also be less labour intensive as systems would capture your data, rather than requiring people to input it into a system.

Dynamic changes
Ecommerce is continuing to grow thanks in part to its dynamism and ability to make changes on the fly. Data can be analysed and changes made on the same day with results monitored to understand their effect. This has resulted in new products and different ways of presenting them, new ways of paying and the ability to implement offers and promotions at the click of a mouse. Physical stores can't be as dynamic. But why?

Shops often work to seasons and plan in advance for promotions and sales. In-store advertising and displays are difficult to change and managers have to maintain consistency across different stores. So what can be dynamic in a shop? I think it comes down to people.

Store assistants are the most intelligent and flexible resources available to managers and they can be empowered to act and behave in a more dynamic way. This happens to some extent in stores that have salespeople working on a commission basis. They can give away a percentage of their commission in order to secure a sale. Would this work across all stores? Maybe managers can create promotions or discounts that they pass down to store assistants who can then give them out to customers at their own discretion, rather than advertising them widely?

There are many other things that I've not included here but also many things that online can learn from high street stores. I think the thing to always hold in mind is that although different, on and offline strategies can be interchangeable and consistency among the two is paramount.