Daniel TodaroDaniel TodaroApril 9, 2019


Retail is buoyant, exciting, and transformative, so what better sector to be in right now?

This was the counterintuitive conclusion of a recent white paper produced by Retail Week in partnership with Manhattan Associates. Based on in-depth interviews with 25 senior retail executives, it showed that despite current obstacles affecting retail, 64 percent expected sales in 2019 to be flat or slightly better than last year. Twenty percent even estimated that sales will be much better than the past year.

Coupled with this, when questioned about the balance they are seeking between cutting costs and driving growth in order to achieve profitability, more than 50 percent cited ‘mostly growth’, indicative of a sector confident in its ability to progress. With 80 percent of shopping still happening on the high street  (ONS December 2018) not over the internet, now’s the time for retailers – especially brick and mortar – to define their future.

There’s been so much conversation about what’s driving retail strategy; innovation in technology driving back and front of store; data driven omnichannel insights providing a single view of the customer; experience rather than transactional stores. But if 80 percent of shopping still happens on the high street, there’s one area that’s being left behind and that’s the ‘people’ strategy to improve customer centricity and drive sales. 

Let’s face it, it’s the one part of retail that often seems the weak link. If you are over 40 you may remember the days of ‘are you being served?’. Although somewhat exaggerated it was a real indicator of retail customer centricity – personal, caring, and over the top.

According to the survey, investment in customer service and experience is top alongside ecommerce strategy as a priority for execs in 2019. It is the only differentiator a business has to entice customers into their store environment if they don’t want to buy online and the product is widely available.

Businesses that started online, such as Misguided, are appearing on the high street and brick and mortar retailers are realising the unique benefits of their physical space and making plans to optimise it accordingly – whether that’s a lifestyle destination or concept store. Over the last decade, staff have been like a forgotten tribe: transient, paid the minimum wage, and left to roam the shop floor with little, if any product knowledge or customer training. 

But retailers seem to be going full circle in realising the importance of a ‘people-first strategy’. In brick and mortar retail, the team on the floor are the most important asset, they are the ‘brand ambassadors’, the ones face to face with customers who can deliver a personal experience, explain products, give specialist advice, encourage a sale, and give customers that warm, cuddly feeling. But if it’s so important, realising it is not enough – retailers need to invest in and execute a people-first strategy. 

So what does a people-first strategy entail? To start with, let’s ditch the word sales assistant – it has a very transactional connotation. Sixty-two percent of execs said one of their biggest challenges is finding the right people with the right skills, and if this doesn’t change, nor will retail.

We’re in new territory where sales assistants are the custodians of the customer’s brand experience and I think we’re getting somewhere here. If you search for sales assistants on job boards, many are being advertised as Customer Experience assistants. And whilst you may think this is a nuance, it’s a huge step forward in transforming the way people think about roles within retail and how retailers recruit.   

Face-to-face retail isn’t going anywhere; it’s just changing, mainly driven by the expense of being on the high street, rather than people just buying online. This is presenting a multitude of opportunities for retailers – store within a store, click and try/buy, personalisation, and home delivery. Retailers just need to make sure they can capitalise on those opportunities.

Retail must put people and pay before profit, training before transactions, and nurture talent before staff turnover. This way you’ll have a people first strategy that will entice customers to come and enjoy discovering what it is you have on offer – an experience online can’t replicate. This way, retailers may give themselves a fighting chance of remaining profitable.


Daniel TodaroDaniel TodaroJanuary 16, 2019


Looking ahead to some challenging conditions in 2019, retailers will need to address two flawed strategies: discounting and an over-reliance on technology at the expense of customer service.

What used to be one off days like Black Friday and Cyber Monday have become a month-long slog with retailers falling over themselves to better their rivals’ discounting. This approach has been jet fuelled by continuing uncertainty over Brexit, with bigger and earlier discounting, tempting cautious consumers.

However, the race to the bottom leaves no one at the top. Certainly, the simplistic narrative of high street woes versus online success has been exposed recently with the disappointing performance reported by ASOS. The share price tumbling was as a result of being forced to slash prices to mimic its rivals with the obvious implications for profitability.

Meanwhile, store closures have become the norm alongside the replacement of people with technology with 80,000 jobs lost in the first half of 2018. As Mike Ashley puts it in his inimitable style, retailers face being “smashed to pieces”.

So, what can retailers do? The belief that more technology instore is the answer has been exposed by recent consumer research we commissioned. Our study found that 81 percent of UK shoppers claim the personal touch has disappeared from retail customer service in modern Britain, with almost a third (32 percent) blaming an over reliance on technology for this decline.

While the retail media gets very excited about the potential of new technology like smart mirrors, our research showed just 21 percent of consumers want them and only nine percent welcoming robot assistants.

Customers are suspicious about why new technology is constantly being deployed, with 50 percent thinking it is because retailers want to save money and 49 percent to employ less staff. Only 22 percent think they are using technology to create a better Customer Experience.

When asked what makes a great shopping experience, 49 percent of those said it was down to having good staff, staff that know the products (49 percent) and that go the extra mile (47 percent). Despite retailer addiction to discounting, promotional offers were only favoured by 34 percent.

The customer focus and experience is a well-oiled John Lewis strategy, and it is no coincidence that they have been able to keep their head above the water, and in December 2018 reported strong sales amidst a poor picture for other retailers. John Lewis reported a 4.5 percent year-on-year increase in sales in final weeks of 2018.

Another interesting success story is Angling Direct. The fishing retailer reported a 31.5 percent increase in sales to £14.6m and record Black Friday trading. Chief executive Darren Bailey has emphasised their continued investment in its stores and overall Customer Experience. As he put it in a recent interview: “Customers want specialist service and advice, and you can’t get that from Amazon.”

Our survey backs this up, with a third of Brits stating that the personal touch is more likely to encourage them to make a repeat purchase, and more than a fifth (22 percent) saying they always spend more money in a shop if they are served by a good assistant. Coupled with this, over a third (34 percent) of shoppers stated that a poor experience has driven them to buy from another retailer – not great in the current climate as retailers need to hold onto every customer.

There’s a clear picture emerging for the future of brick and mortar retailing in the UK – customers are looking for expertise and customer service rather than just a strategy of following the herd discounting. So retailers need to take heed: employ great people and train them well so that they genuinely care about the customers and the products they are  selling; don’t rely on new technology to reverse your fortunes; create a retail experience that’s the best it can be in every store not just flagship stores so create a model that can sustain this strategy and restore the pride in our retail stores in 2019.

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