I've always loved working with retail clients. I love the intensity. How close you get to the business and trading challenges. How integral the partnership between agency and client becomes. I cut my teeth on Matalan early on in my career and, by comparison, every other challenge has felt tame. It was two years of intense pace, with great highs and lows.
I spent as much time in Skelmersdale with the buyers as I did in Golden Square. The trading meetings took place in a different store each week. There was no hiding. We knew exactly how we were performing from the stock levels on the shelves.
15 years later and retail is still in my blood. In some ways nothing has changed - it is still all about shifting as much stock as possible. But, in 2014, the tactics have changed beyond recognition. Data and technology have fundamentally altered the ways in which we can engage with customers and ultimately sell more stuff.
We know all too well from our work on some of the biggest retail brands in the country that the UK retail market, across categories, is in a process of evolution. The next stage of progress depends on how well new technologies are integrated into the overall retail experience - in augmenting purchase paths - and how customer data is used to bring brands closer to individual customers.
The growing suite of interactive media, web, social and mobile channels now provide more opportunities to reach customers and create powerful experiences than ever before. Retailers such as Audi, Selfridges and Burberry have already seen positive impacts on sales by adopting these technologies - hosting virtual car showrooms with touchscreens where customers can configure and customize products, or adopting body metric scanning and digital mirrors in changing rooms which serve tailored content to support purchase decisions and allow for stock checking, alteration advice and home delivery. These creative ways of captivating and empowering customers show how virtual and physical commerce are starting to co-exist to provide a new customer experience.
Add data into this mix and, by using core data better, these experiences will become frictionless and go beyond whizzy showroom tactics.
The ongoing challenge for many businesses is to bring data together across all platforms to create sophisticated CRM systems that provide a single customer view, taking in all interactions across the company. Getting this right is only part of the picture. Knowing how to use and exploit that information to your advantage is the real challenge.
It's about using insight to drive customer centric actions such as targeting new customers with relevant information that will cement a brand relationship for years to come, or offering your best customers your best deals to increase their loyalty. At a minimum, it should be about creating different messages for different customer segments, depending on their buying behaviour and characteristics.
It seems that few brands are truly exploiting this opportunity currently. More strategies seem to focus on discounting to maintain revenue rather than building genuine engagement that will drive up propensity to spend more money and more frequently. One brand that is doing some exciting stuff in this space and is merging technology and data well, is Urban Outfitters.
This fashion retailer has made some incredibly positive steps recently, especially with pilot initiatives in the US market. They're using user-generated images taken by their opted-in customers, pulled from the likes of Instagram and Facebook. Then, via their #UOonYou platform, they're building a data story by tracking how many people click on an image and then go on to buy an item.
While their new mobile app is a social network-cum-reward scheme. It encourages the upload of an avatar, and the connection to Facebook and Twitter. It then rewards users for social mentions, and gives credit to those who respond to in-app promotions. Rewards include advance warning of sales, and they are also pushing omni-channel hard with web orders over $50 delivery is free, any orders on mobile delivery will be free.
It's an exciting time to be in retailing but it is getting increasingly challenging (as if it wasn't challenging enough). Retailers need to organise their business around their customers - keeping pace with the advances in data and technology to build truly engaging customer experiences. Retailers need to make it easy for customers to buy when and where they want and ensure that, regardless of where they engage, the brand experience is good.
All of this needs to be built on the original foundations of great retail. Agencies need to be where the customers are. Observing and listening to consumers; helping brands make full use of all the exciting tech and data opportunities; and opening up to them to build truly individual and engaging experiences is what will ultimately help retailers sell more stuff!