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Why Bricks and Mortar Retailers Must Deliver Better Engagement Strategies for Consumers and What Engagement Strategies Should be Adopted

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Why Bricks and Mortar Retailers Must Deliver Better Engagement Strategies for Consumers and What Engagement Strategies Should be Adopted
There is now a wide consensus that retail shopping in bricks and mortar stores is not growing as fast as online shopping. Furthermore, the lion’s share of gross retail spend is online, as opposed to in physical shops. Owing to these trends, bricks and mortar retailers have found they need to do more to attract custom. However, not all bricks and mortar stores are declining in the same way. Some are more successful than others and this article will examine why this is the case; what engagement strategies reap the most rewards and what retailers need to do to keep their bricks and mortar premises buoyant in the face of ever-growing online retail spend.
 
 
Experiences
 
Bricks and mortar stores have been forced to think about what makes the experience of shopping in their physical stores appealing in a way that can’t be matched online, so that they can create novel, unique and effective customer engagement.
 
Apple, whose stores have weathered the decline of the high street particularly well, appear to take advantage of allowing customers to see, feel, touch and try out their products. In every Apple store you enter you are confronted with an array of laptops, ipads and phones, all of which can be used, lifted up and examined in the customer’s hands. This is a level of consumer experience that can never be replicated online and Apple have capitalised on it by making all of their products visible to consumers walking past and conveniently available to anyone who wants to examine them in person. Apple also employ well-trained “gurus” in their stores, who are able to answer complex questions about the operation of their products and provide tips and demonstrations on how products are supposed to work. Free technical clinics called “genius bars” are also available in Apple stores, and customers can bring their Apple products along and have them examined by technical experts who can explain how they work, and fix any issues or problems.
 
Sometimes adding another service to a brand can help increase customer engagement. Every brand is different, but some book stores like Waterstone’s have found that providing coffee shops for tired customers has not only quelled the massive exodus of shoppers from their bricks and mortar stores, but have drawn in new customers attracted by the experience of shopping for books, followed by being able to relax with their new purchases while having coffee, snacks and light refreshments at their fingertips. The market for coffee shops themselves is growing rapidly in the UK, so many other bricks and mortar stores have benefitted from adding a coffee shop to their store, so their shoppers don’t have far to walk to get food, drinks and refreshments.
 
Other brands have started to offer specialist experiences in a bid to attract more footfall to their physical shops and engage customers more successfully. John Lewis is introducing so-called “experience desks” where concierges can book experiences for shoppers, for example blow drys and manicures. This is part of John Lewis’ wider customer experience strategy, which they plan to invest 500million GBP in in the next five years. Visits to these John Lewis desks allow for specialist advice and attention, for example a concierge will be able to assist in shopping for specific items or complete a shopping list. At their Cheltenham branch, John Lewis allows customers to book a store personally, so they have the store all to themselves when they visit. This service, however requires that at least 10,000 GBP is spent at any one visit.
 
Beleaguered brand Debenhams has recently announced that they are introducing in-store gyms. In a partnership between Debenhams and fitness brand Sweat, Debenhams planned to open gyms at their Manchester and Bristol branches as part of a wider turnaround strategy called “social shopping”. Other Debenhams initiatives include new leadership from ex-Amazon fashion boss Segio Bucher, a drive to declutter the shop floor and expanding the click and collect service. The changes to the click and collect services at Debenhams is proving to be particularly fruitful, with customer spend increasing by as much as 20% when they arrive to collect items, in store. Other changes have been designed to encourage shoppers to “linger for longer” with interesting designs and a greater drive towards customer centricity, with the rationale that this drives more footfall and in retail terms, footfall can be converted into retail spend.
 
Some brands have even added beauty salons on their premises to create a seamless shopping experience for the customer, as brands are beginning to recognise how the addition of complementary services creates new streams of footfall and encourages people to “linger” thus increasing the chances that they will spend more money as they do so. 
 
 
Experience
 
For the customer, the experience of online shopping is what attracts many to online shopping as opposed to shopping in bricks and mortar shops. To shop online, people don’t even have to leave their armchairs to get the items they want delivered to their front door. This has forced bricks and mortar retailers to really examine the customer experience they provide and make it as easy and streamlined as possible for the customer to shop in their outlets. What they found was that customers value convenience, and by ensuring that customer experience is a good one, bricks and mortar stores can quell some of the losses associated with a shift towards online spending. Furthermore, research has found that bricks and mortar stores that really focus on the customer tend to do much better than bricks and mortar shops that don’t. Which? has done valuable research on what retailers are drawing in the most customers and why. Their research reveals that stores that really put customers first and make their experience of shopping convenient are those that do the best. In one of their most recent surveys of the best and worst retailers, Homebase was voted top of the “worst” category, owing to a raft of problems including the brand being slow to replenish stock levels and a poorly integrated physical shop and online experience for shoppers.
 
Large chains like Adidas have taken customer experience extremely seriously in recent years and they have used Artificial Intelligence to assist them in doing so. Their stores have been fitted with sophisticated fitting IT in their dressing rooms, which enables the user to order different sizes and colours from within the dressing room. This dispenses with the need to search for items, then try them on to find they are not suitable, get dressed again and search for more suitable items.
 
In 2019, Nike is introducing a high tech scanning app called Nike Fit which enables the user to scan their own foot and get a precise measurement of each foot. Research conducted by the brand prior to this innovation suggested that up to 60% of people are wearing shoes that don’t fit correctly. The new app updates a system of shoe measurement, which dates back to 1927 when Charles Brannock devised one of the most widely used shoe measurement tools. The new app takes account of the fact that sizing can differ from brand to brand, and different styles of shoes are sized differently. Furthermore, one person can have feet that are two different sizes. The app works by using computer vision, machine learning, AI and algorithms to determine the correct individual fit for each foot that is scanned. Designed to have an accuracy of below two millimetres, while taking measurements from dozens of data points, the machine works by examining a 3D silhouette of the foot. Using this data, the app then creates a personal fit profile. Then users can use other technology to try shoes on virtually.
 
Sainsbury’s, too is adopting a high tech approach to enhance their customer’s experience of shopping in their stores. A checkout app is now available, which dispenses with the need for customers to queue to make their purchases.
 
Some strategies that have not been tried yet include partnering with social enterprises like the Citizens Advice Bureau.
 
Many retailers are also allowing customers to access free wifi on their premises. This strategy encourages footfall and encourages people to see a brand as part of a wider community resource, for example some people will only use the coffee shops and free wifi to work, without making any purchases while in the store. However, even attracting these customers has value because many will be influenced by strategically placed adverts, and many will see something they like and return later to purchase it. Furthermore, these approaches allow for more personal engagement with customers as they use their smart phones, laptops and ipads to access the store wifi connection. An added benefit of features like free wifi is that brands can engage customers personally and directly to gather feedback about what they like, don’t like and what their experience of their customer service has been. Equally, customer data gathered from customers actually visiting the premises can show trends and patterns that are useful to retailers, like when footfall is particularly high and low. This information can be used to understand customer needs and ultimately to create a stronger, more profitable brand.
 
 
Are Digital Stores Destroying The High Street?
 
Some don’t agree that digital stores are actually destroying the high street. Instead they argue that the high street is merely evolving and those who don’t keep up with the changes are just losing business. Those who support this viewpoint argue that high street outlets need to become more like “social hubs” and cater to customer needs more comprehensively with a customer-centric approach.
 
Above all it is recommended that brands do more than merely providing choice, service and value. As other brands like Netflix, Amazon and Premier Inn adopt a much more customer-centric style, traditional approaches to customer service are pale by comparison. These days customers want and expect more and brands are now expected to go above and beyond what was traditionally expected of them. Using data to create customer communities outside of the high street retail experience can help to achieve this. This is an example of what Toys R Us are doing in their rebrand, since they used their predecessor brand data to create new ways to market their new brand.
 
Some experts argue that the only way to rescue a failing high street brand is to understand how customer needs are changing and then do more to cater to new consumer expectations. Customer-centric means creating convenience as well as a high quality customer service, in addition to memorable and positive experiences. It means exceeding customer expectations and providing high quality aftercare, as well as integrated online and high street outlets. Research has identified factors like well trained and knowledgeable staff, reliable service, value for money products, convenient parking and easy to navigate stores as tenets of customer service that successful high street outlets have adopted. Of course, all of these approaches are expensive to adopt and as such create extra risks for high street shops already under pressure to meet all of the costs of operating in an increasingly competitive high street.
 
Successful brands also build empathy with their customers. A lot of empathy building begins with data, and retailers hoping to augment their customer centricity should ask themselves “what can we be doing better?” continuously and respond effectively when things go wrong. Monitoring reviews and feedback is a big part of this, as retail becomes more and more “review-led”. Some experts suggest that empathy building also has a lot of do with personalisation. To ensure successful personalisation brands must integrate their online and physical retail outlets, so that customers using physical outlets to follow up some earlier activity on online platforms find it seamless and convenient.
 
Other key engagement strategies include hiring for customer needs. That is ensuring that every employee hired has the capacity to understand customer needs and address them successfully. Some organisations take this principle so seriously that they ensure every employee hired, no matter what their ultimate responsibilities will be are asked customer-focused questions in their job interviews. This, it is suggested sends a clear message to every employee about just how important customer relations are.
 
A key customer centric strategy that many brands overlook is to integrate customer feedback across all roles and departments. Many brands make the mistake of storing customer data in the marketing or IT departments, where it may not even be actioned. Instead these brands should be proactive about gathering customer data. One brand, in trying to improve consumer centricity went as far as to introduce a new department called the customer and employee experience team, which was given the task of listening to customer and employee needs and acting on them, proactively and effectively.
 
A good way to gather data about customer experience is to encourage customers to leave a public review. Some companies go as far as to create loyalty programmes, which reward customers who leave reviews. With consumer centric companies like Amazon described by many as “review-led”, it is easy to see how essential positive reviews are to the development of customer centricity.
 
Many successful customer centric brands are also measuring customer feedback indirectly, through data analysis. One example is the idea of “dwell-time”. Dwell-time is how long an online visitor spends on each webpage, and their level of engagement with the webpage. If these figures are low, brands know that they need to make changes, which will increase them. In essence inferences can be drawn from consistently low rates of dwell-time and these can be actioned appropriately. This idea underlying this is that customers will very often omit to tell a retailer they are not happy. Instead they will just use a competitor brand or they simply won’t return or make any repeat purchases. If brands can be proactive about what and what doesn’t work to engage effectively with customers across all of their brand platforms, this will pay dividends in the future in terms of repeat business, word of mouth recommendations, endorsements on social media and ultimately increased revenues.
 
 
Better Engagement Strategies for Consumers and What Engagement Strategies Should be Adopted 
 
As we have seen, the view that digital customers are somehow destroying the high street is in many ways defeatist and incorrect. Crucially, not all high street bricks and mortar outlets are in decline in the same way. In fact, many are doing much better than others. This is direct evidence that there is a lot a failing high street retailer can do to rescue a bricks and mortar outlet that isn’t doing as well as had been anticipated.
 
One of the main things a struggling high street retailer can do is to adopt a customer centric approach by engaging with customers to understand and deliver what they want and expect. Many retailers like Debenhams and Waterstone’s have managed to use this approach to turn around dwindling sales from bricks and mortar outlets.
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