In focus: Driving the in-store experience

The impact of technical disruption left many household name brands cast aside on the high street. They are easy to recall: Kodak, Blockbuster and Comet to name just a few.

So it is interesting to note two examples who previously encountered difficulties and are now moving forward on a more positive footing.

The camera retailer Jessops went into administration in 2013, prompting the closure of 187 stores closed and the loss of 1,370 jobs. The chain was subsequently bought by Dragon’s Den entrepreneur Peter Jones and 31 stores have since reopened. In July it announced it was moving back to the city where it opened its first store in Leicester.

Four years ago the bookstore chain Waterstones was facing oblivion after declining sales of physical books against the relentless growth of Amazon had left it on the brink of bankruptcy. Yet in February of this year it was announced that it is on the path to recovery with its first rise in sales since the financial crisis.

Both represent remarkable turnarounds and it’s worth exploring commonalities between the two brands as to how they have achieved this success.

In both cases, the physical product plays a crucial role. Waterstones has benefitted from a surge in physical book sales in the past year, with the Publishers Association recently announcing that the sale of print books rose to £2.76 billion in 2015, while in contrast there was a dip for digital book sales.

For Waterstones managing director James Daunt, readers still value handling books in-store, and publishers have responded to this by increasingly investing in the cover design to improve the experience: “…books that you want to treasure, look after and sit on your bookshelf — the physical book is a better thing. You are left with a memory; you’ve got something that has an enduring value,” said Daunt.

In recognising the physical product as a point of distinction for the in-store experience, both retailers then take this a step further by blending it with outstanding customer service.

As outlined by Jessops CEO Neil Old, recognising the core customer has been at the heart of this approach, in Jessops’ case hobbyists who are passionate about photography. “So it’s important for us that when a customer comes in they meet people who are passionate about photography and can talk to them on their level,” he said.

Click-and-collect has enhanced this experience and represents Jessops’ fastest growing sales channel. This means that customers can research and compare products online, test the product in-store with guidance from staff, and make a decision. “It’s a huge convenience for the customer,” said Old.

Alongside this is the Jessops Academy, where customers book in for a one-to-one tutorial with staff, who provide in-depth guidance on a specific product. “With the Academy we see repeat visits all the way through…our colleagues are at the core of everything we do,” said Old, adding that Jessops will be significantly investing in staff training in 2016.

The role of the staff and the importance of a shared passion with customers is a view echoed by Waterstones. In the aftermath of the Brexit vote the commercial director Andy Rowe sent a message to staff urging them to “put service first” and “truly engage with customers”. Staff should “talk to people with a smile and spring in their step…and inspire our customers and each other with a shared love of reading.”

Challenges of course remain for the in-store experience, but both Jessops and Waterstones have highlighted that by honing in on providing an outstanding and personalised customer experience, retailers can leverage the channel to remain robust and thrive, even in unpredictable times.

Tim Maynard, Stone & River

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