The new design of retail excellence & customers’ experience

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Sarah Edwards

Reinventing the customer experience, “social shopping” and specialised training programmes… Sarah Edwards, Cosmetics Senior Operations Manager at Debenhams, reveals how the famous British department store chain is meeting the needs of today’s ever-more demanding customers.

Buying: How to make it easier, quicker and more fun

As a senior operations manager, Sarah Edwards is well aware how consumers have become more demanding in recent years. Whether they are sitting in front of a computer screen for some online retail or walking the aisles of a major department store, customers are looking for two things: simplicity and fun.

The store, an extension of online retail

For Sarah Edwards, a good store should simply be a physical extension of the quick and easy experience that consumers already enjoy with online shopping. “Customers are used to having everything instantly available on the internet. So when they go to a store, they expect a shopping experience that will be just as easy, and that will also come with a range of services – including some that are accessible from a smartphone. They will also want the buying process to be as smooth as possible.”

A third of Debenhams’ online customers come to a store to collect their web purchases, often taking the opportunity to add several other items to their basket. This too underlines the importance of making the instore retail experience as easy as the online version.

The move towards ‘social shopping’ with family and friends

Another trend is for shopping to morph into something of an entertainment activity – to be shared with others. “Our research shows us that spend in leisure is growing faster than spend within retail; hence, combining the two makes good commercial sense.” In fact, 40% of Debenhams customers now go shopping with family and friends – and spend 80% more than an average customer on their own. “By creating a shopping experience that customers want to share either physically or through social media is the essence of providing ‘social shopping,’” she explains. The growing role of social networks has made them a key focus for brands, particularly when targeting the younger generation.

Bringing back the magic of the instore experience

Turning sales assistants into personal advisers

To meet these new demands for speed and convenience, stores like Debenhams need to be constantly adapting their offer to customers. “We have 242 stores in 27 countries and are continuously working on our branding, so that we can offer a unique shopping experience, both online and instore.” This transformation involves a tailored approach to staff training. “Our staff have recently undergone Service Redesigned training which teaches our new values and how best to serve our customers.” In practice, that means being on top of your subject, being able to understand and connect with customers, and spotting a sales opportunity when it arises. Like the many assistants at the Genius Bar in Apple Stores, sales staff are now seen as consultants, brand ambassadors and people who can help customers navigate their way through the sales process. Meanwhile, Debenhams has also reduced the ‘back of house’ tasks, so that staff are more visible to customers and more proactive in their approach to serving. 

The biggest challenge? Creating a dialogue with the customer

For consumers, it has never been easier to compare what’s on offer. In a few minutes, they can see what is available from different brands and stores, and can find just what they are looking for in a few clicks. For Sarah Edwards, it means there is now a very real sense of a conversation underway between brands and their customers – one that needs to be maintained instore through a sense of empathy and a personalised service. “Being able to have this two-way dialogue is the most exciting piece of interacting with customers nowadays,” she says.

In short, customers’ insatiable appetite needs to be at the very heart of retailers’ strategies. “The 21st century customers want to talk about their interests – be that sharing advice, tips or asking questions,” says Sarah Edwards, who sees this sense of community developing further in the years ahead. “We expect that customers will demand more from brands in terms of facilitating opportunities to connect with other like-minded people.”

Human capital | May 2018