The Undercover Analyst – Checking the Numbers on Mobile Phone Stores

main logo blueIt’s time for another of my regular checks on high street operators in association with retail analysis experts ShopperTrak. This time I’m looking at mobile phone stores, a category we’ve seen explode over the past 10-15 years and one which has come to dominate our high streets. As always these reports are written after actual visits to selected un-named stores and will focus on areas such as store design, operation, staff management and customer service.

Ok, I’ll admit it, I’m a bit of a gadget freak.

I spent my youth dreaming of the kinds of gizmos that now populate our everyday lives. Star Trek style talking computers, Blade Runner video phones, Batman’s wrist worn communicator and, not forgetting, jet packs.

The last item on my list might still be a way off, but the others are all with us now in ways that most of us have come to regard as just a normal part of our ordinary lives. Those of us who can remember the days before you could stand in the middle of nowhere and to speak to someone on the other side of the world, simply by reaching into your pocket, probably won’t appreciate how mind blowing that still is. The fact that such technology has now settled in as part of the mundanity of every high street might have something to do with that.

JetstonsThese stores sell us brain meltingly complicated technology in much the same way as we’d pick up a packet of kidney beans in our local supermarket. In fact, in many cases, we could do both under the same roof. It’s technology Jim, but not as we knew it!

For this outing into the new frontier of consumer electronics I chose a road I once frequented on a regular basis looking for the latest in Hi-fi and sound equipment. Tottenham Court road in the 80s and 90s was THE place to come for the latest sleek sound system at knock down prices. Part of the process in those days was to visit every store looking for the best deal, before playing each shop off against one another. I have to admit that’s a bargaining technique that stood me in good stead in future years in business.

It was therefore saddening to see upon my return, that my choice of electronics stores these days was not as diverse as it once was It is predominantly populated with mobile phone stores, with only a few of the store fascias I remember from the old days.

I chose to visit three mainstream mobile phone shops to make direct comparisons between them. As they are all selling exactly the same hardware, with only notional differences in tariff offers, it was quite easy to gauge how they stacked up against each other.

The Price is Wrong

The first store was arranged all on one floor so my arrival was easily visible to all the staff, who immediately came over and spoke to me. I could also see that other customers were being dealt with throughout the store. Thankfully, there wasn’t too much of the hard sell which can be common in similar stores.

oopsThere was some impressive up-selling going on from the outset as the store manager who had approached me enquired about the status of my current mobile contract. Interesting that these days no one ever assumes that you wouldn’t have a mobile phone!

Mobile phone stores are now gradually diversifying into ancillary products and this particular store had a good range of headphones, presumably for those who also use their phones as MP3 devices. I enquired about the price on a pair that caught my eye and this is where the fun began.

The price displayed said £160 which both I and the sales adviser felt was a tad on the high side. On checking the computer it turned out he was right, the actual price was an infinitely more reasonable £25! Neatly proving the advantage that a human has over a machine generated price tag. It also suggests that this company might need to double check their merchandising procedures! Regular shop floor and merchandising audits have been a feature of my own stores and really should be carried out at least once a month. This neatly demonstrates why.

Overall though it, was a very neat and well run store. A good experience.

ShopperTrak Says – Using retail analytics, it is possible to measure the success of different initiatives, including new customer service programmes and training to make sure your sales staff devote their full attention to engaging with the customer at the right time.

Wall of Death

In store number two, customer interaction seemed like it was top of the agenda as I was greeted by a designated staff member from behind a podium at the entrance.

Sadly, this seemed to be the limit of the initiative as I was then confronted by a human wall consisting of 4 sales staff in a line, each chatting to each other and apparently oblivious to my presence.

This was a store that appeared to know what was needed but was supremely bad at delivering it. Displays were messy and in desperate need of a spring clean. In one corner I noticed a seating area with charging points for phones, presumably there to increase dwell time in the store. A good idea in theory, although the floor was grubby and the chairs looked like they’d seen better days. There were no magazines or other literature for me to read and the idea of any refreshments being available seemed a forlorn hope.

ShopperTrak says – It’s crucial that retailers look at labour allocation in order to strike a happy balance between the number of customers entering the store and the availability of staff on hand to greet and serve. Shopper traffic data provides retailers with their truest measurement of sales opportunity, which is key to effectively scheduling labour. By scheduling the appropriate amount of employees and the best sales staff with the hours of greatest opportunity, it is possible to turn labour from an expense into a strategic sales tool. This includes including identifying when there is too many staff on the shop floor. During our visit, staff far outweighed customers.

I made a hasty exit past the still self absorbed sales staff and headed for store number 3.

Open For Business

On first appearance, my final mobile phone store looked like it was going to be a bit of a wash out. Visual merchandising was pretty weak with a painfully sparse window display seemingly based on an odd cardboard box theme.

break-time-coffeeOnce inside, however, it was a completely different story – an effective layout with lots of opportunities to interact with products and plenty of customers being attended to on a one to one basis. There seemed to be a high number of staff and no one appeared to be kept waiting – a great result! The displays were clear and informative and would have kept me amused for a fair while even if there was a short delay in service.

I noticed there was a downstairs area so I headed off to investigate, finding a similar seating area to the one in the previous store. But that’s where the similarity ended. The execution of the idea here was far more accomplished. There were the same plug in stations for your phone or laptop, but the area was clean with a designer look sofa, plenty of literature to read a tea and coffee station, water cooler and even a well stocked fruit bowl! It looked like a place you could have stayed for lunch, although you might eventually have to buy something for the sake of appearances!

The final touch was the availability of meeting rooms adjacent to the seating area. Not something I’ve ever seen in a store before, but somehow it seemed to fit with the general ethos. It had a real ‘open for business’ feel and I’m sure this area could generate spin-off sales of their technology products. Something other similar stores could learn from.

ShopperTrak says – The break-out area was a real nod to the ‘retailtainment’ trend, going beyond just selling to shoppers, to entertain , and inspire them by providing the best possible shopping experience. In this case, the lounge was the perfect opportunity to say, ‘come on in, stay a while’. By encouraging shoppers to spend longer in the store, retailers increase the likelihood of shoppers making a purchase.

However, the measure of a good window display cannot be underestimated., if potential clients do not feel the pull to come into the there is no amount of entertainment inside the store that will help drive new sales, Being aware of pass by traffic peaks and having attractive window displays can really boost draw rates and as a consequence new sales.

This more positive experience marked the end of my survey of the mobile operators. Overall they seemed a mixed bag. Some good ideas in terms of design and add-on services, but in a few cases this wasn’t backed up by staff with enough engagement for my liking. The other interesting aspect was the expansion into other categories which seems to be a common factor in many retail sectors these days. With the merger of Dixons and Carphone Warehouse still fresh in our minds I wonder how long we’ll continue to see mobile phone stores on the high street dedicated only to this one narrow aspect of technology.

In an attempt to answer that question, I’ll be taking a look at how the wider technology sector is faring in my next report in a few weeks time. So don’t touch that dial folks!  For more information on ShopperTrak’s full range of analytic services by click the link below.

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The Undercover Analyst – How Focussed is Fashion on the High Street?

main logo blueAs part of a new project in association with retail analytics experts ShopperTrak, I’m going to be looking at the retail landscape in areas around the UK and sharing some insights through regular blog posts. Taking a broad cross section of market sectors and visiting specific but unnamed stores, I’m going to be commenting on how they fare on certain operational areas identified by ShopperTrak as being key to a successful and customer responsive store. I’ll be looking for good and bad practices, innovative ideas and exemplars for all of us to either follow or avoid in our own businesses.

My starting point was my home town of Oxford where I looked at mid-range high-street fashion. I’ve run stores in Oxford myself for nearly 20 years so I’ve witnessed the evolution of the local commercial environment at first hand.  The central retail core in Oxford is not much larger than you’d find in any town centre high street and consists of three main shopping thoroughfares, two indoor shopping centres and a covered market catering almost exclusively for independents. The main shopping street is Cornmarket, where most of this survey was based. Around six major stores were visited each with large footprints and each selling quite similar products to a broad demographic of fashion conscious 18-35 year olds.

Same difference

910484_23238014The overriding impression across most of the mainstream stores was that they all bought their shopfits from the same generic contractors. With the exception of one store, well themed towards their target customers, store layouts were similar to the point of duplication. It may be the nature of the beast that there are only so many ways you can support a clothes hanger, but shop-fittings generally looked like they were ‘off the shelf’, even though I’d imagine they weren’t.

Considering the size of some of these companies and their large marketing spend, brand identification in some stores was not as strong as it should have been. You could have dropped me blindfolded into any one of these stores and I’d have had a hard time telling you which one I was in.

ShopperTrak says : Differentiation is key. Location-based analytics provide retailers with the tools they need to understand the customer profile better, especially how shoppers are moving around the shop floor. As Ian points out, many stores have similar layouts but this is often down to guess work rather than knowing exactly how customers are moving through the store. Understanding the customer journey improves the overall experience so retailers need to have an accurate view of what is happening in store to help them measure effectiveness and constantly make improvements. By doing this we may see an end to all stores looking the same.

SALE SALE SALE!

Some of this anonymity might have been down to the fact that it appeared to be the height of the summer sales in the hallowed city with the main shopping areas a sea of red and white signage.

These days it’s quite difficult to pick out more than 2 consecutive weeks when someone isn’t on sale. The necessity to strip window and internal displays down to the bare-bones during such promotions left no real indication of how attractive the window dressing would normally be. Window displays have somewhat fallen out of favour in recent years, dividing between the bog standard or the eye-popping retail theatre. Of course your window display is supposedly the thing that draws customers inside your store, so outside of sale periods it has to be an important consideration.

ShopperTrak says : Traffic patterns change over different periods – particularly so during a sale. Even though the store feels busier retailers need to be sure that their promotions are actually driving the maximum number of customers to make a purchase. By analysing draw rates, or the ability to bring people into the store, retailers can measure whether promotions and merchandising are helping to entice their fair share of shoppers over the threshold versus competitors. If the draw rate begins to fall it’s a sure sign that visual merchandising is not working as effectively as it should be.

Location, Location, Location!

Internal store layouts seemed to be quite ad hoc. Most large stores use pre-planned merchandising plans produced by head office but none of them seemed particularly well suited to traffic flow in store, neither did they look like they could be responsive to dead zones that were fairly evident. For example, retail environment guru Paco Underhill has identified the area around your main entrance as the ‘landing pad’. His suggestion was that nothing should be placed here as customers are usually looking further into the store to see where they were headed. That seemed pretty much the case in one store where a large gondola had been plonked right in the entrance-way – it was pretty much ignored by everyone coming through the door.

1215579_52407894The other obvious fail in my opinion was the tendency to place items that were in the sale at the back of the store. The intuitive logic is of course that this will draw customers further into the store, presumably wowing them with the non-promotional stock on the way. Personal experience combined with this particular visit tell me that this strategy is far too simplistic. Most customers looked straight to the rear of the store and bypassed everything else on their quest to get to the cheaper goodies. There may have been a method in this apparent madness. Keeping the sales hysteria at the back of the shop along with the associated mess and mis-matched merchandise may be a good move in some cases. Also I guess there’s a chance that customers may give the full priced stock another look on the way out after perhaps finding nothing in the sale to their liking.

In these days of eye-watering rent and rates, customer flow within a store is something that needs careful analysis. It’s really not something that can be left to gut instinct or rigidly pre-planned merchandising charts.

ShopperTrak says : Heat maps help retailers determine which areas customers are dwelling in and how long they spend there. This is crucial when analysing the effectiveness of merchandising and product placement. It also enables stores to re-invigorate quieter zones or analyse changes to determine the optimum store layout. On a micro-level retailers can examine conversion rates within specific areas of the store to gain a deeper level of insight into overall performance.

Customer experience

The general customer experience in all but one of the stores visited was pretty good. Stock displays were generally well maintained, apart from one rather tired looking mannequin that personally I’d have pensioned off years ago.

One of the more mainstream stores was a fairly recent opening so had the benefit of newer merchandising displays. This certainly gave a fresher look which was enhanced by the large airy feel of the store. They also had a good layout of stock with accessories and handbags at the front where they can be easily browsed and selected ‘on the hoof’, with items such as shoes at the rear where more time and interaction with staff would be required. However here, as with all the stores visited, staff engagement with customers was nigh on non-existent. Perhaps the labour intensive nature of the display floor meant that sales adviser’s saw maintenance of displays as a higher property than talking to customers.

Personally I’ve always trained my staff to aim at somewhere between intrusive and attentive. Many of the stores I visited could have benefited from tasking particular members of their sales teams with approaching customers on a one to one basis. There’s an obvious ethos with many of these stores that it’s self-service and customers only receive service when they ask for it. But these shops are semi-aspirational in design, they’re not supermarkets. They’re selling desirable fashion, not tins of sweetcorn. In that environment there’s nothing worse than leaving customers with the impression that interaction is bottom of the service remit.

827556_46291532In general though customer service was OK. We saw one person leave a pay point empty while a customer waited patiently, which wasn’t great, but as it was our fault for sending them on the hunt for a different size of a T-shirt that might be an unfair observation. It’s a dilemma for any sales adviser when there’s only one of you but two people who need your help. Perhaps something that could be sorted with better planning of staffing patterns.

ShopperTrak says : Understanding how many people are coming in to the store and which areas they’re dwelling in is a crucial reflection of the overall customer experience. Increasing the average time that shoppers spend in store helps to drive both conversion rates and average transaction sizes. If they stay in the shop longer it means they’re having a better experience.

Retailers can use interior analytics to measure dwell times, looking at whether shoppers are spending the right amount of time in the right areas, how staff are engaging with customers, how well queues are being dealt with or how effectively promotions are working.

Messy but busy

Only one store had significant queues at the pay point and this was also the store with the most untidy shop floor. Perhaps an indication that tidy displays don’t necessarily mean better sales. Or maybe the trashed shop floor just shows how busy they were. However they seemed to be a victim of their own success with at least one case of abandonment being observed as customers tired of waiting to part with their hard earned cash. Again I suspect proper deployment of staff and maybe a re-think on merchandising strategy would help with problems like this.

ShopperTrak says : Retailers need to have an accurate view of their power hours – i.e. their peak selling times. Only by having insight into this can they plan accordingly. Any re-stocking or staff breaks should take place outside of these times in order to ensure the most effective shopper to assistant ratio. Put simply, the fewer the staff available in store during peak traffic times the worse the customer experience is going to be.

As a first outing it was an interesting exercise for me. There are obvious compromises between function and form and many competing demands on the time of the floor staff. But there were many obvious improvements that could be made, perhaps with the assistance of some location-based analytics, particularly in terms of customer flow data and staff movements.

Join me next time when I’ll be looking at how luxury brands fare.  In the meantime you can check out ShopperTrak’s full range of analytic services by clicking the link below.

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Retail Technology – Master or Servant?

Facetime-Video-Phone-1950sAs I approach 20 years as a high street retailer I think I may have reached that age when I look back through the Vaseline smeared lens of nostalgia to simpler times when summers were longer, life was sweeter, shops were called shops, rather than stores, and the only channels we talked about were the 4 we had on our 20 inch TVs.

In those barely remembered days, window shopping meant standing with your nose pressed to a plate glass shopfront rather than your Microsoft phone, Android was a morose character in the BBC version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and a web browser was someone who took rather than more than a healthy interest in arachnid architecture.

I’m not sure if it’s the change in the weather, the recent march of the souls of the undead on Halloween or simply the calm before the chaos of Christmas kicks in, but the last week or so has seen a marked increase in the proposal of ideas that will supposedly elevate the retail industry from these humble roots to previously undreamed of pantheons of technological supremacy.  Personally I’m not convinced.

Dynamic Pricing

Firstly we had Kingfisher’s Ian Cheshire and his predictions about dynamic pricing systems.  LCD shelf edge labels connected to a central computer will, he believes,  revolutionise the high street, allowing prices to be changed by the hour in response to demand, the presence of a particular customer demographic or even the proximity of a particular customer.

This was coincidentally backed up by a piece from Roy Horgan in the same edition of Retail Week Magazine, holding forth on pretty much the same hokum. I guess we can’t blame Roy, considering he works for a company that would likely be at the forefront of a roll-out of such technology, but as a retailer I’d have thought Ian Cheshire would have had more sense.

Comparing the day to day retail proposition with the pricing flexibility of an airline ticket or a hotel room is to miss the fundamental point by a nautical mile.  With the exception of some food uses, consumers are just as able to be flexible with their custom, so changing prices at particular times will only shift buying patterns.

To me this just sounds like the holy grail that RFID was held up to be some years ago.  Back then we were told that we’d have radio tags in everything from T-shirts to teabags but in didn’t happen.  Why?  Because ultimately the investment in the technology required didn’t justify the expense.  Sure, it would be great to be able to scan an entire shopping cart in one go, but if you need to ensure everything down to your last tin of beans has a tag on it that probably costs more than the contents, it’s never going to fly.

Click and Print Bling

Next we had the idea from Argos digital director Bertrand Bodson, that within 15 years we’d not have to worry about having our online purchases being shipped to us.  No more waiting for the delivery man or picking up that irritating ‘while you were out’ card.  No, according to Bodson we’ll all be furnishing ourselves with 3D printers where everything will appear like magic from within.

This was either a very transparent attempt at grabbing a few column inches during a slow news week, or Bertrand had been watching far too much Star Trek in his spare time.  He certainly didn’t seem to understand how 3D printing worked or what it’s limitations were.  The idea that anything other than the most simple products could be delivered in this way is plainly ludicrous.

handmade-jewelleryFor example, one of the products Argos will apparently be sending to us via this new channel will be jewellery.  As a jeweller myself I found this a heroically ill-conceived statement.  Presumably the idea is that we’ll all be sitting with a stack of gold or silver in our 3D printers, along with an equally dazzling collection of precious or semi-precious stones. Then, once we’ve ‘printed’ out all the components for the necklace of our dreams we’d only have to gain the knowledge of an experienced jeweller to polish them, finish them and then put the whole thing together.  That should take 2 or 3  years study on a good jewellery making course, plus the access to a small workshop, but that’s got to be better than waiting from the completed article to come through the letterbox right?

Why Fi?

Broadly this idea that technology will be the answer to all our problems seems to be taking hold across the industry.  A major plank of the recently published review by Bill Grimsey and his team suggested that one of the key innovations that will save the high street from ultimate demise is a wireless network that will apparently have customers prowling the streets with their noses pressed to mobile devices informing them of offers in the stores in the locality.  Presumably this will be a far better option than just raising their heads and looking in the shop windows.  I don’t dispute that Wi-Fi provision will play an important role in any future community area, but the idea of bombarding shoppers with local offers and adverts via a mobile device has been tried before without much success.  Perhaps it’s an idea who’s time will come, but the practical aspects of armies of people tapping palm pads rather than simply wandering about the shops seems to me at odds with what I understand as normal human behaviour.

Google Glass

google-glass-the-jerkProponents of Google glass have similar aspirations, with digital commerce solutions provider Venda recently publishing a report entitled “Wearable Technology: The High Street’s Secret Weapon?”.  Again the idea seems to be that wearing a clunky bit of face furniture with it’s origins in the 1970s children’s TV show Joe 90, will give you far more insight into available offers and promotions than simply looking at a sign next to the product.

I can appreciate blue sky thinking as much as the next person.  I know many of these seemingly unworkable ideas need to be thrown into the ring to allow them to be torn into digestible pieces that at some point may help to construct the next must-have innovation.

I’m by no means a technophobe either.  I’ve been working with computers since 1973 when the processing power we now take for granted in a microwave oven would have needed two huge rooms to house it, along with team of technicians on 24 hour call to periodically hit things with hammers.

I’m an early adopter of most new tech.  My company has had a website since 1995, and I designed and programmed from scratch the EPOS system than has run our inventory control and customer interfaces for the past 20 years, after finding a dearth of such software in 1994.

The good old days?

greengrocers1945So this isn’t a lament for the ‘good old days’ when ruddy faced greengrocers weighed out veg by eye and knew every customer for a 5 mile radius (although that was a golden era I can almost remember).  No, I fully understand that as modern retailers we all need to get our heads round at least some of this newspeak.  But my fear is that as ever more of these technologies are heralded as the answer to engaging an increasingly jaded consumerate, are we not also in danger of confusing the humble shopper as much as ourselves with an overload of ineradicable data and jargon?

It seems like every day there’s another start-up company or new think-tank that re-invents the retail wheel with yet another concept or strategy.  From the plethora of competing payment methods to new ways of presenting products in store.  When in essence the people we’re all selling to haven’t really changed from those we served before all these clever bells and whistles started dazzling us with their white hot potential.  More often than not I think we’re witnessing the birth of technologies for their own sake.  Answers looking for a questions and solutions looking for a problem.

Blind Alley

In practical terms it’s likely the very people that will be embracing these technologies, the young, may be the very demographic that in the future will have much less disposable income with which to buy all the stuff we throw at them.  If that’s true, I’d say we’re in danger of disappearing up a very dark and potentially rather empty alley in the not too distant future.  At the end of it we may see nothing more than our own hubris blinking back at us.

So let’s not forget the basic tenets of retailing as we launch headlong into this technological Valhalla.  The old aphorisms of customer service and personal interaction are often trotted out at this point in these discussions, and I’m afraid I’m not going to be any more original than that.  But in the final analysis I still maintain that we should only use technology if it enhances those two most basic functions of the humble shopkeep rather than seeking to find replacements for them.

Air_Conditioned_Shoes_Crazy_Inventions-s650x595-337964-580New technologies do of course offer fantastic opportunities, but ultimately we still need to be good retailers with all the same skills and motivations that were needed by that greengrocer back in the 1960s.  New ideas are of course exciting and innovation is always needed to keep our industry moving forward.  But I think we need to be certain that we’re responding to customer aspirations rather than confusing them with unwanted information, interaction or propositions.

Technology has brought us as much pointless gimmickry as it has opportunity, and as someone much cleverer than me once said, just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should.   We should driving innovation, rather than being driven by it.