Customised thinking: retailers need every channel covered

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The single customer view. Every retailer wants to know its customers, but in a world of dizzying and growing multichannel complexity, how is this done?

The answer to the question is different across the board. For an ecommerce startup, a single customer view might be relatively easy to achieve on one level, while for an established high-street store that also sells to customers direct online, the rules of the game will be different again.

In short, every retail business model presents a variation on the theme of the customer view. So let’s explore with a few retailers what the challenge looks like to them in practice.


JML is a retailer that specialises in selling consumer products using innovative film marketing – both in-store and online.

Today it boasts an annual turnover of £100m and sells products in more than 70 countries, all via a business model that sees it source new-concept products to promote through a combination of TV advertising and in-store screen-led promotions.

“Our operations are quite complex, but a customer doesn’t care whether as a business we have different units or services delivering our offer,” says Jai Whiting, head of digital and ecommerce at JML.

It’s a powerful tool for developing leads, nurturing contacts, tracking sales and delivering actionable data, but we need to get it tuned just right for our set-up.

“There’s still an expectation, though, from customers. If someone has bought from us on the high street, in one of our concessions, if they then go online to buy they probably expect us to join the dots and to hold information on them.”

Yet if that’s the expectation, it’s still hard to achieve in practice. Merchandising systems may now be built to support that kind of multichannel approach, but the reality for a business like JML – and many others – is messier. It sells through concession stands in stores like Asda and many other high-street giants, which makes data collection harder than it might be. It has also recently been forced to shut many of its unprofitable international operations and to focus instead far more on exporting from the UK rather than running overseas subsidiaries.

“These are big changes and challenges, but they aren’t uncommon in retail,” says Whiting. “Pivoting and adapting is what retailers do.”

Microsoft Dynamics project

To this end, JML is now running an ambitious customer relationship management project using Microsoft Dynamics 365 that it hopes will unlock new insights and a better customer view.

“It’s a powerful tool for developing leads, nurturing contacts, tracking sales and delivering actionable data, but we need to get it tuned just right for our set-up.”

The company’s headline ambition, which Whiting is explicit about his work needing to deliver, is to double sales over the next three years despite the recent international rethink. “The focus of the operation is now shifting to an international distribution model while we develop retail, online and digital operations – and the CRM project sits at the heart of that ambition.

“Yes, it’s ambitious but there is so much we can learn and act on if we get things right. For us, it is often about tracking the impact on sales of our different activities, and learning what works. For example, our TV activity will routinely drive our online traffic, and particularly mobile. We see that spike in traffic, but then it’s a question of understanding how to improve conversion once we have a would-be customer’s interest.”

It’s a simple concept but it is hard for many retailers to deliver.

JML’s situation is a particular challenge, says Whiting, because its customers have an older profile and are less inclined than many other demographics to buy on a mobile phone.

“It’s all part of the buying cycle, however. Just because our conversion is lower on a phone compared with a desktop or a tablet doesn’t mean we aren’t getting closer to a sale – and a relationship. Yes, we want to close the loop and see a completed purchase, but anything we can do to improve pick-up and interest is a step forward. That’s the focus of some of our work.”

Online choices

Part of the challenge for any retailer operating online is that every customer has choices and can compare options before making a purchase.

“That’s an opportunity, too, of course, but we always understand we aren’t the only game in town. A customer may look at a product in-store and then go away and look around online. They may look to buy on Amazon, for example, particularly if they have an Amazon Prime account in place guaranteeing next-day delivery. There are lots of actions they might take.”

Once you interrogate the data you can see buying patterns.

The focus for JML in its CRM work is to give itself a wide view of the customer through every point where there is an interaction.

“It’s a simple concept but it is hard for many retailers to deliver. Many businesses have siloed P&L operations internally and just can’t easily break that mould. While we have lots of distinct operations, we are working to understand how they interact and deliver for us.

“You could say it is about being grown-up. Rather than insisting that we know our routes to market, we know we have to be customer-centric in our thinking and acknowledge that traditional models for making a sale are changing. Those that don’t change course, like BHS didn’t, risk irrelevance and failure, and we understand that,” says Whiting.

Big data

So what can the data tell a business like JML? What is it looking to learn and act on?

“Some of it is the classic stuff you might understand by big data,” says Whiting.

We want to take the knowledge a would-be customer might collect in-store and curate it for online engagement.

“Once you interrogate the data you can see buying patterns. Maybe some parts of the country buy particular product types more than others. Maybe we can respond to weather data to have the right offers playing on our TV shopping channel, and the right stuff in-store too. It’s that kind of opportunity. If you put out an email marketing campaign trying to sell garden products when it’s raining you are doomed to fail!”

There is an element of trial and error in some actions the business will take, says Whiting, but the point is to benchmark against your own performance and drive improvement.

“We aren’t trying to be perfect: we are just working hard to improve and to keep improving. And there are always opportunities to grow because we have a global customer base and a global audience now.”

Becoming a publisher

The other piece of the puzzle for JML and others is content.

“Digital content is a huge play. We have our videos, of course, which is our USP in many respects, but you can back that up and think like a digital publisher to really follow through.

“We want to take the knowledge a would-be customer might collect in-store and curate it for online engagement.”

Say a consumer wants a mop. The challenge is to provide just the right information to help the consumer make an informed choice – and complete a purchase.

The challenge is to keep evolving and to ensure we’ve got sufficient visibility and profile online to be found by those who share our particular sensibility and agenda.

“If there are lots of similar products to choose from you need to offer signposting. If they cannot find out what they need from you, they’ll look elsewhere,” says Whiting.

Mostly this kind of work is at the category level for now, rather than the product level, for JML, and it is as much about storytelling as about basic facts.

“We have a popular range of copper stone pans, for example,” says Whiting. “Some pans will suit one kind of context or lifestyle and some will suit another: one for family cooking, one for an amateur chef, for example. The point is to tell just the right stories to make the choice easy for the consumer.”

The mechanisms for telling such stories are changing too. It’s not just about simple messaging but about getting engagement in other ways, through quizzes or even bots to drill down into the detail.

“Think about how Buzzfeed quizzes work to get engagement and social sharing. If you can do something similar with a product you can go far. We’ve got live chat on our site now, helping us to interact with customers, but we could take things further with just the right automated or smart follow-up. It’s something we are working on.”

Small and smart

JML is quite a sophisticated independent retailer with real scale and resources. What about those at the other end of the spectrum, starting out with a simpler offer? How can they compete when it comes to personalisation and a single customer view?

Richard Barrell is the co-founder of the high-end travel accessories ecommerce offering Urbane Traveller. Its remit is simple: to curate and sell stylish, performance travel clothing and accessories in a market space that is, argues Barrell, awash with underperforming products.

“We started out in 2012, with a goal of finding answers to some of the problems we experienced when travelling,” says Barrell.

“We think we do that with the products we curate and deliver for our customers. But the challenge is to keep evolving and to ensure we’ve got sufficient visibility and profile online to be found by those who share our particular sensibility and agenda.”

That means ensuring that content is being found by the right online searches and it means, just as with JML, putting in the work to continue to identify the next wave of relevant products.

Our first assumptions were wide of the mark, clearly.

Barrell says: “Recommendation is a big area for us. To begin with, we relied on making our own picks and on the picks of our close-knit network of contacts, but you have to keep on with the journey after that, so we now rely on our growing customer base as a source of leads. We hear via our Facebook page and via Facebook messenger posts, and field many emails from customers too with suggestions for brands and products.”

Urbane Traveller’s brand index page is one way that the site enables customers to navigate to relevant products, with product-type categories and making picks by type of holiday being two more navigation routes.

For now, the proposition works and is delivering for customers in Urbane’s niche, but as things evolve Barrell sees the opportunity to incentivise users and customers to contribute to the long-term curation challenge.

“For Urban Traveller our product selection is key and the rest follows. If you get the products right you are delivering value that will drive growth and support customers. You still need to get everything else singing for the site to attract visitors and orders to be placed and fulfilled, but it is the picks that set us apart.”

Mobile engagement

Our third and final story around having a single customer view is a business that has begun to reinvent the selling of engagement rings.

At launch, in 2013, the business was called Rare Pink but in 2016 it rebranded as Taylor & Hart. It is still small today, with turnover under £2m and fewer than 20 staff, but it is making headway on its own terms, being resolutely aimed at those who want a personalised ring design.

Chief executive Nicolay Piriankov says it is this personalisation offer that primarily defines the business rather than its use of technology and the internet. But he also says that mobile has been key to unlocking the retailer’s opportunity.

“We started off thinking that mobile was relatively important but not stand-out crucial since we thought few individuals would use a phone to buy an engagement ring. But what we immediately found with our first-launch responsive website was that half of traffic was mobile. So we rebuilt the site to be mobile-first and to work that hard as our primary funnel for customer leads,” he says.

What lies behind T&H’s higher-than-expected mobile traffic, which now accounts for nearly two-thirds of all visits?

You aspire to start to have the conversation, of course, but we are never invasive with would-be customers. We offer lots of options to keep the conversation going, and find that works.

“Our first assumptions were wide of the mark, clearly,” says Piriankov. “Engagement rings are a high-value, considered purchase, and the point is that planning a bespoke ring is a long process and takes time. Mobile is perfect in this respect. It’s quite discreet to use, which is important for lots of reasons when investigating buying a ring. So the process starts on the phone very often, where lots of information can be collated and sometimes shared – and we can go from there.”

Piriankov also says T&H’s business model has changed with its reimagining of the role of mobile.

“Our customers spend a lot of time in the planning phase, and then often want reassurance as the time to purchase gets closer. So we have pivoted to reflect this, moving from a full ecommerce offer to mobile-as-lead-generation-tool. It looks and feels like ecommerce for those who want to buy online, but for a good many the final act will be a visit to our London showroom.”

Something else T&H learned through analytics from day one was that mobile is not only accounting for a huge volume of traffic but that the conversion rates from mobile browsers are better than from the desktop. (That’s the opposite finding to JML, with its particular customer base and products profile.)

“With the desktop site there are more distractions, perhaps,” says Piriankov. “But the phone lends itself to delivering a tighter process for the would-be customer. You can validate elements as you go along and deliver trust cues like features, reviews and rewards more seamlessly.”

Piriankov also emphasises how the work that goes into Taylor & Hart online is being driven by data and analytics.

“We are a niche outfit, but even with 15,000 unique visitors a month and a couple of thousand customers you get to do a lot with analytics. We do a/b testing and look at other small variations in our marketing mix to see what works. We’ve a large enough base of activity to get a feel for things even when the quantitative data isn’t quite delivering.”

Understand your customer

Piriankov says the business model for Taylor & Hart today is to meet its customers online at first but to then engage through platforms like Whatsapp and the showroom to really get to know them.

“You aspire to start to have the conversation, of course, but we are never invasive with would-be customers. We offer lots of options to keep the conversation going, and find that works.

“Only about a fifth go through the London showroom, in fact, so plenty of our customers get all the way through to a purchase without any real-world face-to-face. It’s important we understand every individual customer on whatever terms we can.”


About Christian Annesley


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