Retail, rebooted
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Digital is more than online shopping

By Jenny Burns
CEO

I cut my teeth in retail at WH Smith. Back then, we launched one of the first online shops—its failure to fend off Amazon taught me what digital really means.

WH Smith was ahead of its time in launching an owned online shop. It had its own website, delivery team, operations and marketing—a visionary move for the time.

Fast forward to 2018 and WH Smith is no Amazon killer. M&S, House of Fraser, Maplin, Toys R Us—all have or had passable online retail sites. Online shopping is typically the scapegoat, but this oversimplifies both the problem and solution.

WH Smith’s web store was a distribution channel for a business that was losing touch with customers. A digital sticking plaster couldn’t turn the tide. Today’s retailers are in the same position.

Digital isn’t about online shopping—it’s about customers. Their expectations, needs, and the business processes that will help you anticipate and service those needs.

A business with serviceable e-commerce, but that doesn’t understand its customers, sells out-of-step products, offers clunky services and disjointed in-store experience is still heading for trouble.

A slick online shopping experience will satisfy some customers, sometimes. But how will you gain feedback? How will you serve their needs across devices, store experiences and messages? How will you revise products to keep pace with trends and lifestyles? How will you deliver experiences that add value to those products? How will you anticipate customers’ needs, before they arise? How will your brand build a customer relationship based on something other than convenience or price?

‘At retail conferences, nobody talks about customers.’

Philip Bier, UK Media Director
Flying Tiger, Copenhagen

Digital is an opportunity for retailers to organise around customers. Anticipating and serving their needs, working in ways that help them adapt. Prioritising this above optimised costs.

In stores, shoppers will witness this shift. Most stores’ current metric—sales per square foot—assumes that customers visit stores to find the item they need and buy it there and then. This results in stores crammed with merchandise.

But stores organised around customers will allow them to try, test, customise, measure, share, repair—jobs that physical retail and adept service are still best placed to deliver.

Digital means organising around customers’ needs, and adopting new ways of working. Online shopping is the tip of the iceberg. It points to a new era for retail.

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