Karl at the VM & Display Awards 2012

Karl with Gemma Balmford of Retail Focus (and other celebrities)… 

VT’s Karl McKeever was a guest of Retail Focus magazine at the eighth VM and Display Awards 2012, to celebrate the year’s achievements in the best of visual merchandising at the Grand Connaught Rooms in London. Needless to say, it was a rather impressive event in the world of retail. Big winners on the night included Topshop, Harvey Nichols and Bentalls.

Retail Focus: Bronze at best for London’s retail offer

So the Olympics are finally here, and I sincerely hope that not too many of London’s visitors have been as disappointed as I have with the standard of many of London’s stores.

Around the country, VM teams have been doing an admirable job – putting the gloss on for London’s big shining moment. But I don’t think the same could be said of the rest of the retail team in some stores that I have visited in the run up to and during The Games.

I’ll give you an example. In the café of one famous name store (not my style to name and shame as you know), I requested that a badly chipped and stained teapot be replaced. The assistant duly changed it (after giving me a derisory look), but then put the same chipped item back in to the service area for cleaning and another customer to use. In the same store the toilets were defective and two escalators were out of order too, giving me a fair old hunt for and eventual walk up the stairs. Service with a smile, I think not!

Sadly, this phenomenon does not appear restricted just to cracked crockery and leaking loos. Am I the only one to notice instances of defective decoration, crusty carpets and hazard tape being attached to anything from lifting lino to failing fixtures in London stores right now?

This is a time for raising the bar in retail delivery. For the most part, VM and marketing teams appear to ‘get it’, and are doing what they can to put their best foot forward to make stores more attractive, engaging and profitable.

However, successful brand delivery is about a shared responsibility, integrating all aspects of the customer experience to be the best it can be. As such, the retail operations and estates teams should also be raising their game to help deliver the best possible brand experience too. The Olympics should be a showcase of the best UK retail has to offer, not time to make do and mend, with essential maintenance and repair issues being overlooked.

I appreciate this must be one of the busiest of times for retailers, and especially those London stores who are expecting a big hike in shopper numbers. But along with inspirational VM and display installations, shouldn’t shoppers be expecting and experiencing great retail standards and operational effectiveness too?

Shoppers should insist on housekeeping that meets – no, exceeds – their expectations and service that doesn’t just deliver, but leaves them with a positive lasting impression. Frankly, there are retail managers that need to get out of their offices and onto the shop floor to take a good look at their stores, as this is their time to shine too.

It’s true there can be significant costs involved in getting (and keeping) stores up-to-speed, with their facilities and services working, maintained and in good repair. But as a major national retailer or major global brand, you simply can’t afford to let these things slide.

Whether your customers are visiting from Melbourne in Derbyshire or Melbourne, Australia, the question regarding these important matters should not be “can we afford to?” but “can we afford NOT to?”. With many retailers hard pressed, the decision of where and how to invest anything in their retail estates will not be taken lightly, but here thinking like a customer can help. Things should work, should not be broken or take forever to repair or replace if they do!

Great brand delivery is about delivering positive consumer engagement in all aspects of the shopping experience. Customers are savvy these days and not afraid to vote with their feet. Whilst they may struggle to articulate the finer points of when a store does not look its best, they will know, and often say, when the basics aren’t right. Over time, problems which persist or magnify will create doubt in the customer’s mind, causing them to question the brand price / value / service / quality equation. In the worst examples, this leads to a rapid downhill spiral of failing consumer confidence, lost revenue and an overall decline in brand performance.

Tesco has just woken up to this issue and is currently investing a billion pounds in its UK store estate to address a backlog of maintenance issues, a decline in store standards and to upgrade to its ageing stores to shore up customer perceptions and reverse a decline in sales.

At an international level, Chicago is leading the way with an impressive big picture example of civic ‘housekeeping’ projects. The Mayor is investing huge sums into local infrastucture and city services – improvements to highways, landscaping parks and gardens, cleaning rivers and investing in better public transport. Essentially, a programme that’s intended to make Chicago a better place to live, work, play and spend more money. But as well as creating local jobs and growth for businesses, the Mayor is trying to create a sense of ‘feel good’, to attract more city dwellers and visitors to ‘his’ city over any other American destination.

Great VM works by attracting consumers instore and makes products easy and enjoyable to buy. Marketing incentivises customers to spend, and effective retail operations should seal the deal with great customer service and facilities – it is where the brand promise is held firm.

So in my ‘Retail Olympics’ I’m awarding Gold to the creative teams who are winning the day. Marketing teams are awarded Silver for their sterling efforts with imaginative advertising and sales promotions to drive people instore, but it’s a disappointing ‘must try harder’ Bronze for retail support teams that failed to notice what it takes to take a brand cross the winning line.

Click here to read the original article.

Retail Focus: Is there truth in retail altruism?

I’ve been thinking a lot about altruism in retail this week. These thoughts were inspired by Treasure and Bond, the New York charity concept store of Nordstrom, which I visited when working near to Soho this month.

This is a small store in comparison to Nordstrom’s other stores, which sells men’s and women’s fashion brands, accessories and homewares. The philanthropic bit is that it donates all profit after cost to deserving local charities, making shopping there a feel good activity for Manhattan’s high-end consumers.

I am all for retailers giving something back, but what’s the motivation here? To be a new entrant in New York, retailers need to generate good will and quickly. Nordstrom is choosing to do good things for people and so it will attract the right kind of customers at the time when it’s also looking to launch a full Nordstrom department store in New York.

There is nothing wrong with this, it’s called corporate social responsibility (CSR). It’s about retailers making people see that they make the effort to help those in need, as well as making profits. There have always been charity stores – but the likes of Treasure and Bond are showing the maturity of this philosophy, weaving in community with beautiful brands and being seen as good citizens into the bargain.

So what’s the current motivation for good CSR? In the US and the UK retailers are finding themselves under pressure and looking for that illusive growth. We are seeing that established retailers are realigning their values as well as making pricing more desirable for customers. In times of austerity, overly ostentatious displays of wealth are not the done thing, with subtle points of understanding (price primarily) and a not small dose of compassion being more on trend in the current climate.

More and more people are addressing the altruism and thrift philosophy. You may remember my column on Birdcage, the make do and mend, trade in and thrift focused fashion store in Skipton? At the other end of the market, Pret is giving away the sandwiches it doesn’t sell to the homeless. Like with Treasure and Bond, indulgence at Pret is making way for charity.

Stores that continue to survive on our high streets are having to work harder just to stand still, and there are a whole group of people falling out of this environment as a result. They are on benefits, or struggling with the costs of fuel, food, bills etc. The seismic shift in the charity sector is no accident and retailers have had to follow suit by appearing cheaper whilst trying to look better, in terms of altruism as well as in store to stay competitive.

If brands like Nordstrom are to do altruism well though, shouldn’t they have a Treasure and Bond in every large city whey they have, or plan to have, a department store? This is not to be critical though, as every pound (or dollar) to charity is helping someone and it could be that Nordstrom intends to roll them out everywhere.

You don’t have to look far for this full-blown commitment to philanthropy in the UK. M&S’s commitment to the environment and its people, Plan A, is evident throughout every facet of its offer. And, at the other end of the CSR scale, Pret demonstrates total commitment by running its left over sandwiches scheme from ‘every’ store. Consistency is key in retail – even in CSR.

And, whilst major grocery and hardware retailers are berated for taking over towns and ‘destroying’ the butcher, baker and candlestick makers’ trades, their charitable acts are filling the gap to some extent that austerity cuts to councils have left. Let’s face it – the bill for the new scout hut roof is far more likely to be picked up by Waitrose these days, and Wilkos is certainly playing a huge role in the care of the elderly in the community, with its support for Age UK.

I suppose the jury is always going to be out on the real drivers for retailers’ CSR, but I have a challenge for the big players, which will enable them to really show their commitment. Given that small independents are most at threat by big retailers’ presence, some of their altruism funds should be ploughed back into the town centre schemes to support the independents.

As has always been stated, small shops are the lifeblood of any local community and its prosperity, and it would be a true test of commitment to give funds back to a community scheme that would help bolster big retailers’ competition. By giving a kick start to the small retailers, the big players would really be seen as good neighbours, after all charity begins at home!

Read the original article on the Retail Focus website here. 

Retail Focus: Supernatural

It must have been a quiet time for store designers, with the normally restless cycle of retail renewal being slowed by uncertainty in the world economy. Apart from a couple of high profile developments including Westfield Stratford, and a sprinkling of new concepts and overseas brand arrivals, there has been a sense of newness missing for some time.

As our high streets are being reshaped (or should I say downsized) before our eyes at an incredible pace, it’s hardly surprising that hard-pressed retailers have been nervous to invest in their store portfolio, and instead switching their focus to developing online strategies and extending the life of their existing stores. Also, recent comments from senior retailers about the inexorable decline of the British High Street are adding little to boost business or consumer confidence in this area.

As a result VM managers have enjoyed ‘more time in the sun’. Brands, that have diverted spending on store design have at least maintained, and in some cases increased budgets for, VM and marketing, to drive traffic and sales harder from their stores.

However, there comes a point when resuscitation of existing designs is simply not viable in shops, which have lost their appeal. Whether it’s to support a full scale brand re-positioning (Esprit) or just timely estate refurbishment (BHS) – a call to store designers seems inevitable.

What’s surprising about when this happens, is how ideas pop up from nowhere, take root and become trends, ultimately to the point where all stores look the same again!

Right now, I think the predominating design look is characterised by what I’m calling ‘Supernatural’. Essential to the look is a pared back, neutral, design aesthetic. With its roots in movements such as the Shakers, Environmentalists and the Minimalists, it’s fused a hint of restrained Danish style and eco chic. Key to the look is the use of light woods, a neutral colour palette and raw finishes which avoid the overly stark ‘white box’ or more recent faux luxury ‘glamorous’ concepts it replaces.

Muji pioneered this look, Cos was an early adopter for mainstream fashion, but now it’s popping up everywhere. You can see versions of it in brands as diverse as Mango, Esprit and J Crew, and globally for niche cosmetics brand Aesop. Prêt a Manger even has a derivative version in London’s West End.

Whilst, this is an aesthetic that I personally find appealing, like any good marketer, I leave my personal preferences at home when considering what’s right to fulfil the client’s brief. Intrinsically, it’s not the ‘look’ or which brand has used it last that matters, but the underlying motivations behind it and those that drive the brief. For me, understanding this better can be quite simply be like mining marketing gold.

Given the fragile state of the economy, nervous consumers and the fact that even amongst the rich there’s a new sensitivity of how wealth is perceived – it’s no wonder brands are trying reflect this new popular sentiment with subtler messages of modesty, quality and a sense of heritage. In short: a return to old-fashioned values, as if to reassure and convince consumers that these brands have empathy and are here to stay.

In these new stores, life (or the shopping experience) ‘feels’ a little easier and has a less intense pace. It’s no longer cool (if it ever was) to be seen as flashy, indulgent or associated with conspicuous consumption. Brands are playing it coy and collected, at least that’s what they want consumers to believe whatever the day-to-day trading realities.

This levelling effect on ‘the brief’ is in part financial (less money around), part social (unemployment) and part sympathetic (austerity).  Brands, however, must keep the tills ringing and take their share of what money is around.

Now even more than ever, it’s vital for brands to get close to the consumer, be flexible and adaptable and be light on their feet. Brand investment decisions must be right first time, and in solutions that will last. So for brands considering a timely move on, before starting to consider what happens at the check out, I suggest they check in with the consumer first.

They should get to know them better, find out about what’s happening in their lives, and at the same time, comprehensively review the sector and competitors in the marketplace. Research agencies exist for a reason, and in my experience they can provide valuable insight to help inform, shape and guide brand and retail solutions, in ways that even the best store designers can’t. It’s a service many of our clients have found invaluable from us too.

It’s easy, lazy and risky to simply call the designers and request ‘table d’hôte’. ‘House Style’ should not be regarded in the same way as House Salad, as it does not suit all tastes.

After the drought, shoppers will be not be served any better by a deluge of replica ‘me too’ retail interiors that deprive them of choice and variety and make those remaining high street stores and city centres all look the same.  The opportunity for stores to develop a new retail concept (whenever it comes) should be seen as the one time to go ‘a la carte’! Innovate, differentiate and aim to future proof the concept for further evolution over time.

This matters because choosy consumers will in future only enjoy shopping experiences in stores that offer them something better than online provides and a real point of difference. It’s how brands will maximise and grow their retail sales in a way that online shopping simply can’t match.

Store designers have a vested interest in getting brand retail strategy right and share responsibility for saving the future of our high streets too. So the next time clients turn up to dine, make sure to offer what’s new and original on the menu before serving lukewarm ‘soup du jour’.

Click here to see Karl’s pictures of ‘Supernatural’ visual merchandising on Visual Thinking’s Facebook page. 

Read the original article on the Retail Focus website here.