There’s more to high street retailing than distribution and if you don’t offer customer service you may not succeed.

“If you were holding this conference ten years ago you wouldn’t have had an electricals retailer on the stage [talking about customer service].” Hugh Harvey, managing director at Comet, pinpointed the change that has taken place in notions about what constitutes customer service, speaking as part of a panel at the Retail Week Conference this morning. Harvey said that being a retailer means understanding what shoppers need and that in the case of Comet this involves a degree of gentle advice: “The majority of our customers are not techies, so they want to be guided through the process of buying a high ticket item. The buzz for our staff is providing service, it’s as simple as that,” he said.

For Steve Lewis, CEO at Majestic Wine, a retailer that only employs graduates, customer service means staff training: “Your staff have to enjoy working in retail. A lot of staff in retail don’t actually enjoy working in the sector. As our customer base is an educated, affluent one, we need educated staff. If you pile your staff full of product knowledge, then their enthusiasm will be communicated to the customer,” he said. He cautioned however “you can’t do this on the cheap. It’s actually really expensive. Wine knowledge can be quite intimidating. Our staff try to make it not intimidating.”

Joseph Wan, CEO at Harvey Nichols, said that customer service means taking the shopper on a “journey” that has to be “rewarding and enjoyable” and that the only way to make this possible is through deep product knowledge.

Gary Topiol, managing director at Empathetica UK, summed up the mood however: “The in-store experience has to add value. It’s absolutely critical if you want to have a successful presence on the high street. [high street] Retail is not just about distribution because there are other, more efficient, ways of doing that.”