Rita Clifton explores how far a slow-changing attitude to the role of stores has damaged the sector

It makes me unhappy to say this, but a recent happy event reinforced the current ‘end of days’ feeling for parts of the retail sector. But also its opportunity for a bit of rebirth.

A lot of this is to do with the residual effect of the old ‘pop in’ culture in retail. This has got to ‘pop out’ if the sector is going to ‘pop up’. (You’re welcome.)

The glad tidings were that one of my daughters got married recently. A wedding is enthralling and exhausting, as anyone involved in one will tell you, and the dealings with various retailers reflect both ends of that spectrum.

“You could shoot a new series of Are You Being Served? there without having to do much”

Here are a few things I learned.

Fenwick. Doesn’t. Do. Online.

While the rest of the business world is grappling with AI, machine learning, data science and meaningful pivots, it’s still 1974 as far as this wonderful relic is concerned. You could shoot a new series of Are You Being Served? there without having to do much.

But it is wonderful. Wonderful and knowledgeable staff, complete with the fabulous Mr Tony (that’s what it says on his badge), perfect range of hats for all those special occasions and a restaurant where you can forget time, in a good way.

But I had to pop in for those lovely hats and accessories because, to my amazement, I could only read editorial on the Fenwick’s website. Not actually buy anything. I guess it speaks volumes about the specialised positioning (and my desperation) that I was prepared to do so. It was, honestly, a lovely experience.

Cattle prods

Less lovely was a follow-up call. I had also bought a bra on my visit (sorry for too much detail) and liked it so much that I called the store to order another.

Twenty minutes and two cards later, two poor (but nice and helpful) assistants were still wrestling with the payments system and asking me to spell out my address and details (for the fourth time).

Then came the immortal words “would you be able to pop in at all?” I was just about to give up the will to live when the machine finally worked.

Clearly, Fenwick is a bit of an extremist, but the ‘pop in’ syndrome (whether or not those actual words are used) has been a bane and brake on retail development.

It reeks of the old idea of the stores (not the shoppers) being the organising idea around which customers need to fit. It reeks of the briefs I used to see for retail marketing campaigns, which specified the “need to drive people into stores”.

Like cattle, presumably. It reeks of expecting people to have time on their hands, of being in denial about how far digital businesses of all kinds have transformed people’s expectations of businesses solving irritating multi- and micro-tasks from our lives.

So no, I might not want to ‘pop in’ when it can take ages and hassle to get to a store, when it may be out of stock of some of the things I might want versus the bottomless shelf of the internet.

“The wonderful irony of Amazon and other digital-origin businesses is many are busy buying retail spaces so they can show off their brand”

Even retailers that have tried to drag themselves into this century still seem to find it difficult to fully embrace what digital transformation needs.

For example, it’s still more difficult than it needs to be to send items back. Based on my recent wedding experience, you still have to dig to find clear and simple return instructions on so many retail sites.

And still a real emphasis on ‘popping in’ to stores to return/exchange stuff compared to the ease of sending it back. (More broadly, research suggests over 90% of shoppers are affected by returns policies in their purchasing decisions.)

It’s understandable that inverting a business is hard when you’re trying to keep running the business; you’ve got to make a reliable profit in the short term. And some consumers will still prefer to drop off or collect from physical and convenient, purpose-designed spaces.

But it’s also an attitude change. Even now, I remember when any idea for cafés/hangout spaces/experiences that wasn’t to do with packing every bit of sales space with products (with the measurement tyranny of profit per square metre) was greeted with disdain.

Moral of the story

That was Retail pre-Apple. Many of these retailers are now falling over themselves to provide such ‘experiences’ to be better magnets (not cattle prods) for customers. Physical spaces that act as supports and amplifiers to the business of serving customers, rather than the main things, with some digital channels grudgingly attached.

The wonderful irony of Amazon and other digital-origin businesses is many are busy buying retail spaces so they can show off their brand and acquire customers more effectively and efficiently. It’s becoming increasingly expensive to stand out in cyberspace.

The moral of this story?

Specialism. Great curation. Knowledgeable and happy staff. Lovely experiences. Blending physical and virtual. But everything genuinely wrapped around the customer, wherever and whenever they want to find you, at whatever time. Humans and machines together in perfect harmony. Not waiting forlornly in stores for the cattle to pop in again.