We’re often bombarded with marketing speak talking about “local”, but it’s mostly just that, speak. Remember when HSBC used to refer to itself as the “The world’s local bank.”, it meant nothing more than operating in lots of different markets and countries. Local became more about geography than anything else. It joined the group of words, such as luxury, modern and sustainable, that get used all too often, but have become meaningless.
Trying to balance the idea of a much loved local, independent retailer and the scale of a larger chain is the dream of any contemporary brand or retailer. According to CACI Consulting Group’s ‘Location Dynamics” engine, 75% of the UK high streets have the same brand profile. They say “The concept of clone towns is well known, but we believe clone stores are the real issue.”
Left - Welcome to clone town - Can brands decentralise and empower its people on the ground to make decisions?
It’s boring and in a saturated market many cookie-cutter, anonymous chains are no longer appealing to consumers and as such we’re seeing those with too many stores close or reduce their footprint.
“In a market where consumers are seeking localisation and engage in brands that mirror their values it is essential that a store is part of the community in which it sits.” says Alex McCulloch and John Platt, Directors of CACI Consulting Group.
“Customers can buy generic product sold in a uniform way online, they seek out stores for the personal, curated, local and engagement. Brands that therefore dictate homogenous stock and store fit out regardless of the local customer will not deliver that experience and as a result fall away.” they say. “The brands that trust in their people on the ground, invest in them and empower them to know their shopper as well as supporting them with forensic data analysis on what sells, what doesn’t, which marketing worked etc are the ones that will succeed.”
“Data alone cannot fix the problem, but nor can people. Good brands leverage both. A great example of this is Waterstones, finding a similar one in the fashion sector is a challenge – typically independents lead the way here. One fashion brand that doesn’t shine in this area is M&S, which serve up the same store, stock and fit-out regardless of market, and have only just entrusted their store managers to know their own P&L; the antithesis of employee empowerment.”
The type of store finding it hardest to adjust to modern retail was, originally and ironically, the most localised. Nearly every town and city had their own individually named department store up until quite recently. It was only in the early 2000s that John Lewis, with the exception of Peter Jones and Knight & Lee, which is now closed, rebranded each store to the company umbrella name. Tyrrell & Green in Southampton, Bonds in Norwich, Trewins in Watford, Jessops in Nottingham, Bainbridge’s in Newcastle, Robert Sayle in Cambridge and Cole Brothers in Sheffield all disappeared. They were all recognisably John Lewis because of the store interiors and branding, but retained their historical monikers into the 21st century and the affection that each town would have for them.
DH Evans on Oxford Street was re-branded as House of Fraser in 2001 along with many other well known names such as Rackhams of Birmingham and Kendals of Manchester. (It will be interesting to watch House of Fraser’s next rebrand to Frasers in 2020, back to the original Glasgow store’s name, with a new store in Wolverhampton’s Mander Centre following the exit of Debenhams. “Frasers of Wolverhampton” could have quite the ring to it?)
Up until 2018 the Newcastle based department store chain, Fenwick, had individual buyers for its 9 department stores. In order to save costs they centralised their buying last year saying, ”Fenwick has today announced a proposal to modernise and reorganise the business, moving to a functionally led structure while retaining our local focus.
“These proposals are part of a broader strategy to modernise the business and to invest in both Fenwick’s multichannel offer – including IT upgrades and ecommerce – and its flagship Newcastle store.” Previously each store ran autonomously.
It is understandable the desire to have everything centralised under one name and buying team. It saves costs and doesn’t confuse the customer. It also makes more sense because of the internet and having one unified website, but it loses the personalisation and affection that people had for these brands and nobody wants to think that their town or city is the same as everywhere else. (In out-of-town shopping centres it doesn’t matter quite as much because their isn’t so much ownership of place).
Right - Do clone towns need a pop-up Banksy store like this one in Croydon?
This reblanding doesn’t take into account British idiosyncrasies or quirks and our love of personality. Many chain stores want bland boxes. The historical nature of the fabric of many of these older brands and their buildings have been looked at as a problem, money pit and not conducive to modern retail rather than embracing their uniqueness. It’s only poor and long term under investment that has let these retailers down. Liberty of London wouldn’t be the same if it was in another building. The building is the brand.
"There is a fear that localised = expensive. It doesn’t need to – you know a Waterstones when you go in it and the branding is universal, but each store manager has autonomy over the look and feel of the product, what is on promotion and maintains local charts etc.” says McCulloch and Platt, Directors of CACI Consulting Group.
"Chains need to trust that their staff on the ground can make decisions on how they sell and give them space to do so within the brand framework. Equally they should be able to use POS data, online sales data and customer data to inform the manager on which lines have worked, which initiatives drove sales and how to better them.”
Engaged employees make better employees especially if they are personally invested in decisions. It’s the opposite of automation and the robotic attitude to manual shop employees.
“By trusting in the people on the front line, educating them, training them and supporting them through data will you also likely see key staff retention increase because staff will be empowered in their roles.” says McCulloch and Platt.
Is the design of stores an issue here and how can design catch up with consumer behaviour? “I’m not sure design is at fault here, there are many truly innovative stores and spaces in the market. The issue is more typically underinvestment in stores and a homogenous approach to stores. A brand can tailor its social ads based on geography and consumer (a 20-year-old single male in London will get served a different ad. to a 28-year-old mother of two in Liverpool) but don’t consider the same approach and nuance with their stores.” says McCulloch and Platt.
Facebook has been putting ‘Beacons’ into stores to send consumers personalised ads and to track their movements. Retailers also need to work backwards from this and tailor the stores to the people who are frequenting them. They could find out this information from peoples’ Bluetooth being turned on and then change the buy of the store according to the breakdown of the consumers and visitors.
Obviously, not each and every store is identical. Stores are different in size and can accommodate different levels of ranges. Some chains specifier different product for different locations, but, it’s more a mindset and preconception that they’re all the same which is the main problem here. People want to be pleasantly surprised. “I’m-not-going-to-go-in-there-because-I-already-know-what-they-sell-and-I-can’t-be-bothered” is the modern attitude to many chain stores. The more individual or local they were perceived to be, the more often you’re likely to take a look. If you want anonymous and clinical you’ll shop online, it’s about pride of place.
Just as Boohoo shutters all Karen Millen and Coast stores and relaunches both exclusively online, it could be worth rethinking their strategy. We often think of physical retail going head-to-head with online. It’s one or t’other. The digital upstart appeared, grew quickly and is making the former, and in many cases painfully, contract as we head towards a new balance of consumer retail. But, before you decided to close all your stores in your retail network, there’s something you should know. Ninety per cent of all UK retail spend if influenced by a store and, according to research by CACI Consulting Group, across the UK, online sales are 106% higher within a store’s catchment area. Fashion, in particular, was 127% higher.
CACI Consulting Group provides solutions to make the best possible location planning and customer targeting decisions for brands and this UK wide survey was conducted with over 2,500 consumers across 20 different brands. They are calling it the ‘Halo Effect’ and it describes the uplift in online sales due to the presence of physical stores. “We know that stores facilitate showrooming and click & collect and we can quantify them as well, but what was less known until today is the uplift that stores have on what were considered ‘pure play online sales’ – or what we characterise as the ‘sit on the sofa with an iPad, get it delivered to your house or office shop’. These sales are twice as likely to take place within a store’s catchment than outside it – demonstrating the effect that physical stores have in driving online sales.” says CACI.
The catchment area is defined using drivetimes based on where 80% of customers who spent in store come from according to the survey data. The size of the catchments therefore varies by brand so, for example, John Lewis has a much larger catchment than a Boots.
“The presence of a physical store gives a customer the security of knowing that should something go wrong there is a store you can go to. In addition, seeing the store as they go to work and shopping puts the brand front of mind and builds trust with the shopper, and store led marketing in the catchment area reinforces the brand. All of these secondary effects drive online behaviours up. It is no coincidence that bar a few notable exceptions some of the biggest online brands also have national store networks: Argos, John Lewis, Next. This is also why Amazon are increasingly exploring what a network might look like.” says CACI.
Fashion, in particular, was noticeably higher at 127%, why is this? “We believe that fashion is higher because it is more of a discretionary purchase. This has two impacts – you are more likely to see it, consider it and then purchase later, at home (a subconscious showrooming) and you are also more likely to return it, particularly if you live within a store’s catchment. Therefore, being near a store triggers increased engagement.” says CACI.
For every £1 spent online outside a store’s catchment, £2.06 is spent online inside a store’s catchment. According to CACI, consumers still value a trip to the shops. Although frequency is down, average spend is up per visit and net promoter scores in shopping locations have increased by almost a third. Suggesting we’re more, rather than less, satisfied when we visit. “In this environment the role of the store can be far more nuanced. No longer a place that just shifts stuff, it is simultaneously a marketing hub, fulfilment centre, experiential destination and showroom.” says CACI.
Norfolk Natural Living's founder, Bella Middleton says, "The fact that online sales are 106% higher within a store's catchment is not a surprise. Nor should it be. It is evidence that the internet simply cannot replace the trust and community feel of visiting a physical retail store.
"At Norfolk Natural Living, we have a retail store in Holt, Norfolk, and a website selling our products internationally. Despite some incredible media coverage having grown awareness of our sustainable products internationally, we still see more orders from within the Norfolk area than any other region.
"To me, this is an opportunity for retailers to remember that the internet isn't everything. It is fast, convenient and comparatively easy to manage your business online, but people still cling onto that desire for trust and community. Even if they ultimately put their card details into a website rather than a card reader.” she says.
It appears that people also like local online. “As an online retailer based just outside of Sheffield when we have looked at our regional sales we found it really interesting the sheer volume of sales we have in counties close to home compared to further away and when our website shows us the locations our customers are from there is a spike in cities within a 35 mile radius.” says Lucy Arnold from Lucy Locket Loves, a women’s sportswear brand.
Could these kind of stats be the motivator to see pure play online retailers open physical stores? “We already are and the false distinction between on and offline will only blur further.” says CACI. "If you are a pure online retailer today, you only have 15% of the available spend in the market open to you because 85% of consumer spend touches a store. In addition, your competition online will often already have a store network and operate at a competitive advantage in marketing and brand awareness. In those circumstances why wouldn’t you go play in store?”
Is there any evidence where stores have closed and online sales have gone down? “Mothercare is the clearest one. As they embarked on a store closure program, they have seen online sales fall as well.” says CACI.
Is this information compelling enough to keep stores open is the real question? If rents and rates drop then stores will have a far brighter future and this type of online ‘Halo Effect’ will be another reason to keep stores open or be reopened. Having the shops in the right places to maximise this catchment area theory is key and reducing overlapping stores will be the obvious step for those with a larger retail network. It’s all about finding the perfect balance and looking at physical and online working together rather than against each other.