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Sunday Soundbite

What use are 2017 Christmas sales figures?

Chris Field
Chris Field

Some retailers had a good Christmas, some retailers had a bad Christmas, and some had a crap Christmas. So what have I learnt? Only what I already knew – that Christmas is unpredictable and that it is never as bad as everyone says it is going to be. Great, but now where am I?

I turn to the usual round of retail trends that we all use to inspire us, or to support a business case or tell where we are currently going wrong. Trouble is, please tell me how this year’s trends are any different from last year’s? They are more or less the same and they never really come true anyway. Or they are dead wrong; for instance, the growth in AI investment in 2017 never transpired. The vendors will no doubt be hoping that all the money they invested in marketing will come good this year.

But consider this. Many things have changed for the better; most retailers that are two or more years into their digital transformation have managed to improve their online offer, which we expect given how much budget got steered in that direction, to the stores’ detriment. They have also started to get better application and cost control by moving more and more systems to the cloud. And they have added at least some multi-channel elements into the store, chiefly Click and Collect and maybe some real-time stock checking.

Retail pain points are still causing pain

But after that, most retail outlets still look like they did 10 years ago. The POS system is still just that. iPads sit about offering most of the same look-up tools customers can get on their own phones; the queue is still as long as ever; and, the poor staff are now so overloaded with forms that the customer is just kept waiting. I naively thought Click and Collect at Currys meant just that; it doesn’t. Five staff and 45 minutes later, I still didn’t have my goods.

I don’t like to gripe, really, but, because I believe vendors are better at selling to retailers when they really understand their pain points, then let’s acknowledge that many of the pain points retailers have, they still have. And let’s also concede that the customer is not king, except that at least he can now return stuff without too much trouble. But that’s hardly the bright future of retailing we were all promised.

Christmas puts processes and procedures in the spotlight

Vendors need to investigate more, but then retailers need to be more honest as well about why store execution is often so poor, why staff are unmotivated, why service is more often delivered by accident than design, why so few staff are customer facing, why everything can go horribly wrong so quickly regardless of tight processes and procedures, and why so many consumers this Christmas chose to shop online rather than in store.

I believe in the store, but I don’t appreciate all the breathless bullshit I hear about how amazing the store of the future is going to be. Better to have an honest debate about what is really wrong, and work out what needs to be fixed.

Easier said than done. I know how much the operations director has on their plate and just how far up a steep incline they have to travel, whilst trying to at least maintain store profits. Christmas was no doubt a relief to some, but now the hard work begins. I’ve seen some of the schedules; it’s going to be a tough year.

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