I think most people would agree that January can be quite a depressing month. What with diets, fitness drives, no alcohol (for some!)... And yet, a hardy bunch of souls turned out in a decidedly chilly Manchester for the first Digital Leaders North West meeting of 2015.
Our subject – digital retail: how can small retailers cope in a digital world?
Turns out that the lessons are completely applicable whichever sector you work in...
Small changes, big impact
First off we heard from Tom New of start-up business Formisimo. It was so refreshing to hear such straight forward talking about customer needs and perception. At the end of the day said Tom, "digital can really empower you if you get it right". Tom's business provides a service that examines usability on organisations' websites and where the problems lie. Online it's nearly always at the point of sale. This doesn't necessarily mean you need to go and change the whole layout and design of your site. Making small iterative changes can have a huge impact.
Developing skills and improving engagement
We then heard from Jill O’Rourke from retail giant Argos. What a great example of an organisation that is really getting things right in terms of customer and employee engagement – and digital inclusion.
The organisation decided it needed to change and become fit for purpose – it needed to become more digital in store. However through training needs analysis, it became apparent that around a third of staff struggled with basic digital skills. When they examined available statistics further they noted that generally in the population around 20% of people are just not online at all. They realised customers might need help too, which is when they developed their digital training sessions.
They made 10,000 tablets available and asked people to pay £20 for a 2 hour introductory training session. At the end of the session, they got to keep the tablet for free. Not only did this initiative generate huge goodwill with customers and develop their online skills, it also gave staff a great feeling too. The knock on effect was improved employee engagement and a new hunger to support the community. The staff suggestion scheme has encouraged lots more charitable ideas since.
Our final speaker, Cathy Parker from our host Manchester Metropolitan University, spoke about her research into the factors that affect town centre retail change. Her findings, based on 201 town centres showed that access is a key factor when it comes to how people shop.
The research profiled footfall in a range of locations, some of which showed no change in the pattern of footfall over the year and others which showed huge peaks going up to Christmas. Location analysis showed that out of town retail centres with easier access were taking business away from traditional town centres. With digital channels also coming into the equation, findings showed that retailers needed to make much smarter decisions, not just based on the vertical supply chain, but also considering the horizontal chain too.
It is also interesting that forecasts of footfall show a possible decrease by 10% in town centres by 2020 mainly due to retail parks, not the Internet as is sometimes thought to be the case.
What the customer wants...
With such rich input from our speakers, it's no surprise the discussion was fascinating and varied, so I've tried simply to capture our key themes and questions...
We should never assume we know what the customer wants. We should be trying to understand the customer and then using that as the hook to attract people online.
We should be supporting individuals who have a fear of the digital space and understanding how we can engage and encourage them.
We should be encouraging small businesses and supporting them to get online – this starts with helping them understand why getting online is good for them... Which of course all leads back to understanding customers again! If the customer is online, then you need to be there too.
Is there something we could do to support small businesses to get digital? Many don’t have the capacity or the time to step back and examine the way they work and how they could change. There were suggestions made around the idea of a digital toolkit for small business. Chair of the meeting, Kevin Harrington, of Results Through Digital, committed there and then to host some events for small business at the company’s Warrington offices to help mentor and inform them on their journey into the digital space. (More detail to follow, so watch this space, or follow us @DigitalNW.)
We considered social media use and how useful it can be if used in the right way. Tom New shared some great examples of how small businesses without a website have still been able to exploit digital tools. For example Almost Famous burgers that started in what was practically a cupboard in the north of Manchester and grew their business significantly through their following on Twitter. Likewise, Bertie and Jack, a market stall that has become extremely successful through its use of Facebook to display its prints.
The importance of an authentic voice when using social media – not using third parties or a corporate news stream, but genuinely opening up and showing personality can have a fantastic effect.
Finding your point of differentiation – what makes your business stand out?
Not just using digital to promote your business and sell at the front end, but the importance of using digital in your back office systems too, for example, for stock control and understanding what is selling and why.
Flexibility, choice and easy access for the customer – digital can enable this to happen.
To find out more about Digital Leaders North West and get involved, follow us @DigitalNW and join our Knowledge Hub group. We next meet on 19 February in Lancaster where we’ll be talking about the digital employee.