High street retailers are riding the digital wave but I can't see much innovation

Many of the UK’s top high street brands have been calling in their first quarter results with many CEOs trumpeting their digital merits but I can’t help but think more is needed for them to call themselves truly innovative.

Ronan Shields

Without wishing to finger specific parties, I’m going to cite Argos and (the as yet non-digital) Morrisons as specific examples, purely because they’ve been in the news recently. There are many other parties I could mention.

Earlier this week Marketing Week performed a brand audit on Argos based on the fact that its posted its first sales lift in five years during its most recent quarterly earnings call.

Using YouGov’s BrandIndex ratings it was clear that its brand reputation seems to be recovering after it was revealed that its “digital retail leader” strategy would involve the closure, or removal at least, of more than 70 stores.

According to the statistics, perceptions of the brand plummeted in the immediate aftermath but have now recovered to the levels previously enjoyed and the bottom line shows Argos decision to increase investment in digital is paying dividends.

All of this is to be lauded, but can we say Argos is truly digital or innovative? I think not.

True, it has invested in multi-channel and facilitates behaviours such as order online for delivery and even click and collect. However, in this day and age, these things are just what people come to expect. Put simply, the above is just a hygiene factor.

Personally speaking, I’d elevate Argos to the status of ‘innovator’ if they had 3D printers that can replicate items according to a specific person’s preferences, etc, etc. Or possibly a service that can make recommendations in-store to a consumer’s mobile device based on their browsing history while at home.

True, such items would require massive investment but if Argos’ managing director John Walden is to achieve the aim of luring more affluent shoppers through its doors - both literally and metaphorically - then true innovation is needed.

As I mentioned above, Argos is not the only high street retailer people are quick to label as ‘innovative’ (when in actual fact they’re only just catching up). In my opinion this also means expectations for Morrisons’ eventual e-commerce push must surely be high.

I would say Morrisons is prime to benefit from second-mover advantage but we’re firmly into the ‘tweenies’ now and its lack of a transactional website must now be considered more of an embarrassment than a mere disadvantage.

However, that’s not to say it cannot turn its fortunes around when its planned partnership with online grocery firm Ocado bears fruit - this is expected to happen in 2014. But the pairing will have to enter the market with a spectacular offering if Morrisons doesn’t want it to be met with anything beyond a ‘meh’.

For all my opining, that’s not to say there’s no innovation out there. Marks & Spencer and Tesco have both led the way with their interactive ‘endless shopping aisle’ installations which let users browse goods virtually while in-store. All this is the kind of innovation I want to see more of.

But in the mean time, let’s not mistake basic services for innovation.

Readers' comments (3)

  • Watch out guys, Google Shopping is about to take of in a big way and change the face of the high street forever.

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  • I tend to agree with you that the high street is very slow on the uptake. UNIQLO did an exceptional "pop up" digital activation campaign around its Heat Tech innovation. There are many upscale brands that have made interesting in-store digital actions (McQueen, Audi, Burberry...), but department stores and high street shops on th whole continue to lag. I've House of Fraser trying to be more cross-channel as well.

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  • Ronan, I couldn't agree more. There is a huge variation between high-street operations, with many lacking the basics (e.g. mobile optimised sites). Even where there are pockets of innovation, they are often no more than shiny toy PR stunts, with no real impact on the shopper journey or reach beyond a flagship store or the tech savvy few.

    There is a huge opportunity to tie together e-commerce platforms with bricks and mortar visits (and not just click and collect). The overlap between the internet and the real world is currently owned by the customer not the retailer (think showrooming).

    The leap from multi-channel basics to a meaningful omni-channel approach requires not just specialist digital expertise and a user-centric vision, but also for traditional businesses to re-think the very notion of what a high-street shop is there to do in a connected, post-amazon, always-on world.

    The role of customer devices, in-store screens and wifi all need to be considered, as well as how to create single customer views; guide and shape new cross-channel journeys and manage close integration between product, place and people.

    None of this is possible if online and offline business units compete against each other, or a customer visit (through whatever channel) is viewed in isolation and judged on basket/till value alone.

    The innovation required also means that once the basics are fixed, retailers are going to have to go through a rapid phase of test and learn to see how their particular business processes and customer journeys are best re-shaped. Agile, reactive and quick to market services are needed. Not the most obvious tools to find in traditional retail set-ups, but absolutely required by those that want to win the omni-channel challenge.

    Simon - @heavyairs

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