Is service the key differentiator that will determine the success of the high street?

The last few weeks have seen a flurry of sales results including growth, decline, profit warnings and the launch of new formats. Many talk of convenience being key and that we define our choice and knowledge from online sources and that shops (on and offline) are transaction hubs only or, as is my view, brand ‘oxygen’ where consumers connect with product and people. We are social beings who associate with values and emotions – the best communicant of this is often another person.

Below is a case study of one of our team, Neel Pattni, going through the buying process of a young modern man – what they look for and most importantly why and where they buy. There are lessons for all retailers, large and small.

Thank you Neel for sharing this.

“In my household we seem to go through an endless supply of small electrical appliances. Usually its the iron which needs replacing on a regular basis.  This month I had the displeasure of having to replace both iron and vacuum.  Therefore I was prepared for a fairly sizable bill.  However, I wanted to be reassured that my hard earned cash is buying me the best product.

I’ll start with the iron.  From my research, Argos was the most competitive on price. Since my last visit, I noticed that the local Argos store has been re-fitted to the new Digital format.  What is a digital format store?  Mention this to my grandmother and she would be spooked to think of shops with hologram store assistants.  In reality, there is no real difference. The trusty Argos catalogue I thumbed as a child looking for birthday and Christmas presents is now condensed into an iPad.  No more pencils to write down a code and take to the counter.  You just fill your iPad with purchases, save the basket and go to a payment machine.  I must say the process is incredibly fast and simple.

But what happens when you need expert advice on a product, out of 50 odd irons, how does anyone choose?  Although price is important, I preferred to know what is “the best” iron out there. My only source was to read user reviews on the iPad’s product listing.    But how can you trust reviews from people you do not know.  Their opinion would be subjective.  So really it was a stab in the dark purchase.

So lets move onto the vacuum cleaner (Ed – notice he has not said hoover!), after my post Argos experience.  I decided to carry out more in-depth research on this, particularly as the leading brand is price at £300+.  After hours of researching, I went to John Lewis and had a look at the range.  The store had items which I had not researched and did not stock a couple of those which I had researched.  Back to square one.

Within 3 minutes, I am approached by a store assistant and within 5 minutes I had been introduced to a product expert. After a further 10 minutes, I made my purchase and felt incredibly satisfied with my purchase.

Was this a sales person providing a similar subjective review to those I read on the Argos iPads or was this genuine product expertise?  Who knows. The point I am trying to make is both stores offered the product there and then.  However, one store was essentially acting as an online retailer whereas the other store offered a personal touch with educated staff.

Over the last year we have seen independent retailers open at a faster rate than multiples, if we apply the same product knowledge and service I found in John Lewis, we can see why.”

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