Why customer experience is a priority for the UK's leading eCommerce retailers

Earlier this month we ventured down to London town to meet up with the movers and shakers of the eCommerce world at this year's Internet Retailing Conference. It's a great opportunity to meet with other like minded eCommerce people and to keep an ear out for what the key national and global trends across the industry are.

This post is part of our eCommerce Success 2015 series.

As ever there are the usual big questions - everyone is always keen to know what the big brands are doing to edge forward in what is an ever competitive, but growing, segment of retail. Each year there are always some key themes and this year one of these is undoubtedly customer experience.

Retail is still detail

There are some basic rules of retail which are universal. So saying that customer experience is important does sound a little obvious, yet it's only when you examine online customer experience in detail that you realise that only a few brands are really making the grade. And there's money to be had in looking after your customers and providing them with the kind of experience that fosters loyalty at a time when they have more choice than ever before.

Expectations have changed

We heard from Peter Williams, previously of ASOS and now Chair of BooHoo.com, that the need to deliver an excellent customer experience is vital at a time when the customer has almost unlimited choice in the market. According to Peter, brands need to be really clear about their positioning and their USP, to tell their story and drive brand equity. 

He also described the real structural changes that he has witnessed in the retail market and how the pure-play online retailers have changed the game due to their rapid response times and lower overheads. This is putting additional pressure on traditional retailers, with their large store networks and overheads, to shift quickly and deliver an amazing customer experience, or face irrelevancy and closure. 

Big brands are adapting

For many, M&S is the iconic symbol of British retailing. They're established, respected and successful - but even they are not immune from the rapid changes that digital has placed on retailing. We heard from Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne, Member of the Board & Executive Director of Marketing & International. Patrick described that M&S is changing as a business, from a British high-street retailer with an online presence, to a modern omni-channel international retailer. They have absolutely acknowledged the shift in modern retailing and how quickly their start-ups rivals can innovate and deliver. 

For them, competitive advantage is all about excellent customer experience and they see data analysis as a key factor in this. In today's world where the customer has so much choice, being able to utilise data around customer preferences and buying habits, then present this to the customer in a valuable and meaningful way, is the way to drive higher annual revenues per customer. It's less about in-store versus online sales and more about total customer spend, recognising that customers will use digital and in-store as touchpoints to drive their buying behaviour.

Digital and in-store are converging more than ever. This is recognised by M&S at a structural level as they have now merged their digital and marketing teams. They're now as much a publisher as a retailer, creating large volumes of high quality and personalised content in order to inspire and connect with their customers.

Knowing your customer

Retailers have always talked about how important it is to know the customer. It's no longer enough to go on intuition though; leading retailers are using qualitative and quantitative research to really understand customer behaviour, then using this insight to personalise the shopping experience. 

As a customer, this means a better and more relevant shopping experience where homepages, category pages and product pages are dynamically customised to change according to the individual customer preferences. 

We heard from Dan Rubel, Group Strategy Director at Shop Direct. Dan talked about how the company, who's leading flagship brand is Very.co.uk, has had to consolidate and reinvent itself from a traditional catalogue and store-based company (Littlewoods) to a modern digital-only retailer. 

They underwent a massive programme of change, but what came out of this was a clear focus on who their ideal customer was and a real investment in digital analytics so they could completely understand what the customer needed and when, thereby delivering a more relevant and helpful experience. This helps their customers choose from the many thousands of products on offer and has been a central factor in their financial transformation from a loss-making business five years ago, to today where the business is now seeing 20% year on year growth.

Start with the customer

It's always amazing to hear the stories of big eCommerce brands, but what they do applies in many respects to smaller eCommerce businesses too. We're all out there looking to create value and to grow our revenues. Yet the need to be very clear about who our target customer is has never been greater. 

Competing on price is almost impossible, so unless you have your own brand you will need to add value in other ways. That's why the basics of good retailing are so fundamental online; creating a well designed store, excellent product range, good delivery options, great service and a seamless and easy user experience. Get these right and you're halfway there.

But it's no longer enough to do just this. You need to really analyse your customers, your competitors and your market - not just once a quarter, but all the time. Build regular time in to do this so you can stay ahead and give your customers what they need before someone else does. By striving to be the best, you'll gradually build the reputation that you deserve which will attract the brand loyalty and advocacy that creates a truly successful retail brand with longevity. 

The truth is that it's tough to do this - it takes time, effort, resource and energy, which explains why so few make it. Your retail brand may be small now, but think big. Invest in customer experience, the best technologies and impactful marketing and you'll create the environment of innovation and change that will make you really stand out and thrive. 

We'll be writing about some other key themes from the Internet Retailing Conference. Be sure to sign up to our email newsletter and follow us on Twitter to be first to read our next instalment.

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