'In Conversation with Huw Thomas'

Our ‘In conversation with Huw Thomas’ series is written by blogger Bethan Williams, alongside PMC. Based on conversations with our Managing Director, Huw Thomas. Bethan is an anthropology graduate turned dance teacher turned blogger and writer. This series takes snippets of the conversations between Huw and Bethan, where their interests and areas of knowledge overlap, and turn them into pieces which are relevant to retail and business in general.

There’s a viral video doing the rounds on social media. It follows a group of friends hanging out and interacting with one another as though they were on facebook.  They give each other thumbs ups over mundane activities. They stand around looking intently at each other’s meals. One woman appears throughout the video to give a running commentary on her new born baby’s mood swings. The immediate effect is pretty hilarious. How odd it is to see the cross over between the digital and ‘real’ worlds so literally presented. However, the more I think about it, the odder it becomes. The manner in which we present ourselves online is reminiscent but so vastly different to how we exist and communicate in the physical world. This stands for social media, of course, but the very nature of targeted advertising and online shopping means we exist, experientially, in a digital world of entirely our own creation. If you’ll excuse the pun, it’s a literal web of clicks and links and tweets, which build our individual online experiences. They are unique and personal.

In my previous ‘In Conversation’ piece, I looked at the nature of ethics in retail and how the world of business is shifting as we progress deeper into a globalised, digital age. The basic premise of the piece was an exploration of what it means to be a consumer in this shifting digital/physical environment. I’m going to continue with this theme over the next three articles. In this first piece I am looking at how the retail sector is beginning to bridge the gap between online and physical shopping; how retailers are starting to engage with the positives and negatives of each consumer experience. The following two blogs are going to explore what a consistent digital/high street shopping experience might look like and who we are, as consumers, in this Brave New World.

I’ve been researching ‘Omni-Channel Shopping’ (a shamelessly jargon-laden term for consistency of experience across different platforms) and the moves being made in the retail sector to bring together the benefits of online and in-store shopping. This involves negotiating issues of mobility, accessibility and stock control. It includes creating truly personalised systems in impersonal settings and maintaining loyalty from customers who have access to huge amounts of choice. With the progression of technology and the internet over previous decades, from a consumer perspective, information sectors have managed to close the gap really effectively. Newspapers and online news outlets provide much the same service. Physical sources of information, such as books and pamphlets, are available in the same format both on paper and online. The digital tools stand up to the needs of the sector. As Greg Satell at Digital Tonto eloquently puts it:

“The media universe has been completely transformed because it’s ideas, rather than technology, which drives capability now. In commerce, however, the process has just begun and we can expect the impact on how we buy and sell to be every bit as dramatic as how we read, watch and listen”

The possibilities for the development of technology to bridge this physical-digital divide are pretty exciting, but Huw is your expert there!

Now, I have no qualms with admitting that I am something of a Luddite when it comes to technology. Not in a ‘I have absolutely no idea how to use this’ kind of way, but more of a ‘yeah, but if I allow my iPhone access to my location I’m basically sacrificing ALL my hard won human rights, no?’... or something like that. I am, to all extents and purposes a nose ring and sandals kind of girl. However, I have found over the last few years that I have become more and more interwoven with the technology I use. Shopping online is really convenient and, however intrusive I might think it is, targeted online advertising is actually useful when I’m looking to purchase something. The boundaries between my online social presence and my online consumer presence are blurring, much like they do when physically walking down the high street or going on a social shopping trip. The challenge for the retail industry, I guess, is to harness and develop this blurring of boundaries.

One of the biggest challenges for the High Street in matching the online experience is providing a personalised service. Whenever we purchase something online we are given access to a huge database of information. This includes links to similar products, products other people have bought in conjunction with this or that, and things we’ve bought before. The system is set up to personalise our experience. Translating this into the High Street understandably brings problems. How does the shop recognise you? How do they get access to your purchase history? How do they train customer service staff to make appropriate offers? Furthermore, the challenges and possibilities vary hugely depending on the type of store. A luxury handbag brand will not approach the problem in the same way as a charity shop. The web is a great democratiser of experience but is this achievable in the real world?

Another great challenge in achieving a consistent experience is loyalty. Conversely to personalisation, this is much easier to achieve in-store than online. The combination of face-to-face interaction, more limited choice and tailored customer service makes, logically, for a customer who keeps coming back. Online shopping, and the likelihood of receiving similar product adverts or price comparisons, encourages consumers to opt for the cheaper product, or one with a shorter delivery time. Again, this is potentially different for luxury retailers, where owning a branded product carries more weight than getting a better price.

Clearly, there are huge challenges for the retail industry in terms of managing the pros and cons of digital vs. physical shopping and finding a way to bring them together. Finding a way to create a consistent, customer focused experience. My next ‘In Conversation’ post is going to explore and theorise about what this experience might look like. I’ll see you there!

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