In the latest in its series of in-depth retailer interviews with inspirational people delivering change instore, broadcaster and business journalist Declan Curry talks to Bridget Lea, O2 director of stores, online, multichannel and supply chain. In ‘The Interview’ for The Retail Exchange she recalls the journey so far for the business and looks ahead to what’s still in store for the fast-changing mobile phone retailing marketplace.
Declan Curry: You have a store of the future – you’ve been doing some thinking about what store design should look like. Tell us a bit about what you’ve got?
Bridget Lea: If you think about mobile phone retailing, it’s been quite traditional, functional and transactional, and what I wanted with the stores of the future was to turn the mobile phone stereotype on its head, creating spaces that were inspirational, beautifully designed, where shoppers really wanted to spend time and learn more about technology.
If you think of a traditional mobile phone store, it’s very much about the deal of the day, offers etc., and one brand looks very similar to another brand. Within our Store of the Future, we lead in with interesting technologies in what we call an ‘inspire zone’ to intrigue shoppers; an area where they can play, learn about new technology and interact with our gurus in store. Once they’re through that, they’re in what would be seen as more selling space. But, again, we’ve treated that area quite differently. Going back to the traditional mobile phone store, it was come in, transact and leave. These stores are more about, coming in, interacting with our people, learning more about connectedness, and hopefully being a little bit more inspired by technology.
DC: Some of the look and feel of the Store of the Future was inspired by the hospitality industry, and I thought that was remarkable because it’s sometimes difficult to admit that you’ve looked outside for inspiration; that you’ve learned from what other people do?
BL: I think it’s very important to look outside for inspiration. I don’t think the mobile sector is particularly inspiring. It was really important that we found a sector where we felt there were exciting things going on and we saw some very different behaviours in certain spaces and hotel lobbies. So that’s where we looked!
DC: What you’re describing here is the social side of retail – that’s it’s not just the transaction, you need that social engagement?
BL: Absolutely. That’s why we looked at hotels and hotel lobbies; the people that were doing it really well, and what it was it they were doing. In these stores, we serve free tea and coffee to people hot desking there, but we also use these as social spaces. Our people in the stores have sessions with older people to teach them about technology, we offer sessions with parents to teach them how to keep their kids safe online. They really are community hubs as well as more traditional stores.
DC: It’s a big gamble, because they still have to function as stores, there still has to be a transaction at some point; it can’t just be about the chit-chat, can it?
BL: I agree, and it’s very easy to design a beautiful space that is absolutely not commercial. It’s lots of fun to do that! But actually, it’s much more difficult to design a space that looks fantastic, that customers are inspired by and that is also commercial. The nice thing about these stores is that they do balance those two things, I believe, very well, and the commercial results would suggest that we’ve got that balance right.
DC: Looking at how the stores of the future have performed and how shoppers have reacted to them, what are the learnings that you’ve drawn from that and can you apply that across the rest of the chain?
BL: We didn’t roll these stores out immediately because we wanted to make sure that we could find a viable way of doing so. We’ve now got the concept to be very cost effective and are in a position where we are able to start that rollout, which we are very excited by. It is a big commitment, but it’s important that we keep moving the customer experience on. We look at other sectors as our competitors and I would like us to be the best retailer on the high street.
DC: You are a mix of stores that you own directly and franchise stores – is there an issue here of how to ensure that you have a consistent approach and a consistent look and feel across the whole chain?
Absolutely. It’s really important that we keep that consistency and that our customers don’t notice the difference between a franchise store and a company-owned store. We do that in a number of ways; we’ve got some fantastic, very committed franchisees; they truly believe in and support our vision, but we also have a very strong agreement as well. It’s made clear within a franchise agreement what standards we expect from our franchisees and we also have a field team that make sure these standards are adhered to.
DC: But you also have initiatives to encourage people to be excellent at what they do?
BL: We have a couple of different initiatives. Our visual excellence Love What You Do initiative is one. When I first joined the organisation from fashion, it was interesting to see that visual excellence and visual skills probably weren’t as important within the mobile retailing sector, and it was important for me to create a workforce of individuals that absolutely made sure that the visual appeal in the store was of the highest standard.
DC: What does the future of retail look like and feel like to you?
BL: I think stores will definitely be more experiential. There’ll be larger spaces with lots of experiences, where I can touch and feel the product, but can also interact with great individuals that understand the brand. I potentially will want to dwell more in those spaces, too. And I also want to be able to shop in store but maybe save my purchases and continue to look online later on. I think this whole multi-channel piece between shopping online and shopping in store will become a much more important factor in the future.
DC: So you are optimistic?
BL: I’m very optimistic. The high street is definitely not going to be dead. It will change, but I think the social aspect of shopping is probably going to become more and more important over the next few years.
Developed by Visual Thinking, O2’s ‘Love What You Do’ visual excellence tool – designed to improve retail store standards and consistency of the customer experience – recently picked up the Bronze award at the 2017 FMBE awards.
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