The last 20 years have been a time of incredible upheaval in the retail order. So with the recent announcement of a new chairman at retail design agency Fitch, I was curious to hear the perspective of an agency that’s spent four decades designing retail experiences for many of the world’s leading brands.
Tim Greenhalgh’s title is Chairman and Chief Creative Officer. Having someone with a creative background at the top of the organisation says a lot and, as Tim sees it, his role is fundamentally about fueling the culture of creativity within the business. One thing is clear: despite the uncertainty facing consumers and retailers, he’s still incredibly bullish on where the world’s going.
In Tim’s words:
“Figuring out retail isn’t easy; where do you pin the tail on the donkey? There are lots of consultancies but our job is to bring creativity to the business problem of our clients and some of the most interesting brands we meet have creative leadership in the C-suite.
Leaders and Laggards
“In the last 10 years the role of the physical store is completely different in terms of what it contributes to the business, regardless of what side you’re coming from, online to retail, wholesale to showroom. It’s changing at different rates and ways depending on where you sit.
“We’re now seeing shoppers at different points in the ‘consumer evolutionary’ journey, and so clients worry about different things depending on where they are. In the US it’s about building loyalty; in Europe it’s about finding the ‘new;’ and in developing markets, it’s about learning about and deploying ‘best in class’ thinking, but done their own way.
“Not surprisingly one of the things we hear retailers worrying most about is how to join multichannel up in a way that delivers value and satisfaction to their customers. For some they’ve got the added pressure of how to get to market as quickly and cheaply as possible. And everyone’s got the problem of how to stand out; how to know what ‘new’ needs to look like to equal success.
“Who leads? Grocery. The category has the benefit (or the curse!) of being both high involvement and high frequency. They’ve been working on issues related to convenience, local, and how to extend the shopping journey and basket into new areas. They’re a barometer of consumer confidence, and work to serve customers across formats; they lead in private label, and they’re servicing needs across a spectrum of product categories.
“Which category is still struggling? Automotive. Consider the value of the transaction, the complexity of the purchase, the inherent experiential nature of the product.”
As the interviewer when I heard this I was reminded of a story told to me by a University of Oxford business school professor who recounted the fact that BMW had hired the University’s business school to do a professional development program for 300 of their top executives. After reviewing their research, the only glaring flaw in their go-to-market strategy was in the showroom experience, and yet there was no one on the program with responsibility for showrooms. Tells you a lot about the way organizations still think of that critical moment of customer engagement.
Having said that, Tim went on to say, “No big-box stores are impressive – they’re still warehouses with products stacked on shelves: is there anything distinct in a Best Buy, a Carrefour? And most consumer electronics retailers do very little to bring the joy and excitement that’s already built-in to the products, to how they’re retailed. There are some great examples out there, think Ikea for big box; Selfridges as department store; Body Shop as boutique.
Retailing IS A Brand
“At one time cities like London used to be famous for the avante garde; Paris and Milan were known for luxury; the US for producing category killers. The Internet came along, democratized pricing and brand access, and cities are now overrun with fascias from retailers struggling to be relevant. Retailers need to work harder at creating brands for themselves – not just ad campaigns but legitimate experiences that add value to the customer experience.
“What shoppers want is ease and excitement in equal measure; most retailers are focusing on ease. People walk in wanting to be inspired beyond what’s on their shopping list, while at certain points in their journey they’ll compare and choose, and at others simply grab the brand they always purchase. As a retailer, if the category of products you support has the potential to move people in different ways, then designing your retail plan to support a more dynamic journey is a surefire way to increase basket values.
“Increasingly we’re seeing individuals across the table that fear creativity and experimentation – because it’s uncertain. They’re often tasked with delivering short-term results or being able to demonstrate how a dollar invested will guarantee a return, so they too often resort to what they know.
“Listen, clients aren’t alone – agencies are right there with them. There used to be a time when we could simply apply lipstick to the problem, but today the stakes are too high; we’ve made it difficult on ourselves by sometimes coming across as a bunch of artists working in a cottage industry rather than as business people. But times have changed, we’ve grown up to be more rigorous and the creative industry is now better than it’s ever been. We’re in this to a much deeper degree.
Creativity Is Key
“Our challenge is to be insightful in a game-changing way, not by simply replicating what we see or being too frivolous. The challenge clients need to address is how they balance the need to use creativity to drive forward and differentiate with what they’ll accept in the way of results.
“To serve clients well, the agency of the future needs to be far more collaborative. The answer can’t and won’t exist within our four walls, ‘one-stop shops’ are kidding themselves; for retail designers it’s a crucible of thinking versus drawing.
“If I could give one piece of advice to clients – from a creative person’s perspective – it would be this: see new things; the world is flat again. Find inspiration in places you wouldn’t normally look. Looking at a Japanese bank or a Brazilian jewellery shop may influence what you do in your grocery store. Look, read, listen to things you don’t do normally. All our clients are smart but they need to be more adventurous. And get better at saying, ‘maybe.’ “