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Retailers wake up to need for greater innovation

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No retailer wants to wind up being the next Jaeger or Austin Reed - once-loved retailers that stagnate and are then eclipsed by the competition.

So it’s encouraging to see department stores House of Fraser, Debenhams and John Lewis lining up for a head-to-head battle in reinvention, renovation and innovation as part of their quests to win the hearts (and wallets) of the evolving expectations of their shoppers.

Continual re-alignment, refocusing and review is part and parcel of retail strategy. Debenhams’ five-year plan, which was (partially) unveiled last week, means there are likely to be closures of existing stores as well as new store openings. Among many other factors, this to some extent reflects the constant ebb and flow of consumer shopping patterns, which mean brands need to deploy their efforts elsewhere.

However, all these retailers are now awakening to the role constant innovation plays in success. Debenhams has now outlined how it will increase the number of restaurants and its beauty offer as part of a 165-store renovation.

House of Fraser plans to include champagne bars and yoga studios to create a “lifestyle-led experience” as part of its five-year growth strategy.

Champagne Bar

Champagne bars - coming to a House of Fraser near you soon…

On the other hand, John Lewis wants to give shoppers “more of the John Lewis they love and probably a little bit of the John Lewis they haven’t even dreamt of yet”.

The key for all is understanding their customers better and offering something unexpected, time and time again.

Authentic experiences

Everyone understands that it’s not stuff but the experience that customers are looking for. It’s been talked about for some time now, but these customer-focused experiences need to be crafted for both the target audience and the brand.

Authenticity and provenance play a big part in brand empathy and decision-making for consumers. Savvy consumers will quickly see through a gimmick and that can erode their loyalty and trust of a brand. The experience needs to be believable and while originality is critical, just throwing the next new idea into the mix can be a risky move.

Curation illustration

The art of retail curation is key - Source: Sodavekt

Retail renovation is no longer a cosmetic fix. A simple redesign or redecoration isn’t enough for experience-hungry consumers. A strategic, co-ordinated and holistic (online and offline) approach must be taken that involves everything from service strategies and product storytelling to elements that evoke the senses and brand engagement.

So is there space for all three stores to succeed in a sector whose relevance has been questioned for some time? Hopefully they won’t all come up with the same experience proposition but instead create their own spaces and clear points of differentiation that allow their audiences to engage in new and meaningful ways. And how long will it be before Marks & Spencer throws its hat into the ring?

Owain Roberts, retail area practice leader, Gensler

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