High street stores are having a tough time at the moment. Under pressure from on-line retailers, stores are almost permanently discounting prices, and at the same time closing or downscaling operations. This seems to be the new normal, and the high street may look very different in just a few years’ time.
So how do retailers adapt to this new environment and how do they attract new customers? There has been a lot of talk about ‘investing in the customer experience’. But what does that look like in reality? It goes beyond investing in better interiors or marketing offers. The one thing that the high street does have is its staff.
People buy from people, and so successful retailers are focusing on using well trained, well presented sales people to entice customers into the shops. By offering a personal shopping experience they are drawing customers away from their tablets and phones and giving them a more rounded experience. The key is to make shopping more personal – there is no smiling face to reassure you that you are making the right purchases in the impersonal on-line world.
One of the key ways to capitalise on the person to person relationship and reinforce a positive image is through the uniform that their customer facing staff wear. It isn’t just about branding, using logos and corporate colours, it is also about conveying the ‘feel’ of the brand – its aspirations and those of its customers. The overriding issue is the absolute necessity for brands to know who they are and what the aspirations of their customer profile is, not their actual profile.
M&S and Waitrose are two excellent examples of using the staff uniform as part of a new look for their stores.
Waitrose has shifted its focus to create a “market style” feel within stores, with restaurants which are open until late, fish, deli and bakery counters, all to entice customers to stay longer. Their uniforms are individually designed to suit these areas, with vintage style aprons and a bespoke range of clothing items that are interchangeable between day and night and across departments.
M&S separate out their offer between the food stores and the clothing departments. They have also invested in interiors to create a better customer experience, as well as a particular focus on employing and training older staff to make the whole shopping experience more attractive to loyal, long standing customers. Their uniforms reflect their status at the high end of food retail and like Waitrose they have a wide range of uniforms that are seen in-store. More importantly, they offer a good deal of choice for the wearer, all of which suit the age demographic of their staff.
Aldi and Lidl have a different business model. For them it is all about offering the best price and you sense that as soon as you step inside the store. Their uniforms are simple, look unisex and functional, adopting brightly coloured t-shirts and fleeces.
There has been a trend recently for organisations to adopt a flexible uniform policy, enabling staff to customise their look. While this works for young consumer brands such as Pret a Manger or Bare Minerals, it seems less successful for the likes of the Victoria & Albert Museum. The V&A has introduced a wide and varied choice of shapes, finishes and patterns for an overall ‘sportswear’ approach with a more relaxed look. While each attendant will choose how they want to project themselves, it would appear that in an effort to be “inclusive” they have missed the desire of the core visitor which is to dream, to learn, to be inspired and not to “feel at home” and think that you are back in the school playground.
Now more than ever brands have to take risks with their image if they are to attract a new and broader customer base. Some companies do it smartly, like NatWest. This high street bank has opened up their branch style and every employee is accessible, chatty, friendly and your new best friend, but they still wear formal clothing so you feel “safe”.
Jermyn Street Design is working with another high street bank with a similar approach to re-branding and has completely changed their store interiors to adapt to the way the younger generation approach banking. The new uniform reflects the relaxed individuality of each employee as they can choose from a large range but everything is designed in the bank’s two main brand colours. The essence of the brief was to put the customer at ease in the new, IT interactive areas of the new in-branch layout. Whether they are relaxing and drinking coffee or discussing their mortgage possibilities, the bank’s priority was to entice the customer in and help them find the information they need.
At the other end of the spectrum, but just as successful, is Camden market. ‘Sensible’ middle aged shop owners get tattoos and piercings, wear mohicans and bold coloured make-up, even though they grew out of it years ago and would never even consider these lifestyle choices if they were in a different job. But that’s why people from all over the world go to Camden Market; that is what it is about, that’s the uniform.
The casualty of the high street has as much to do with everyone selling the same thing, in the same way, not taking a lead, being undercut by on-line retailers. Mary Portas said the high street needs directional, innovative and nimble traders for it to work. The same rule applies to appealing to customers; it has to come with soul and a voice that is integrated into the very beating heart of the brand. Integrity and honesty, authenticity of purpose, that’s what works.
When Jermyn Street Design created a new uniform for Eurostar, it had an instant impact. The staff uniforms looked so expensive and dignified; they instantly appealed to the hurried commuter, reassuring them in that moment that they were “in the right place” when they clapped eyes on those suits, even if they themselves are wearing drop crotch jeans, a crumpled raincoat and a weary look!