This week was pretty hectic, but in the best way, because on top of doing lots of work for great clients like this I was also learning from others (essential in the Digital world) at an event I organised as part of the CIPR training calendar - “Blogging for Business” with some of my favourite bloggers: Lana Richardson, Gemma-Louise Bond and Brian John Spencer.
I would do a round-up of the event but Stephanie over at Digital DNA has already done an excellent job of that here if you want a read.
Instead, I thought I’d write about a great meeting that I had the following day with Keith Mitchell - Accessories/Gifts Buyer at Menary’s - a key name in Northern Irelands’ retail landscape for over 90 years!
Menary’s had been mentioned to me more than once in conversations with Irish bloggers about brands who utilise bloggers really well. I wanted to know more about how and why…
Local Business, Modern Tactics
The Lisburn outlet is exactly what you’d expect from a large, glittering department store in terms of product, but it feels almost corner shop-esque in terms of the warm welcome and genuine smiles you get from floor staff.
After a nosey around the designer handbags I had a great conversation with Keith about the history of the store as a family business. He explained the various locations and differing customer demographics which dictate the variety of offering across stores, as well as his keenness to move the brand forward in terms of digital, as they look to welcoming a new generation of families to grow with the company.
The Experience of Shopping
I spent many years working in retail myself, for big brands like Next and Barratts Shoes to high-end local retailers like Clockwork Orange, so I understand the importance of the customer service element to a shopping experience.
This is something that Menary’s is famous for and something I believe so many stores are losing sight of. Like a lot of people nowadays I work online and I shop online. But if I choose to pay through the nose for city centre car parking and actually take my body into your physical shop, I expect to be treated excellently. Or I will not give you my money.
Having worked online for a number of retailers I know that although digital strategy is important, it is primarily a tool for growing/maintaining awareness and retaining a relationship of loyalty and trust. It is rarely an effective sales tool and should be used more often as a customer service channel.
However, blogs are an important medium to reach the young digital consumer because bloggers are the influencers of citizen journalism that this generation trusts for advice and guidance.
Engaging Bloggers For Retail
Menary’s understands this and so they welcome bloggers sparingly, in a targeted way, and in the same personal vein that customers are treated (as seen here in their 2012 Benefit event on Avril’s blog).
They believe in looking after their staff who will, in turn, look after their customers (Richard Branson himself advocates this model of focus in business).
What local businesses need to remember, as Menary’s clearly do, is:
- Go where your customers are: if they are online, do make an effort to be there and make yourself relevant to them. However don’t do it if you haven’t got the resources to maintain it and don’t do it to the detriment of your existing customers - if you won’t check Twitter for my message, don’t be there at all. And if your Manageress also has to manage the Facebook page then I’ll think her rude if she’s face-first in the iPad as I approach the till…
- Retail remains experiential: unless you solely exist online, you don’t need to move your whole operation online if you have successfully sold locally for decades. Move profitable aspects (like wedding lists for example) online to make the service more efficient for customers, but there is still a lot to be said for the community feel and special experience of a sales assistant who remembers you from week to week or a personal shopper who helps you choose an outfit for a big occasion…
- Make friends and share your knowledge: retailers who pit themselves against competitors in a ruthless way tend to fall short when they need friends, especially in small places like Ireland. The High Street, now more than ever, needs to rally together to get people back on its cobbled streets and twinkly walkways. If you’re venturing online and feel unsure, ask your neighbours for advice, you will often find them willing to work collaboratively and share good and bad experiences…
- Don’t get caught up in the hype: we chatted a lot about this year’s “Black Friday” controversy and Keith explained Menary’s promotional strategy - this is one of the last paydays before Christmas. It’s also one of the last weekends to guarantee order deliveries by the 25th December. Offering good value and ensuring stock is not a marketing tactic, it’s good customer service. Ignore the hype and do what feels right for your customers…
- Accept you will never know it all: Menary’s has almost a century of experience in local retail, brand name trade and concession selling. Yet they still hold marketing feedback activities like focus groups, not just with regular customers but also with people who don’t shop with them. Retail is a lot like digital in that respect. The minute you think you’ve mastered it, the tide changes and you have to do things differently. Embracing change will ultimately bring success (from the company who changed it’s original name to one local customers had more affinity to - Menary’s!)
The Future Of The High Street
I’ve claimed to hate shopping for a long time (unusual, for a woman, I know) but its a common fatigue among people who have worked in retail. I do find online shopping an easier transactional exercise. But it is devoid of emotion. I don’t make a point of visiting the physical stores of brands I buy online. I have more of a relationship with my postman than I have with these brands.
I do, however, miss the experience of a day out shopping.
I miss the Saturday afternoons out with my family - that Keith and I both reminisced about - the browsing in stores, perhaps to find something specific or just for a look around, chatting to sales assistants, laughing at funny hats we try on, then staying on the High Street for coffee and tray bakes or even a pie and chips at a local cafe and relaxed chats about life.
As Belfast city slickers my parents always took us out of town for this experience - to places like Lisburn or Bangor - and it’s a tradition I see my generation still reaching for today as they all move out of the capital to these smaller cities and towns to start their own families.
A generation that grew up with digital is still pining for an authentic, local, family experience and it’s there for the taking for the modern retailer.
By all means use digital to tell them about your offering, but when they come, make their memories so real they can still touch and taste them years later, with fondness. And they will return to you time and again.
That and amazing products at great prices, of course. Like the new Guess purse I couldn’t resist buying!
Well, I have been good this year…