Selling points

Orthodox retailing is under attack from the Internet. If you can buy goods with the click of a mouse on the Web, you’re less likely to sift through confusing point-of-sale communication to find what you want on the high street

Since the emergence of e-commerce, the traditional approach to selling to the consumer in-store has come under threat. The Internet has provided the consumer with access to a lot of product information at the touch of a button – instant communication which answers key questions immediately.

In response to this trend, innovative retailers are changing their point-of-sale design: it is beginning to develop more authority. If the retailer can answer some of the questions that customers are likely to ask at point-of-sale they can, in theory at least, start to compete with electronic commerce.

Nick Brown, head of graphics at Rodney Fitch & Company, says: “Ultimately, point-of-sale itself will emulate what is available on-line. As technology moves onwards, instead of going in-store and looking at point-of-sale which is flat and has no animation, the consumer will be looking at animated point-of-sale.

“Broadly speaking, point-of-sale is part of in-store graphics and in a more digital age in the future, I think that’s what people will be getting,” he adds.

Brown advises retailers to think about making changes sooner rather than later. “The people who start to look at those sorts of things now will be the ones who are really successful in the future; whether they are the retailers themselves or the people who provide the point-of-sale service is open to question.”

However, Glen Kinnersley, joint partner at Kinnersley Kent Design, makes the point that on-line shopping is still very much in its infancy: “The potential is boundless but at present it’s a glorified catalogue.”

The relationship between on-line shopping and point-of-sale graphics may not be immediately obvious, but it is one which will undoubtedly have considerable impact on the traditional shopping experience.

Yaron Meshoulam, head of strategy at 20/20 Design, thinks there is a decision-making process for consumers that retailers have to acknowledge. “The way retailers used to look at the shopping journey itself was to believe that the experience started the moment the consumer entered the shop. We say the time you can influence the customer is linear in reality. In the case of a supermarket, for instance, it begins at home when the fridge is empty, it’s an immediate trigger. It then runs through a series of ‘moments of truth’. There is a huge number of these moments for different kinds of customers.

“The biggest challenge for the retailers is: how do we manage those moments of truth in the customers’ shopping journey, how do we ask the right questions?” he asks.

Gap is one retailer which clearly understands this challenge. In its London Regent Street store the consumer in search of a pair of jeans will find the trousers laid out in a way that answers all the key questions they might ask. Goods are segmented – men and women, style, fabric, size, price. Graphics are prioritised in the same way – an editing process, if you like, which the retailer has done at point-of-sale.

“This is a perfect example of a retailer which is managing the shopping journey,” says Meshoulam, “and with Gap, because fit is such a key issue, they’ve looked at the fact that buying jeans involves more steps than buying a jacket or top. At Gap you go down the track and you are being communicated with at certain points of the journey – go into another jeans shop and you’ll see the chaos of just buying a pair of jeans.”

Gap doesn’t talk directly about its in-store design strategy. But it does point out that it believes e-commerce and traditional retailing can co-exist side-by-side. Web lounges have been introduced to eight Gap stores in the US, giving customers the opportunity to order merchandise via the Web within the store environment. The Web lounge at Gap’s New York Fifth Avenue store opened last November.

Kinnersley describes Gap’s in-store Web lounge concept as far-sighted. “By putting it in-store, Gap is familiarising people with the process, so that when they go home they can go to the Gap site. It’s really an exercise in trying to educate potential customers,” he says.

However, the process of editing the shopping journey for the consumer is not a new one. John Lewis, for example, is a traditional retailer which may not be design-led, but has understood this editing process for decades.

Meshoulam says: “There could be 500 kettles available to the UK consumer, but John Lewis edits and comes up with a range of kettles – from good, better to best, from £9.95 upwards. You can understand the rationale.”

Kinnersley agrees that all retailers are having to sharpen up the way they present their product. “Retail is fiercely competitive now. The days have long gone where cheap and nasty Day-Glo sales signs were going up in retail outlets.”

Kinnersley sites his consultancy’s work with out-of-town store Big W, which opened in Edinburgh earlier this year. “Here, the point-of-sale information we are giving out is very clear, well designed and gets the message across that it’s a value item. If you’ve got a good description on the price tagging and the point-of-sale, it helps inform the customer without relying on finding a member of staff.

“Basically, it all helps raise the standard of design, whether it’s point-of-sale or complete interiors: consumers are becoming a little bit more selective and are now capable of making a good judgement on product environment and how it’s presented,” he adds.

But design issues aside, the service aspect of consumer shopping is, at present, the real difference in the on-line versus in-store debate, according to Brown at Rodney Fitch. “Dixons is a good example of how staff are trained up on exactly what they’ve got in-store,” he says.

Martyn Bullock, principal partner at Redjacket, agrees the service aspect of retailing can never be underestimated. “I’d challenge anyone to say if there’s anything better than a person with the right knowledge actually selling the product.”

Bullock also points out that not everyone can handle all that information from an assistant. “There’s an argument that says too much information fogs the issue. Maybe for people with less confidence, e-commerce is better because they don’t have to communicate directly or they’re not being pressurised. It may well be that it sub-divides the customer base into those who like personal service and those who don’t.

“The Internet will work for various products. But equally it will be essential to visit a store for other items. It’s product specific,” he adds.

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