As a design strategist at the Retail Week conference earlier this month, I was fearful of sitting through discussions around backend supply chain and logistics. So, it was hugely inspiring to hear retail heavyweights like Charlie Mayfield of John Lewis, Kris Engskov of Starbucks, Stewart Binnie of Aurora, and Ken Murphy of Boots all placing design and brand thinking centre stage.
The power of design for retailers in current times was championed again and again. As Mayfield of John Lewis spoke of ‘relationship and reputation’ being as important as sales and margin, he persuaded us that retailers who use creativity and design ‘will end up with distinct advantage’. I sat tight, resisting the urge to stand on my chair and cheer.
We heard about social media. Customers aren’t just shopping, they’re talking about shopping, more and more. There is a desire for belonging and association, and in this world Mayfield tells us ‘the power of having a strong brand has never been greater’. I suppressed a whoop.
So why is design so important?
A big challenge for design is to create a consistent customer experience across multiple channels – from store to web to mobile. The customer doesn’t care about industry buzzwords like ‘omni-channel’, they just want to shop the brand, wherever and whenever. Mobile is the one to crack right now, and it’s an interesting one for customer experience because, well, it’s mobile, and frequently used in store. Click and collect is proving popular too. As designers we need to be able to translate brand personality across different media, and seek out opportunities for playful and seamless integration.
A great shopping experience helps. But with online shopping, we’ve seen price comparison, and the reduction of products to commodities. In defence, we have the own-brand. Peter Ruis, buying and brand director at John Lewis Partnership believes in ‘beautiful products’ and a ‘culture of innovation’ in own-brand. It’s is an exciting area for design right now. Exclusive and own-brand products can reinforce a retailer’s brand values, and complement branded merchandise to provide choice. But most of all, they’re unique to the store. Capture a customer’s heart with a product and you form a much stronger bond with them as a retailer.
Most of all we were reminded of the importance of listening to and understanding the customer, rather than being driven by technology. Of course, text-book stuff. But it’s branding and design that creatively makes sense of that understanding, and turns it into something with real commercial clout. So perhaps it’s no wonder that retailers are looking to design right now to help them compete.
Emily Penny is brand planner at Together Design. Twitter @together_design