Retail in 2015 | A look at UK, EU and US

The last 5 months have allowed me the opportunity to look at how retailers across the EU, UK and US markets are applying digital. After working with a major, premium retail client in South Africa, the industry and the digital application within it have both become incredibly fascinating to me. Being in both the UK and EU during the Christmas period was extremely eye-opening. The result is tons of photos and a boatload of written observations over the last few months, which will hopefully be presented in a valuable way at the end of my tour.

Here is an quick teaser of some of the noteworthy observations of the last 5 months.

Stores designed for digital

Stores layout is being designed with digital in mind. It appears evident that stores are creating spaces to trigger digital interaction either through easily visible and accessible online kiosks pushing them to browse online, a mirror encouraging users to take selfies, video walls highlighted the latest catwalk shows, or even a virtual rail that holds the entire collection. Prominent floor space has been designated for permanent digital installations. M&S Netherlands has incorporated stylish touch screen order points that allow customers to browse the full catalogue and order for delivery to store or home. Renualt’s flagship store on the Champs-Elysees offers users a free photo-printing service to all users who Instagram selfies with the cars on display. Clothing stores like American Eagle Outfitters have shied away from using mannequins in their window displays and have instead, transformed their windows into video walls that project their latest ad campaigns, special offers and collections, or in Hollisters case, the beachfront.

Complete in-store Support

The integration of digital has been given centre stage and new store layouts have clearly been designed with this in mind. Digital kiosks are visible when walking into retailers like M&S, John Lewis and Macys. Instead of tucking hashtags in corners and printing web URL’s on the bottom of receipts, retailers like M&S have given them pride of place behind till points, on aisle ends, on lift banners and displayed in central points within the store. The presence of digital flows throughout their flagship stores and is highlighted wherever possible. The Mercedes Benz store on the Champs Elysees actively advertises their twitter handle on the store walls and encourages users to tweet about their experience be it good or bad.  Another UK supermarket chain asks users to tweet if they feel they’ve been in the queue too long – clearly they have the necessary social media staff structure to support this. Digital is in your face and you can’t fail to miss it – it’s not an afterthought.

Compelling motivations to shop online

M&S are not sending you online for content-based reasons such as recipes, competitions or great fashion tips, they’re pushing consumers online for product-based reasons. They’re using motivations in their copy that speak to greater range of product, greater availability of product and exclusive discounts online. Not only this but they’re also extolling the virtues of click and collect, the queue-less shopping experience and the ability to shop after-hours from the comfort of your couch. The real difference is that this message is not only being directed at the online consumer, via mailers and online banners, but is being targeted at the consumer who is still shopping traditionally, in the store. It’s clear they want to get consumers off the floor and shopping online.

Supermarket visits becoming a thing of the past

Speaking to several young professionals in New York and after spending time in the supermarkets, it’s apparent that US consumers are moving away from the traditional shop. They now order everything from kitty litter, to toothpaste online. Monthly shops are done from the comfort of the couch and actual supermarket visits only occur in the event of emergency situations where the milk has run out, or a winter storm is approaching. Going to the supermarket to do the monthly shop is fast becoming extinct. In New York practically every corner market has an online presence and offers free delivery on orders over a certain value.

Addressing the Delivery Issue

The delivery segment of the experience is a point which impacts customers the most, yet due to outsourcing, one which the brand tends to have the least control over. The Click and Collect method (explained later) is seeing massive adoption, but if you still prefer the traditional method, brands like  Sainsbury’s have gone some way to address this issue, by including an online calendar as part of the purchase flow; the calendar  allows a consumer to select both a time slot and date when the groceries can be delivered. This system is already superior to the 8 hour delivery window that most SA couriers promise.

Click and Collect > Delivery

This seems to gaining a lot of traction in both the states and the UK. Big retailers like M&S, as well as Waitrose and John Lewis all have dedicated areas in their stores for click and collect. Amazon has partnered with several locations to set up lockers and collection points where customers can collect their goods. It appears customers prefer to control the pick up, versus waiting on the mercy of the delivery driver. Again, delivery is the big stumbling block in the online shopping experience.

The rise of the new Cashier

Self-checkout is the big trend in Europe, the UK and the US. Instead of a cashier, the consumer now interacts with a machine that walks them through the entire checkout process from scanning, to bagging, to payment. The self-checkout machine is not only a luxury for supermarkets, it now even extends to pharmacies like CVS in the US. After a quick learning curve, the machine is easy-to-use and makes for a much faster checkout. Fashion and premium brands are yet to adopt this technology, if ever, as it’s fitting that they’d still like to control this aspect of the customer experience.

A Payment Console for Seamless Database Growth

When paying in the US and not using self-checkout, you’re more often than not interacting with an adapted iPad with guidance from the cashier. Brands are using this as a way to capture data and add additional purchases to your basket. A great example is where a US retail brand offered a 25% discount on the consumer’s basket for subscribing to the mailing list, another asked consumers to join their loyalty program and receive an immediate 20% off. Another had calculated the standard tip and asked if the consumer would like to add $3 to the bill for the waiter. While the loyalty programs are nothing new, they’re essentially just replacing the archaic “fill out a form” method, they are creating a more seamless way to increase the database.  This kind of payment console opens up a lot more possibilities for data capturing, loyalty and customer feedback.

Order Ahead

If you visit a fastfood chain in the US, you’re likely to see a seperate queue for Online Orders. It’s become increasingly popular for consumers to place an order whilst at home, or commuting on the subway and then collect it on their way home. The rationale behind this, is that it allows staff to focus on serving the product, removes friction caused by the payment process and of course reduces queuing time. In an effort to speed up service, Starbucks have released their mobile app that allows consumers to order ahead from their mobile

The Action Hashtag

Retailers in both the UK and US have moved away from branded hashtags and are making use of hashtags that are action-orientated. Waitrose led with #bakeitforward for their Christmas baking campaign that encourages consumers to spread the Christmas joy by baking treats for family and friends. Coke has recently launched #MakeitHappy as the vehicle for their campaign which encourages users to clamp down on negativity and trolling on the Internet and Revlon is using #LoveIsOn as the vehicle for their latest campaign. Window fronts are promoting a single hashtag versus social profiles and encouraging users to find the conversation in whatever medium they feel comfortable on.

We’re still not on top of Social Retail

There are a lot of half-hearted attempts at payment using social media interaction and despite all we’ve heard, I’ve yet to see a store dishing out free product for high ranking Klouters. Independent coffee brands have offered consumers free coffee in exchange for a tweet, fashion brands have awarded discounts for store checkins and McDonalds has incorporated it into their latest Give Lovin campaign. McDonalds is the largest national campaign across all the 3 markets that I’ve seen making use of this mechanic.

WIFI for everybody

UK ad US retailers have partnered with mobile operators in order to provide free WIFI to their consumers in exchange for a mobile number of an email address to help grow their database. Bluewater, a large shopping mall in Dartford has gone so far as to provide free, no-strings attached WIFI across their entire shopping centre.  It’s not just Starbucks that have the sacred phrase “WIFI here” stamped across their windows anymore, it’s now an advertised reason to eat at Chipotle, shop at Hackett or browse at Waterstones.


The last few months have been rewarding and an education in retail’s emerging approach to digital. I’ve enjoyed this personal study and am looking forward to what other details are going to emerge.  This post’s aim is to highlight several emerging trends, and hopefully it has been useful you. Maybe you learnt something new today :)

If you’ve got questions, or would like images, please don’t hesitate to get in touch: robs mjh (at) gmail (dot) com.


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