Monday, 5 November 2012

Digital technologies in retail: House of Fraser 'online concept store'


Retail is always keen to harness new technologies in order to sell more. While for some companies this just means an e-commerce branch of their real-world shop, the real cutting edge innovations are occurring where retailers try to combine the two.

Tesco made the headlines last year for it's innovative tube station virtual shop in Korea, where customers could scan images of products on a giant billboard using their smartphones and add them to an online shopping list. As well as being a media grabbing gimmick, the idea also appeals to the time-poor communter who wants to make use of the frustrating time spent waiting on the platform (although something gives me the impression that train services are pretty regular in Korea!).

Although we are clearly light-years behind this level of innovation in the uk - widespread wifi on the underground would be a start - there ars till some companies who are looking to merge the physical store with the virtual. House of Fraser has been steering its attention towards digital, yet professes no desire to reduce the number of stores. Instead they have opened two 'concept stores' with display-only merchandise and portals from which to browse and buy online.

Image Courtesy of Harpers Bazaar
So, I'm sure you're asking, why would you bother to go out to a 'shop' if you can do the same activity at home on your PJ's with a mug of tea or glass of wine? Harper's Bazaar answers this with:

Here’s why; the store has been designed around a hotel concierge experience, so help with a lost order, a late delivery or an unsuitable item will be instant – and personal.
If something doesn’t suit, get a refund there and then, if an order hasn’t arrived, the store will take care of it. Plus there’s a complimentary coffee bar, which of course you won’t get at home.
I'm not quite sure I understand what they're offering here. If my order (that I've already placed elsewhere) is lost, late or unsuitable, I want to talk to customer services, not go to a room full of computers. The same with a refund. Finally, if an item hasn't arrived I'm not sure how they will "take care of it" if they don't house any physical stock.

The coffee bar sounds nice I must admit, but other than that it seems House of Fraser have created a bizarre hybrid between a customer services desk and an internet café!

However if, rather than a place for online shopping, what does emerge is a dedicated team that understand online orders, can track them and resolve any issues, and be an in-person point of call for online customers needing help, then that's a really positive development. This is something frustratingly absent from ecommerce as a whole - the only options are an email address, a call centre, or a Twitter account that will direct you back to either of the above in a friendly tone of voice. This usually just leads to elongated miscommunications and an ongoing saga of order numbers and non-returned calls.

When online orders go wrong there is all manner of heartache trying to to sort them out, but I for one would be very happy to incorporate speaking to a specialist e-commerce adviser into my next trip to the High Street and maybe even be supplied with the product which was absent from in my late/lost/missing delivery. We seem to be getting closer to this, but for now it will remain wishful thinking...
  

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