Thursday 21st April is International Innovation and Creativity Day. As a career long retailer, I thought it would be worth reflecting on how well we embrace creativity within the customer experience we find on our high streets.
Pretty much all retailers that I speak to talk about the need to provide creative and unique customer experiences. However, the reality can be very underwhelming. Creativity is often seen as secondary to Commercial needs. Creative ideas get placed on secondary spaces – space freed up because the potential sales returns are too low to sell stuff. Our customers rapidly realise that these experiences are not engaging enough so retailers start to lose confidence and stick with the age old model of filling the floors with more and more merchandise.
Not every retailer struggles to bring creativity to the fore. In my 8 years at Selfridges I was part of a brand that is truly Reinventing Retail (ok, I’m biased!). We made sure that there was really no need to balance Creativity with Commercial needs. The model is simple – start with the idea, the thought provoking, the unique experience – give it the best space – then the commercial needs will look after themselves.
This very simple approach is to always start with, “What could an amazing customer experience be?” It goes back to the very origins of the Selfridges brand in 1909. When the Oxford Street store was first opened by Harry Gordon Selfridge, customers walked into a Beauty Hall on the Ground Floor. No other retailers were doing this, there was always a higher margin alternative to Beauty. The rationale behind this move was not to be contrary, rather it was borne from an understanding of how customers would react. In 1909 London’s streets had many horses and smelled pretty awful! Harry Selfridge wanted the customer to be immediately surrounded by beautiful aromas on entering… hence the innovative idea to put the Beauty Hall at the front. Sure enough, the commercial success followed and the word spread.
This confidence to put Creativity and Innovation first is at the heart of Selfridges. In the 18 months before the pandemic the Oxford Street store opened a 3 storey high restaurant with a huge flying horse designed by Damien Hirst as a centerpiece; a 3 screen luxury cinema and a skate board bowl on the new streetwear floor.
The skate bowl really epitomised the approach. The idea was to attract the coolest people into the store. So… put the skate bowl in the space overlooking Oxford Street, some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Don’t charge the skaters to come and use the space. The merchandise then has to fit in the space that remains.
I remember being asked if the Skaters actually spent money in the store. The answer was always “No, but the people that you should be looking at are the audience”. The Selfridges street wear floor soon became one of the coolest places to meet in London and so the investment in Creative First proved yet again to be the way forward.
Today the unwavering confidence of Selfridges to start with Innovation remains strong as ever. The current ‘Supermarket’ concept in the Oxford Street store shows this. Challenging customers to think of different ownership models and sustainable ways of shopping – including 3D printing, NFT owned artwork and meat alternatives – is a great example of provoking thought and showcasing technology. Once again, any customer looking for an exhibition wont struggle to find it. It’s on the ground floor on Oxford Street. The most expensive floor space with barely anything for a customer to buy. With the confidence to have the certain knowledge that great Customer Experience delivered with real commitment will actually lead to stronger commercial success.
So what’s next for retailers who want to really focus on unique and challenging experiences? As the pandemic subsides the winners will need to be bold. I think the answer has to be to bring true Creativity into the Digital as well as the Physical space. Too often websites are just seen as shops. They are not. They are your brand. The businesses that hold firm to the commitment to put Creativity first must now apply this in the Digital space. A customer experience that blends all social media, messaging, websites and stores. That will be the game changer.
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