Earlier this month, Toys R Us and Maplin joined the high street graveyard, fulfilling a similarly morbid destiny to Woolworths and BHS. And perhaps stage one of more drama to follow, unless Mothercare and Debenhams pull their socks up.
It’s a bit of a national disaster, really — 3,000 jobs will likely disintegrate over the coming months, quickly in the wake of Maplin’s failed rescue bid.
We all think we know why — the internet is up, the high street is down. Large retailers are reducing their footprint; small shops thrive. Diversity, craft, choice and ‘the experience’ win.
And so all and sundry endlessly replay the same perspectives that have been in the mix for the last decade.
It’s clear retail needs to reinvent itself — but the way to stay cutting edge isn’t solved by digital in store, novelty kiosks, click and collect, or even (frankly) eCommerce.
An ailing brand promise
The high street presents more opportunity now than ever before. The issue here is less to do with the physical shopping experience, more with an ailing brand promise.
“With toys in their millions all under one roof”
Did anyone stop to think whether this brand slogan was actually relevant in the digital age?
Surely the experience should have centred around the memory kids are left with long after they leave the store, not the promise of unlimited choice. The latter is hardly a distinct promise in a world of Amazon.
We live in an era where once boisterous children remain silent and glued to iPads, sedated on the promise of their next dopamine hit; eCommerce and digital in-store should have been peripheral to the fundamental Toys R Us experience.
A world of opportunity
The business should have leveraged its vast square footage, perhaps looking at new ways to re organise toys in store — in a world of too much choice, could they have created groupings around personality or skills attributes that parents could better relate to? Could they have made more effort in inspiring children to engage all their senses? Could toys and activities have been better utilised as a means to a greater end; providing children with interaction and delight, and parents an opportunity to engage and educate?
Imagine a toy store centred around character attributes, personality types and moods; a place for nascent skills to be developed. A place of guilt-free parents (pleased in their turnkey solution to a wholesome day), with children free from technology — stimulated and better educated.
Could they have better understood the needs of weary parents who find the prospect of shopping with insatiable kids who want every latest gadget a daunting prospect. Indoor playgrounds and entertainment centres could be designed in a similar vein to the Ikea “Smalands” which allow parents to shop while their little ones are occupied by trained staff (while a new generation of flat pack brand ambassadors are born).
Toy R Us was uniquely positioned to ‘hold a space’ for parents and children to build relationships between each other. Instead they continued to add fuel to fire by offering a vast selection of options in a charmless environment.
Retailers cannot afford to stand still
John Lewis is about to show the world how a 150 year old retail institution can not only stay relevant but be a trailblazer.
As the department store opens its 50th retail space in Westfield, White City (a 230,000 sq ft and £600m shopping experience) it is promising to be the most futuristic of its stores with daily fashion talks, cookery masterclasses and a “Discovery Room” where customers can learn new skills such as how to perfectly light a room or to make a house a smart home.
Furthermore every member of the shop’s 500 staff have been trained by the National Theatre to help engage better with customers and provide world class customer service. As John Lewis managing director Paula Nickolds puts it, “the modern department store should be a place to shop, do and learn.”
Argos is another great lesson in evolution. A brand that once lacked any contemporary edge, has now become an award-winning multichannel retailer. With convenient digital hubspots in city centres, underground stations and 50 Sainsbury’s supermarkets, the retail giant has come a long way from soulless retail parks.
What retailers need to learn is that in an Amazonian world they will never be able to compete on price or choice. Brand experience is the key — understanding what you mean, and how that translates. Staying relevant doesn’t mean every touchpoint needs to be digitised. Far from it.
By Anant Sharma, CEO, Matter Of Form