High Streets Initiative · 9 April 2018

The one retail marketing strategy keeping M&S, New Look and House of Fraser in the black even when sales are down

Knowing your customers is absolutely vital for success for high street retailers
Knowing your customers is absolutely vital for success for high street retailers.

At a time when Britain’s biggest high street retailers are contemplating store closures and seeking rent reductions, new research reveals a quick and painless shortcut for businesses struggling to move forward.

The big secret? Know your customers.

Stalwarts such as House of Fraser, New Look and Marks & Spencer are among those undergoing shake-ups as they try to recover from disappointing sales. Marks & Spencer is considering closing up to 14 stores, New Look up to 60, and the House of Fraser has approached landlords for rent reductions after a poor showing at Christmas and Easter.

In fact, Easter weekend was billed as the biggest shopping event in Britain since Christmas, but the number of shoppers on UK high streets fell by 9.6 per cent on Good Friday compared with 2017. On Easter Sunday morning, footfall fell by over 12 per cent in the morning, and stayed low on Easter Monday, 13.9 per cent lower than 2017.

This according to retail analyst Springboard, which also suggests that bad weather in some parts of the country is to blame for the Easter sales slump. However, market research experts believe that retailers can offset this, and other unpredictable sales hiccups with a strong customer-first approach.

For most high street heavyweights, sales are down, both in-store and online, compared with the previous year. But it’s not all bad news for retailers.

Know your customers

Concentrating on delivering what the customer wants is going to be key to their forward planning – Marks & Spencer has restructured its marketing team and has appointed a data science company to enhance its understanding of customers holding loyalty cards.

Meanwhile New Look, amid speculation that its recent approach of offering edgier designs and raising prices had turned customers off, is “going back to basics”. In the words of newly-appointed executive chairman, Alistair George, it will ‘focus on ensuring that we buy into the right trends with the right product …. and provide customers with great value’.

“Knowing your customers is absolutely vital, whether you are running a corner shop or one of Britain’s best-loved high Street brands,” says Annita Small, MD of market research firm, Protel Fieldwork.

“Understanding your customers, finding out what they want, how their tastes are changing and how much they are prepared to pay, is at the heart of every business. You never want to lose sight of that maxim, simple though it sounds.”

Case-in-point: John Lewis

It is telling that John Lewis, a company which has always kept close to its customers, was one of the winners on the high street at Christmas, increasing gross sales in its 49 stores. Many other well-known names had quite the opposite experience. Small believes this comes down to John Lewis’ customers-first strategy, as old as the brand itself.

“John Lewis (does) a lot of market research. (It) engages with customers and (its) customer service is exceptional. If you return something, for example, they engage and question you about why you are returning it in some detail,” she says.

“(John Lewis) learns a lot from listening to customers and that’s where a lot of valuable insight can be gained.”

“What is right with a product? What is wrong with the product? What might you buy instead? It’s a hallmark of their interest in customers which extends throughout their business. In the current climate in which retailers are facing immense pressures, conducting good market research to truly understand your customers and potential customers is essential,” says Small.

More pointedly, John Lewis proves that the age-old mantra that customer is king still holds water.

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Praseeda Nair is the editorial director of Business Advice, and its sister publication for growing businesses, Real Business. She's an impassioned advocate for women in leadership, and likes to profile business owners, advisors and experts in the field of entrepreneurship and management.

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