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EDITORIAL Pets at Home understands its shoppers, M&S less so

Shopping in-store is part of omni-channel

Pets at Home seems to have hit onthat thing that so many retailers – M&S included – currently crave: it has managed to create a strategy that is both omni-channel and which leverages the physical stores that it has.

M&S, like Debenhams and many others before it, seems to still be searching for what it takesto be, as M&S says it wants to be, “a digital-first retailer with a strong store presence”. In fact, that seems precisely what Pets at Home seems to have achieved.

So what makes one work and the other not? Of course, every retailer is very different and Pets at Home operates in a vertical that lends itself to being omni-channel: there are many things to look up and buy online, while at the same time there are many that you have to visit the store for. For M&S this distinction is becoming blurred.

In fact, the real root of the problem with retailers like M&S is that they often become focussed on how to be digital and physical in a tactical sense and lose sight of what it is that makes them stand out as retailers in the first place.

While M&S is now planning to close more stores, focus a bit more on food and meanwhile become a leading digital retailer, it seems to have lost sight of the fact that (a) lots of people do that already (probably more cheaply) and (b) what made M&S special in the first place was value, quality and great customer service and experience.

In the digital-first world, many of this inherently M&S-iness either aren’t important to customers or are freely available everywhere. I mean, M&S used to be famous for returns: now that is something that even Amazon makes simple (most of the time).

The thing is, M&S needs to look at how to embrace technology across all channels ASAP, but it also needs to find its USP in today’s market. As I have said before – and has been echoed by Sir Stuart Rose just last week– we aren’t facing a retail apocalypse, it’s just a period of very rapid change – change in how people shop and what they want from that experience.

What many of the fallen recognised was the need to meet the first of these challenges, but failed to do so within the vector of creating the second.

Pets at Home have looked closely at how people use its business and have created the means to deliver that. Bringing vets into the store; talks and presentations; better customer experience; working out how best online can augment that and vice versa.

And its results prove the point: they are up and, most impressively, its move to subscriptions services around food and vets – not to mention its VIP club – are booming. This is because it has created something people want. They get their TV from Netflix on a monthly basis; they get their news from similar sources. They can even get free next delivery from Asos by being a member. Of course it also works for pets.

This move – along with using in-store tech to free up staff from tills and so on so that they can spend more time helping and advising people – really marks the Pets at Home out. It taps into the way people now want to shop. Something sadly missing from M&S’ plans it would appear.

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