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INTERVIEW Angus Thirlwell of Hotel Chocolat on bridging the online imagination gap

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Physical stores should carry an extra element that online stores can’t deliver if a retailer is to be truly omnichannel, says Angus Thirlwell, chief executive and co-founder of Hotel Chocolat.

“The question we’ve asked when we were considering opening our first physical store: what is it we’re going to bring that we can’t already do with our online model?” he says. “That question remains very valid today.”

“If you can’t answer it very strongly as a retail brand, then you probably won’t be having successful retail stores in the future,” he adds.

Thirlwell puts the physical stores’ success down to the level of engaging experience it can offer to customers. Discussing the retailer’s ’chocolate lock-ins’ in-store events, in which a group of 10 guests take part in a 45-minute chocolate tasting experience, he points to a three-pronged strategy that has kept shoppers engaged from the beginning. “For us, we started by saying; we would be able to deliver instant gratification route to our chocolate recipes, we’re going to be serving hot chocolate drinks, and holding events and experiences in the evening in our stores,” he said. 

“We’re delighted to invest seven figures a year on giving out free chocolate. But, what it does is a great way for us highlighting the difference in the quality of chocolate compared to our competitors.”

While Hotel Chocolat, a Top50 retailer in IRUK research, focuses on capitalising on customers’ chocolate cravings, it also draws inspiration from retailers in other sectors. Exercise bicycle class specialist Peloton, for instance, “cleverly uses potential theatrics in their physical stores. What they are doing very skillfully is taking their £5,000 bikes into their pop-up spaces and demo-ing to get customers to sign up to their online subscription model.”

Selling physical product online 

Chocolate is a type of product that relies heavily on personal preference and taste. Naturally online stores can’t replicate the same advantage brick-and-mortar stores have in offering to taste, and even touch and feel their potential purchase. The retailer bridges the imagination gap shoppers might have when especially picking a gift for someone. “We have a team of full-time copywriters, which is quite unusual for a chocolate company. And that signifies the importance we attach to great copywriting. We also invest a lot in photography. The power of copywriting and seductive photography can overcome a lot of things.”

The retailer has recently undertaken two major projects to accelerate the uncertainty of buying a physical product online. “Last week, we  launched ’WHOOSH instant gifts by text’ to enable our customers to send one of the gifts by text to someone. Customers don’t have to look for recipients’ physical address anymore and wonder whether they will be at home at the time of delivery. It is seamlessly woven into the checkout process when you’re choosing the delivery, it gives you an option to send it by text instead.”

The second utility, ’gift finder,’ is designed to filter through a number of chocolate features to find a perfect choice for a customer. “We ask customers a set of questions to meet their best chocolate requirements. It is like having a personal shopper experience.” 

Hotel Chocolat is now working on developing a more deeper connection with its customer base via personalised experiences. ” It is something we have wanted to do for more than three years. And last month, we launched ’VIP me’, a loyalty programme initiative to reward our multichannel customers with things money can’t buy in return for their continuous custom.” 

Image courtesy: Hotel Chocolat

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