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IRC 2016 KEYNOTES How do digital retailers and service providers best serve the needs of demanding customers?

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How do retailers and service providers operating in an omnichannel age best serve the needs of demanding customers? That was the question posed to keynote speakers opening InternetRetailing Conference (IRC 2016) today.

“Where we sell, they want us to be as slick and capable as the Amazons, as reliable and trustworthy as Boots – the demands of our customers are so, so high,” said Ian Jindal, editor-in-chief of InternetRetailing, who chaired the plenary session.

The theme of this year’s IRC conference is new horizons – and keynote speakers James McClure, general manager, UK & Ireland, of Airbnb, Tony Rivenell, chief digital officer of Halfords, and Andrew McLean, head of international and chief operating officer at Urban Outfitters, addressed the subject through the themes of marketplaces, mobile and international respectively.

In looking to those new horizons, all spoke of the culture and the core values that businesses embody as they work towards this future.

Airbnb’s James McClure said that Airbnb’s core values were written before the first employee joined the business, and included the importance of being a host, championing the mission, simplifying the business and embracing the culture. As the sharing economy business has expanded to 2,500 people, it’s become about, “how you take those principles and make them a bit more local”. He said that the culture of the London office was very different from that in the San Francisco office. Behind that lies a “licence to make that culture what you want of it. It’s a very local representation of who you are as people as well as who you work for.”

Underpinning the business as well is a “currency of trust, where a five-star review is as good as the word of a friend of a friend”. Comparing two hotel reviews, one of which gave four stars and rated the hotel’s facilities, while the other gave five stars and singled out the attitude of two named individuals, he said: “My theory is you can’t get above four our of five on features. You have to have an experience beyond that.”

Tony Rivenell of Halfords, who has previously worked at Ocado, Waitrose and Boots, said that over the last eight years the industry had moved from a race to put a functioning website before the consumer, on mobile as well as on desktop, now the expectation is that if the customer is going to give a retailer or brand a place on their phone “you have to work really hard.” He added: “It’s not any more just about how we’re going to sell stuff.”

He said: “Having been privileged to be at three national treasures over the last eight years, I can say that sometimes we forget the essence of those values. You lose track of what is the core of these brands, and what have they been set up to do?” Now, he says, it’s about amplifying the values that have sustained those businesses in some cases for more than 100 years. “It’s about how you support colleagues and customers to get back to the core values of the brand.” That means using digital to relieve the pressure on staff, rather than simply putting digital screens in store for the sake of it. He says the strategy is about “training colleagues to do stuff, and giving them technology to support it”. He adds: “Of course I can go and buy a bike from Amazon – but they won’t build it for me for free, won’t service it for me, don’t have 750 places across the country that I can pop into when I need something or I need help. That’s all about the customer service.”

Andrew McLean of Urban Outfitters said that for his fashion business it was about “staying focused on the customer” and tapping into the community of its target demographic – 18 to 28-year-olds. customers. “We want to become a preeminent global lifestyle community for 20 somethings.” That happens through store events and spontaneous happenings beyond the store. That’s about creating immersive store experiences and engaging with shoppers so they can buy “anywhere, any place and any time.”

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