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The British retail sector prides itself on being innovative. It’s easy to see why.

Early in the day, leading companies recognised how the internet was going to be of crucial importance and began investing in digital technologies. A few years down the line, and many of these same companies are sophisticated ecommerce practitioners busy working up omnichannel strategies. Pats on the back all round then. Not necessarily. “I believe there’s a crisis in design for online shopping at the moment,” says Giles Colborne, managing director with user experience specialists cxpartners. “Online stores continue to follow the same patterns and while familiarity means customers don’t have much to learn, we’ve settled for very low conversion rates.” Considering he goes on to note that “we’re seeing ecommerce clients of all sizes looking for innovative touches and new ways of shopping online that get away from burrowing through online catalogues”, there’s an element of Colborne playing devil’s advocate in his remarks. Nevertheless, his comments are a sharp reminder there’s no room for complacency here. More importantly, they lead to an awkward question: if retailers have overlooked something as basic as low conversion rates on websites, how can these same retailers be preparing for a customer-centred, omnichannel world with any confidence?

One response here might be to suggest that companies need to go back to basics. After all, if customers are, for example, abandoning shopping need to look at customer journeys towards an online purchase, and where these journeys break down, there’s a danger of preparing to fight the last war. Last year, Amanda Squires, head of retail and luxury for service design and user experience agency Seren, worked on a project for a high-end brand where around 80 per cent of the customers the client was targeting shopped online exclusively via iPad. “The iPad as a device has a strong international uptake,” points out Squires. For this brand, low conversion rates on tablets would clearly be an issue, a bad desktop experience far less of a priority.


Clearly, there’s not a one-size-fits all solution here, but that doesn’t mean that certain principles and ideas don’t apply across all companies. In this context, the deceptively simple idea of a good customer experience – whether represented by a corner-store proprietor who greets his regulars by working out ways to connect different channels to help out its customers – should always be central to design projects.

This in turn means focusing on these customers. You can, after all, be certain that our hypothetical corner-store proprietor not only knows each takes. However, it’s not easy to scale up such personal service. “Customer experience is just that: the experience that a customer has,” says Giles Colborne. “The problem, of course, is that experience happens inside someone’s head. All those service blueprints, process diagrams and user interfaces we design are only half the story. The real action happens in the minds of our customers. “I think that reminds us that we should be a little humble about what we can achieve. We need to remember that our customers bring a lot to any interaction and that we rely on them. That’s one reason I’m wary of trying to ‘design an experience’ and certainly of any design that’s not been developedor tested with the involvement of customers.”


As Colborne makes clear, a top-down solution to what a customer will do is all too likely to fail. To understand the limitations of such an approach, we need only to look at the way customers rather than retailers have driven mobile commerce. It doesn’t seem too much of an exaggeration to suggest that, had retailers taken the lead here, things would still beat the planning stage. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that certain principles don’t underlie design projects for retail. In particular, in an age when customers hop across different channels according to such factors as wherethey are, what time it is and what they’re trying to do, companies need to break down silos or risk a situation where different parts of the company have partial pictures of what’s going on, but nobody has the whole picture.

In contrast, Tony Bryant, head of business development at technology company K3 Retail, paints a picture of retail where companies understand increase personalisation.

“Ultimately, what I would like to do is go online with my preferred brand and it comes up, ‘Hi Tony,’and based upon information of what I’ve bought to date, the retailer offers a suggestion to me of productsI may be interested in,” he says. “So rather than me scrolling down this heavily busy website – don’t get me wrong, it’s all great, fantastic search engines, good photography and reviews, and all that stuff hits me, but it’s me doing all of the work – what would be great, from an experience point of view is that [everything] would be personal to me.”

Bryant is talking about more here than simple recommendations based on people who looked at thisalso bought. He’s talking about a future where, for example, customers who have opted in to receiving a retailer’s messaging might be greeted personally they’ve opted in to be recognised via a mobile app. Collating information across different channels in conjunction with technologies that lie just over the horizon, retailers will be able to offer genuinely personal service. “Prediction, I think, is the next step where we seem to be going,” he says. “In other words, even when it becomes personal to a particular individual, consumer, you’re starting to predict what they will potentially buy.”



“The bigger retailers with their complex systems struggle with data and recognising the customer, so a lot of the work we’re doing with them is on the visibility of the customer, looking at behaviour and how they cross between different channels, how customers are actually shopping.”

Amanda Squires, head of retail and luxury, Seren


“I think it’s important to draw [design] inspiration from as far afield as possible. There are very few truly ‘new’ ideas in what we do. So much of retail is showmanship that you can learn as from moviemakers, magicians and theatre as you can from the more obvious disciplines out there today.”

Giles Colborne, managing director,cxpartners


“Understanding how different visitors behave across different devices can often help steer the customer experience strategy. As an example, while a retailer may find customers browsing through a smartphone will visit their page up to four times more before actually converting to a sale, they are seeing much more traffic from smartphones and tablets than PCs, so they are no less valuable.”

Hugh Kimber, UK sales director, Webtrends [IRDX VWET]


“Personalisation is actually quite critical to customer experience,but in a subtle way. I get bombarded, because I’m a retail guy who wants to know what’s going on out there, by a lot of things that come through to my mobile, and it’s how much, in terms of my preferred brands, of that experience is really adding value to me, and how much of it is for god’s sake delete, delete, delete. I think we’ve got to be sensible in terms of how we do that engagement in a subtle way.”

Tony Bryant, head of business development, K3 Retail


It’s worth taking a step back here because we’re clearly a long way away from this kind of joined up retail being the norm – or even being practised at all. It seems a daunting task to get to such a future.

However, should we really expect such a future to arrive fully formed?

No, but Seren’s Amanda Squires says companies are beginning to tackle some of the issues around preparing for omnichannel, most notably in the supermarket and department store sectors. These are, of course, both sectors where there’s usually plenty of money to throw at such projects, but projects don’t need to be huge, change can be incremental.

“Everybody believes they have to start these big, long programmes of identifying customers, segmenting them and putting big programmes into place, but a lot of these projects can be tackled in short, tactical bursts,” she says. “Often there’s missing data or there’s a lot of alignment that’s needed within an organisation, and sometimes it’s pointless embarking on these enormous programmes but it’s much more fruitful if we can identify smaller projects and programmes of work. It’d be good for the market to realise you don’t always need a complete overhaul, you can do quite a lot quite tactically.”

Retailers might, she adds, start by looking at how people use mobile devices in a couple of stores, or focus on a couple of different customer segments, design-based projects that don’t seem so daunting as initiatives that involve the whole company.


Even just within the online arena, there’s much that can be done to meet customers expectations. to websites just won’t cut it anymore,” says Hugh Kimber, UK sales director with analytics and user experience specialists Webtrends. “Visitors expect personalised experiences, tailored to their individual needs. Customers want more than a simple, ‘Welcome back Mr Smith’. Personalisation should include their shopping habits, likes/dislikes, relevant sizes in stock and promotions tailored to their style and preferences. In a sense, customers are looking for a personal shopper at every click.”

By a roundabout route, we’ve returned to Giles Colborne’s opening point about conversion rates, andit’s a jabbing, nagging point. Similarly, the idea that retailers need to prepare for an omnichannel future, a rather grander vision, won’t go away either. So how do companies balance these considerations when planning digital design projects?

It’s crucial to realise that tackling individual areas where customer experience breaks down is only part of the problem. It doesn’t negate the need also to see the big picture. Such terms as ‘service design’, ‘usability’ and ‘customer experience’ embody subtly different concepts for different people, yet all have the idea of analysing what customers actually do, how customers interact with brands and retailers,at their centre.

These customers, as Tony Bryant among others within the industry argues, want increased personalisation. A key part of personalisation lies in consistency. That doesn’t necessarily mean exactly the same experience across different channels, but customers grow suspicious if the experiences in different channels jars, seems somehow schizophrenic.

As to how to prevent such inconsistency, it’s a long-term project that brings us back to the problem of tackling silos. “Companies look for two ‘quick fixes'[in order to create consistency across channels] that just make things worse,” says Giles Colborne. “First, they create ‘strategy’ roles above the silos. Those rolesjust take responsibility for vision further away from the people charged with delivering the vision and so make them less likely to take root. Second, they buy to work. In my opinion, the only sure way to create change is to change the culture of an organisation – which is slow to change, but when you do, you develop deep, strong roots.”

It only remains to add that tackling any kind of problem or a complete overhaul of how a retailer operates, is far easier if everybody is pulling in the same direction.


Bigger companies are preparing in earnest for an omnichannel world. This involves designing for a plethora of interfaces, yet that’s not really the main issue here. Rather, it’s that forward-looking retailers are having to work out how to design customer experiencesthat chime with what customers want to do and deliver increased personalisation while also, in many cases, reengineering internal processes. Over the past year, it’s become clearthis will be a long-term, ongoing, deep-design project for all retailers.

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