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12 practical approaches that work

Retailers encourage customers to engage with the brand and offer highly responsive customer service when they foster two-way conversations with existing and potential shoppers. Here are some practical approaches that leading IRUK Top500 retailers are taking

1.Choose relevant social media channels…

When shoppers spend most of their online time using social media, it makes sense to enable this group also to talk about the products they have bought – or are considering buying. IRUK Top500 retailer Matalan supports six social media channels – Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube and Google Plus – and also operates a blog. Shoe retailer Schuh has seven social media channels – all those just mentioned plus a Snapchat channel too. The most relevant channels offer retailers a way to express their brand personality: Schuh’s YouTube channel, for example, features a series of entertaining ‘how to’ and ‘shoe hack’ videos covering issues such as restoring salt-stained shoes, what to do when shoes are too small or too large, and how to open wine with a shoe!

For those retailers without the resources to cover a wide range of social media channels, it can be more strategic to focus resources on the sites that best lend themselves to the brand. So Pinterest and Instagram enable highly visual brands to showcase their wares, Twitter is the go-to channel for customer service, and many use Facebook to start conversations and organise events and competitions.

2. …and try out some new ones

Fashion retailers are among those making good use of Snapchat to engage with its growing millennial audience. A recent Snaplytics Snapchat Quarterly Report analysed 500 brands using the site and found that brands post an average of 13 stories a month – and that the optimum length for a brand story is 11 snaps.

Burberry has used the site for time-limited campaigns. One collaboration featured British actress Lily James, and saw Burberry use a dedicated Snapchat filter over the course of 24 hours.

When we took a look at the latest stories, we found a new one from Topshop, which came live from a shoot in Hoxton and was told in the recommended 11 snaps. Also, recently featured a range of retail brands in what it said was an industry-first, a six-hour event on Facebook Live.

3. Engage with international customers

Talking to shoppers in new markets via the channels they use means developing an international social media presence that can help raise brand awareness. UK retail brands have used social media sites in China and Asia to open conversations and develop relationships. Fashionistas could follow Burberry’s September 2016 catwalk show in London, for example, via channels including WeChat. Its WeChat followers had exclusive access to buy two editions of ‘The Bridle Bag’ through in-app purchases. The WeChat experience was activated through an HTML5 mini site, which gave what Burberry billed as “unprecedented access,” to the show, which had a takeover from actors Kris Wu and Vicky Zhao.

Meanwhile, when Sainsbury’s extended its partnership with the Tmall in China, it signed up for Super Brand status during the 8.8 shopping festival in 2016 as it looked to raise awareness with new audiences.

4. Make red letter days special

Focusing on events that are of interest to existing and potential shoppers helps retailers to stand out from the crowd. London Fashion Week 2017 proved to be a useful location for retailers to have conversations with their customers. Topshop enabled their shoppers to watch – and shop – its show live via its website. Content on Instagram included live streaming of the Burberry and Mulberry catwalk shows, while designers including Thakoon and Prabal Gurung used Instagram Live to share behind-the-scenes moments.

Eva Chen, Instagram’s head of fashion partnerships, says the key to using Instagram Live is to keep it casual, while going with the flow and answering questions from followers. She says, “When answering questions from your followers, be sure to give their account name a shout out and repeat the question.”

It’s also important to give it time – she advises it can take at least 15 to 20 minutes from the start of an event for viewer numbers to peak.

5. Engaging with shoppers via mobile devices…

Communicating with shoppers over their smartphones is a priority for leading retailers since more and more people are using their devices to browse and shop on the go.

The recent Mobile Mandate report from OC&C, PayPal and Google suggested that by 2020, as many as two-thirds of ecommerce transactions will take place via a smartphone, with 80% of all purchases involving a phone to research, compare prices or buy.

The significance of smartphones becomes clear when you add to this a Bazaarvoice Social Trends Report that suggests as many as 30% of customers have changed their minds in a shopping aisle as a result of additional product information they’ve seen on their phones.

This points to the use of location-specific coupons sent to customers in store by US retailer The Home Depot. Closer to home, UK department store House of Fraser enables users of its mobile app to check in-store stock. They can also use the app’s barcode scanner to find out more about items they see in the store and beyond, via a Home catalogue that incorporates augmented reality to bring items to life.

6. …and also engage across channels

Shoppers that engage with a retailer across several channels, whether the store, mobile or the website, generally spend more than when they interact through only one. Helping shoppers to do that includes providing persistent baskets and wishlists that stay up-to-date across all channels, as well as enabling cross-channel services such as click and collect.

Cross-channel links between social media sites can also help boost engagement with the brand since that enables customers to follow retailers and brands across all the sites they use. InternetRetailing research shows that at the time of the research, 90% of IRUK Top500 retailers had a Facebook page, of which 55% showed links to other social networks from that page. Almost half (44%) of the 204 retailers with an iOS app enabled users to share an item on social media, athough only 1% showed social media Likes on the app.

7. Send emails that are worth keeping

Emails must be useful or interesting if they are to stand out from the crowd in a shopper’s inbox. Across the IRUK Top500, only 11% of emails are read, according to research, and 10% are marked as ‘not spam’. Emails from Debenhams and Marks & Spencer enjoy relatively high read rates, while those from Debenhams are more frequently marked as ‘not spam’ than any other Top25 retailer.

When we looked at recent emails from M&S, we found some useful style guides alongside advice on issues from layering clothes for different weather conditions to what to buy for Valentine’s Day. Emails from Debenhams had useful advice for grabbing bargains ahead of a February sale event.

8. Customer service that really helps

It’s important that customers can get in touch in ways that suits them. Offering the right customer service channels will help them to trust in the retailer being able to meet their needs. That means offering choice but this doesn’t have to be exhaustive. IRUK Top500 retailers support an average of between four and five (4.8) customer service channels. Not many will have the resources to support the 10 channels that Matalan does, nor the eight operated by M&S, H&M, Mothercare, Lands’ End, Bathstore and Schuh. Shoppercentric research names email, Facebook and Twitter as the channels that shoppers most want to use to connect with retailers. Additional customer research will help retailers prioritise the other channels that their shoppers value.

9. Ratings and reviews

Shoppers can get a sense of whether a product’s right for them or not when they see what other people thought of it through ratings or reviews. They do this quicker when such feedback is easy to see on both the website and the mobile app. InternetRetailing research found that of the 204 IRUK Top500 retailers that have an iOS app, 27% showed star ratings in the mobile app and 26% had written reviews.

Myprotein punches 397 places above its weight in this report. One of the ways it stands out so well is by being one of relatively few retailers to show product star ratings in its mobile app, while also enabling visitors to Like products on social media.

Amazon also makes it very easy for users of its app to see star ratings and reviews from the product page of its mobile app, while users can also easily share their purchases and wishlists via social media, email and SMS.

10. Investigate new technologies

Retailers have found that emerging technologies can help them respond to customers more quickly, or in more relevant ways. Ocado, for example, put artificial intelligence and machine learning to work in order to understand and prioritise its customer emails. AI software is used in its machine learning-enhanced contact centre to categorise incoming emails, parsing and tagging them in order to cut down on the time that customer service staff spend in dealing with them.

Shop Direct is tackling big data as it works to offer customers a personalised experience: its team of data scientists created complex algorithms that predict the behaviour of customers visiting its site and show them products that match their promotion affinity score. It is continuing to invest heavily in personalisation technologies for that website as well as for and When the retail group hired Gael Decoudu to head its data science and digital analytics team, Shop Direct deputy CEO Gareth Jones, said, “As part of our strategy to become a world class digital retailer, we want to develop insight from data analysis to create a more personalised experience at every stage of the customer journey.”

The Internet of Things: Today and Tomorrow, a study from Hewlett Packard Enterprise company Aruba, studied 20 countries and found that 49% of retailers were using Internet of Things technology – most commonly through in-store location services that deliver personalised offers and product information to shoppers.

11. Keeping shoppers loyal

When shoppers can use their loyalty cards across channels, including via mobile phone, they’re more likely to have it with them at the moments that count, whether that’s in the store or checking out on the website. That makes customers more visible to the retailer since it charts customers’ journeys across channels and seeks to understand how they prefer to be served. But if a customer is to use up time and smartphone storage space on installing a retailer’s app, it needs to have features that make it worthwhile.

Department store House of Fraser and health and beauty retailer Boots are among the retailers that have enabled shoppers to use their loyalty cards from mobile apps. Signed-in House of Fraser shoppers can, via the app, see whether a product is available in their size – or that of family members – at their nearest store, while also reviewing their order history. Boots shoppers can view relevant offers and redeem them via the app, while also booking appointments, and uploading photographs – from the phone, from Facebook or Instagram – for printing or personalising into a card, canvas or other photo product.

12. Keep all this information safe

Successful brand engagement means encouraging shoppers to share a wide variety of information, from names and addresses to birthdays and payment details. Adopting payment technologies such as tokenisation has helped to keep credit card details safe. A similar attention to detail needs to be taken when it comes to personal information that can potentially be used in identity fraud. The forthcoming EU General Data Protection Regulation, which comes into force in the UK at the end of May 2018, sets out a legal framework for the responsibilities of those that store and process data to protect personal information. Measures that retailers need to consider include the importance of robust systems to look after data. Find out more from the Information Commissioner’s Office at

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