The customer is always right is a timeless retail maxim, so it should come as no surprise to hear Ramona Tudosescu, Head of Innovation & Store Omni-channel Experience at Galeries Lafayette, say of the retailer’s current post-COVID-19 re-opening status:
In the end, our customers know best. So we are trying to create roadmaps for the short term and use data to adapt easily to the market according to what are the new customer with their expectations.
Galeries Lafayette is a French retail institution, whose roots date back to 1895 and the opening of a small haberdashery shop at the corner of rue La Fayette and the Chaussée d'Antin, in Paris. Today, the company operates stores and outlets around the world, with its famous headquarters store on the Boulevard Haussmann in the 9th arrondissement of Paris.
In common with retailers around the world, Galeries Lafayette had to close its doors due to the COVID-19 crisis. Its new branch on the Champs Elysées re-opened first, on 11 May, but other branches didn’t follow until 29 May. To date, the return to the stores has been relatively slow with the number of visitors down by around 20%. This hasn’t been helped by the loss of tourist trade with the enormous Boulevard Hausmann main store being a Parisian visitors attraction in its own right.
Last year’s opening of that Champs-Élysées store, the largest retail outlet on the iconic Paris avenue, pre-dated the COVID crisis of course, but a lot of the thinking that went into its opening has proved serendipitous. Tudosescu says:
From the beginning we knew that we were going to put the human aspect at the center of the experience and we thought about how we are we going to do this? What tools we're going to give to our staff, so that they are able to be in two-way conversations with their clients.
A large part of this involved using tech from Twilio to provide store visitors with an augmented experience via the services of more than 300 personal stylists who can connect digitally with customers, before and after their visit to the store, a communications reach that has proved opportune, notes Tudosescu:
That allowed us to create already a client pool, way before the pandemic arrived, in which we made those conversations happen. That was something that we were actually lucky to have before the COVID containment happened. Our objective from the beginning in this interaction was to build intimacy at scale, to deliver those kinds of personalized experiences, but not just for two or three clients or for 40 clients or 50 clients, but for 30,000 clients for 40,000 clients, all accessing that level of human interaction with the store at distance.
With the likes of SMS and WhatsApp capabilities integrated, store staff are able to access shared client profiles so they can work as a team and be able to switch from one [social media] channel to another, according to the client or what the client wants, but also where the client is. Tudosescu explains:
Obviously a client who is in the Middle East will more be likely to discuss via WhatsApp, while the French customer who is next to the store will be more inclined to talk via SMS. So we did have all that strategy already going on. So when COVID-19 happened, we actually went back to the basics of retail, which is contacting all clients showing them, offering them appointments, doing remote selling.
With the physical stores now re-opened, there are two main client journeys that the retailers is having to cater for in the post-COVID demographic, says Tudosescu - those who and those who won’t come into the building:
The first one is for the clients who do not want to come to the store. They want to stay at home and they don't necessarily want to buy via e-commerce. So for them, we're going to develop a live shopping experience. We're going to give them access to the products in the store...and we are going to accompany them on that virtual experience, show them how the products are presented and offer give them a payment link and then deliver to them at home. One of our first strategies is not fighting against what the customer expects today, but actually going in line with what actually is the most comfortable thing for them.
As for those who are ready to venture out and back onto the shop floor, they too need to be catered for in a differnet way to the pre-pandemic world:
Obviously we have to offer appointments and schedule appointments for our customers who do want to come to the store. We have to make sure that we reassure them and we prepare them. So we use communications and conversation to prepare for that moment when the customer will be in the store. That is very important for us, that preparation, because it allows us to maximize the time that customers will take when they come to the store, [for us] to have the right products there, to be already ready to serve them and have all this capacity to reassure them on their coming into the store. And then, obviously, is we have this strategic tool that allows us to ‘loyalize’ even more clients and offer them remote seliing [options] in case they don't want to come back to the store.
Making this new approach to the customer-facing world work will require new thinking behind the scenes, argues Todosescu:
We are aware that retail has been changing for a while now. COVID has accelerated it and especially the role of the staff is changing. They're not only sellers. We're going beyond a fashion store that is just selling a product. They are entertainers, they are influencers, they're marketers. They have to be able to collect data to send the right product to the right client and be able to entertain via all these tools. We see that the mission of the staff in store is radically changing, so we are looking into how can we accelerate that even more, so that our clients can get that experience at scale.
Motivation matters here, she adds, as it does with any digital project:
It all comes from finding the right incentives for the team in the store and for the team to understand how [the change] is basically going to bring them more excitement in the role and going to bring them also additional business revenue. [It is] also an opportunity to evolve from something that was seen as kind of, 'You're just sales, you're just part of the sales team'. No, you're much more than that!
Traditionally in the stores, we look at KPIs which are revenue-based, but we're looking also at KPIs which are experience-based and client-centric. We are actually going further than just that revenue-based approach, and looking at incentives which are based on what is the value of your client portfolio? How loyal are the customers? Are you animating them? Are they coming back to the store? Are you responding to emails fast and correctly with no mistakes? Are you offering different services? Are you creating personalized events for those clients?
All of this we have framed under a change management program that we have right now in the store. We are basing everything on data. We're trying to be as pragmatic as possible to give the management team the tools to be able to follow up with the personal stylists that we have in store, who have those incentives available for them to re-define their job.
All told, despite the turmoil of recent months and the inevitable negative impact that this has had on the bottom line at Galeries Lafayette, Todesescu declares that she sees the future as being exciting for the retail group:
We are aware that until now we were very much in a world where we were, 'OK, this is a bricks-and-mortar, this is clicks-and-mortar, this is e-commerce'. Now we're accelerating new ways of doing commerce and creating links. Everything for commerce blends together to create this pure omni-channel experience. So for us, COVID has been a catalyst for innovation.
We are looking into how we can go further in the hybridization between human and machine, so that we augment the scalability of our conversations. We're also looking at how can we, through video, bring in Augmented Reality, so that we can enhance the remote shopping experience while the customers are at home. We have to accept that this is something that they like and this is something that they will continue to want to experience.
We are also looking at how can we connect payment seamlessly to our chat platforms and make sure that from the store we can create personalised commerce pages for our clients and the payment is so easily integrated that the client doesn't need to exit WhatsApp or SMS. Even via voice, they can pay easily, and that they have that kind of experience.
A lot of this is bleeding edge experimentation and requires testing out in practice, she says:
What is actually very, very interesting to see is how customers react to all of this new experimentation that we're putting in place. One of the things I've appreciated from the beginning with Twilio is that we can very quickly do proof of concepts. We can test-and-learn and see how the customers would react and adapt according to the data and that will allow us to define the strategy for tomorrow. So, we have a vision of where we want to go. We know it's about experience. It's hybridization between machine and human. We know it's Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality and and creating new ways of commerce.
But most of all, she concludes, it’s about retailer’s own people:
My obsession right now is talking to HR about what is the mission of the sales team in five to 10 years. We need to act now because of the people coming in who’ve seen that we're recruiting. We need to be able to recruit the right people with the right training and sell them the kind of job that they need to do in the next five years. It will take time and it will start with people.
That's not the thing that we would normally hear from somebody working in digital, but for me I think that with any digital tool that we put in place, [success] comes from the people that use it. We know that physical retail of tomorrow is going to be about how we augment human interactions. So we need to look at what kind of people we bring in the store, what is their role, what are their tools, how do we accompany them in their evolution? And then how can they decentralise our CRM, so that we can offer amazing service to a million customers? That we will never manage to do if we don't have a team that is prepared to take on this new challenge.