That was very much the situation at the UK’s largest retailer for womenswear, Bonmarché, which offers a wide range of clothes, including plus-size clothing ranges not normally available elsewhere to the shopper on the high street.
In many ways, things are great for the privately-held company, which reports turnover north of £230 million and which has a very healthy retail footprint of over 320 stores (average shop size: 2500 square feet). By trying to keep prices around 10% of high street average, concentrating on the size 10-to-24 range and with a brand value customers like around value, fit and quality, it’s far from being a concern on its last legs.
But, as its Trading Director Simon Calvert notes, that core demographic of the ‘FAB generation’ - Fifty And Above - is one that is subject to inexorable forces of change:
We want to sell to the above 60 shopper, but the average age had become 67 and our data was showing that average was upping by five years every decade.
The good news is that Calvert’s market is ‘the new young’: the Baby Boomers with those paid-off mortgages are the ones with the disposable income now, not student-debt-pressed Millennials. They also want to dress differently than the 50 and 60 year olds of the generation that went before them, who tended to be very traditional:
The Baby Boomers were the original rebels, and it’s them we want to sell to. And they want to feel special - they are not buying on price so much as to feel and look good.
So a great opportunity was dangling here - how to connect better with shoppers who were evolving into potential Bonmarché brand followers. The perception in the company, however, when Calvert arrived 18 months ago was that FAB shopper doesn’t want to buy online, but much prefers a physical weekly shop.
Calvert wasn’t so sure -indeed, his word for his reaction to this was 'hogwash!". He found a very traditional silo-ed approach with very conventional Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and what he calls "very legacy IT" to support them. This was missing a trick and in need of change, starting with what he saw as a very stale website and e-marketing approach to connect the company with new opportunities.
To achieve this - and get the company to evolve from a ‘brick’ retailer to a ‘click’ one - he argued himself into a new job at the Wakefield, Yorkshire based company, a job that involved him assuming responsibility for not just e-commerce, but also supply chain logistics and even merchandising:
Online was under 7% of our business mix and wasn’t growing. We were also using our marketing budget poorly - there was a lot of ‘spray and pray’, and new customer acquisition was very low. We got in a new e-commerce platform to start to change that, but that is never enough just on its own - you have to change a lot more than that.
"Algorithms don’t always give you the right answer"
So what has changed? Calvert says that in hard numbers, by a range of new techniques centred on new approaches to using technology but also the company’s core mindset the contribution of e-commerce to the company’s bottom line has shot up from 7 to 12%, and profitability has also radically improved.
There has also been improved conversion rate for online shopping visits, while the average order price has also gone up, he notes. Other improvements include a re-designed website and emailer, with much greater use of things like online videos, celebrity stylist helpers, and a push to create a greater community feel for the visitor, he adds.
There’s also been a lot of offline work, he stresses: improved processes at the warehouse level, extending and changing the role of the walk-in shop so that it’s easier for the customer to get the full range of all the sizes they might need, and other changes, he confirms.
Then there’s smarter advertising, too:
We are saving money on our digital marketing spend by much better usage of it - we’re working with agencies who are much better at using data to find the kind of customers that really will buy from us. Before, essentially, we were trying to compete online with ASOS type competitors in the 15-to-45 range, and we’re just not going to do that well there.
But now he is, with the average online buyer age dropping inside two years from that scary 67 number to 57. Calvert adds that while he is not sure he as yet totally believes it yet, the bricks-to-clicks work has also dropped to a remarkable 48.
The key to all the improvements, he stresses, is that online is just another shop - that the retailer still needs to do all the things he used to do, which he boils down to “satisfy and delight your customer”:
The traditional retailer has gone, yes - but the traditions of retail absolutely have not. You should only be using technology to make you into a better shopkeeper - it’s still all about constantly exceeding your customer’s expectations. Algorithms also don’t always give you the right answer - there’s no substitute for really knowing your customer.