Kate Hardisty Smith, Head of E-Commerce at online beauty retailer Look Fantastic, was the first person in her college to own an iPhone when they were launched back in 2007. Since then a lot has changed:
We spend on average, six hours a day on our phones, which is enough time for me to hop on a flight to New York. It's 40% of our waking day. Our phones are an extension of our lives. It's our PA, it's our calendar, it's our primary form of communication. It's a shop, it's a bank. It's my therapist. Our mobiles are our companions, which means the digital experience is mobile. It goes everywhere with us. In the post-COVID world that we're now in, the need for this digital experience has accelerated and the internet is more accessible than ever before.
Back in 2007, some 18% of the global population had access to the Internet, she notes, compared to an estimated 65% today. That equates to 5.2 billion users and with that comes a need for a lot more data:
We're going to be looking at doubling our data usage on our phones, probably all watching everything on Netflix. With this evolution of our relationship with phones has come the evolution of digital experience. Physical experiences are there when you want them. Social interactions are there when you need them. But without that, mobile is still constant.
And of course, the nature of retail itself has changed, she adds:
The department store originally was physical convenience, with everything you needed under one roof. The internet is now that convenience. It's everything the department store was and more. We can scroll sites and flick between apps faster than you could ever walk through the floors of Debenhams.
All of this means rethinking the customer experience - and that can be a good thing, Smith argues:
The digital experience is now a platform for us to create a uniquely personal experience and interaction with our customers. It's reactive, it's fast, it's informed by AI, and it pivots to meet the needs of a customer, wherever they choose to be. Digital experience can now even dictate if a physical one actually happens. Everyone knows what they're going to order before they even set foot in a restaurant. TikTok and TripAdvisor also politely informed me months in advance where I'm probably going to go on holiday this year.
This doesn’t mean that the physical experience is dead, just evolving into something different:
It's now just a vehicle to a digital one and vice versa. Every personal experience now has a digital element. I get a side of WiFi with my coffee in Costa. I'm being encouraged in H&M to download an app to complete my in-store transaction. I am rapid on my Friday night 'big shop' when I'm going around with my self-scan at Sainsbury’s.
There is a return to bricks and mortar post-COVID at at rate that was higher than originally anticipated, admits Smith, but the digital experience is coming along as well:
All physical experiences now have a digital element attached to them. A brand moment for us can no longer start and end with a visit to a store or a branch or an experience. It's no longer just a moment.
Digital experiences are also much easier to interact with than physical ones, she adds:
Physical experience requires much more social interaction, which is great, but we can deliver that with a digital synergy. We could previously only access our customers at a specific location at a specific time for, arguably, a finite period of time, but we can now go with them everywhere. We can be part of the social situations that they're choosing to have. Whether it's me transferring cash to my mate over a pint at the pub, or me having my entire work team this week browse ASOS at lunchtime to figure out this outfit today, we're working in synergy with digital and physical elements.
With each of those opportunities comes a chance for us to make our customers day better. And if we succeed in doing that, we're going to build loyalty, build engagement and ultimately retain it.
But this requires layering on a new focus to the traditional e-commerce model. Smith explains:
We need to look at driving that long-term brand awareness. We need to make interactions that drive those transactions. We need to start conversations that fuel that conversion. We need to prepare our customers for tomorrow's transaction, instead of just focusing on getting that money in the till today. We need to flip our approach on its head and really understand how our customers engage with our digital experiences.
At the moment, that means an app on a smart phone, she adds:
The installation of an app is an immediate installation of trust. If I'm putting your app on my phone, I'm letting you in. The average smartphone has about 80 apps on it...When you think about how many apps there are out there for us to engage with, they are the chosen ones.
With the installation of an app comes a unique opportunity for us to engage with our customers and build those interactions. That digital experience needs to be consistent. It needs to be easy and it needs to keep our users completely within their comfort zone in order for us to do that. We do need to explore a value exchange for our customers by really defining what value means beyond revenue. We need to look at giving advice, making recommendations, providing personalized content. We can also layer on further, with things like loyalty schemes and exclusive pricing to encourage that click bait into the app in the first place.
That then leads to strong ongoing relationships with customers:
When we're then meeting what the customer needs, providing convenience, but building community, they're going to think of us first. We are going to become the no brainer. Relationships will protect revenue.
Look Fantastic uses Contentsquare to achieve these goals and understand more about the customer journey, particularly the ‘why’ aspect. Smith explains:
If we understand why they're doing what they're doing, we combine that with understanding what they're thinking through reviews, what they're feeling through Instagram likes and frustration scores, we can then problem solve without customers ever realising there was a problem to solve.
On the subject of branding and marketing, there’s also a need for a rethink in order to create emotive and engaging brand experiences, advises Smith:
Historically, ads have been black-and-white, pretty textbook marketing really - adverts in magazines, adverts on TV, sale banners, POS in store. We are now in a world of 'digi mags', peer-to-peer influencing and, of course, influencers. But these new tools are accessible. They're relatable and they allow us to put our products in front of the eyes of consumers at speed we could not deliver on newspaper stands or in stores. Brand awareness needs to focus on loyalty and accessibility. It needs to be community-led it needs to be led by the customer and less focused on traditional marketing. It doesn't mean we need to avoid the physical altogether. It just means we need to get ‘phygital’.
For its part, Look Fantastic aims to make its digital experiences more physical, she explains:
We are a digital-only retailer. We are focused on community. We are focused on value exchange. We look beyond price and promotion. We're focused on content. We're focused on advice. We're focused on recommendations. If that means a more sustained, protected conversion at a lower rate, that's what that means now. Whether it's an out-of-house event, partnering with key brands, influencers and maybe even podcasts, we are trying to bring beauty truly into a new digital era.
She cites the example of a recent trip to Coachella with two infuencers as an example of bringing a physical experience to Look Fantastic:
Now these physical experiences for us, they're not truly scalable. They're geographically-centred. All of our customers can't come, but we can take them with us. We can bring them to life digitally through socials. We can have TikTok live shopping. We had Q&A's with our influencers. It was a very digital experience. By doing this we can create an authentic and trusted community.
The company is also looking for ways to turn a traditionally physical experience into the digital age. Smith cites the example of the company’s new Foundation Finder tool:
Traditionally, finding the right foundation for you has meant a visit to one of the numerous beauty counters within a large department store, where we put our faith in a make-up artist, already wearing too much foundation herself, to actually find the right match in those lights.
This tool has over 3,500 swatches of multiple brands, even brands that we do not stock ourselves, so that the user can simply find their shade in the foundation of their choice, based on what they currently use. If you've run out of your favorite or you're just in the market to try something new, we have got you covered - literally - with an exact match alternative that is backed by science. People are nervous about actually shopping beauty online, but this is more scientifically-proven than the make-up artist at that counter.
Underpinning all of this is mobile tech, she concludes, ending with a rallying cry:
Our future is in your hands - literally!