All I want for Christmas is a virtual twin

Is anyone happy to predict what might be coming in 2017?  I suspect not. 2016 was full of unexpected surprises and is best epitomized by the new Toblerone, it still has peaks, but the gaps between them are bigger and more divisive, just like our politicians.

The nation is split over which retailer has made the best Christmas TV spot, M&S or Aldi, but it has not stopped shoppers from shopping. John Lewis might not have made the best TV ad for the festive season, but it did have the biggest ever week in its trading history this Black Friday. And the only prediction I can safely make for 2017 is that the retail event will be back next year. Black Friday has usurped the traditional ‘must have toys’ list and is fast becoming the official start of the festive shopping season spree. Next year we will see greater competition for shoppers and greater focus on their three budgets; time, money and frustration.

For the first time this year I received digital calendar invites for Black Friday events. Intrusive yes, but an indication of how far retailers will go to cut through the promotional clutter to get time with the WIGIG conscious shopper.

This Black Friday also saw a 12% rise in online spending according to retail analysts IMRG. Shoppers will always want value, but that is no longer simply price x quality. They want simplicity and convenience and at the moment that is being delivered (literally) by going online.

Of course, there are many retailers who still understand the vital role of physical stores as environments where shoppers can touch, feel and experience their product assortment and many more that will complain that their stores have simply become showrooms. But the online world is changing, today all the talk might be of the ‘internet of things’ but it is rapidly becoming about experience. The Internet of Experience.

VR and AR are two technologies that people are predicting will transform the shopping experience and we have seen many retailers experiment with solutions in 2016. John Lewis is bringing its Christmas TV story to life in store right now with VR, whilst DS Automobiles showcased a solution at the 2016 Geneva Auto Show which could have a more everyday application in the car buying process. I have no doubt that this will continue to evolve and the virtual showroom will become a permanent fixture both online and in-store for many retailers.

img_0057But perhaps the most interesting application of VR for retailers is not in enriching customer experience, but in helping them in their internal process. There are more and more retailers and brand owners that have VR cave solutions to help packaging design and merchandising programs to deliver the perfect shelf and perfect shop. The next generation of technology will mean this no longer has to be a linear process based on an idealised store layout, instead key stakeholders will be able to come together and collaborate around a virtual twin of an actual store and do that in real time by connecting it to digital shelf labels in a physical store, as is possible with the 3DEXPERIENCE Twin. I’m not going to make any predictions for 2017, but if I was a retailer, a virtual twin would be at the top of my list for Father Christmas.

I’m not going to make any predictions for 2017, but if I was a retailer, a virtual twin would be at the top of my list for Father Christmas.


Why Buster the Boxer is not a winner

This article was first published by Retail Week on 11th November 2016

John Lewis’ festive ads have become a national institution and yesterday’s reveal of the new #BusterTheBoxer commercial heralded the start of the Christmas retail frenzy. These campaigns have also had a significant influence on the John Lewis brand and business, something you’re reminded of each time you watch somebody from John Lewis in a presentation or on a speaker platform.


The success of the advertising has been achieved largely by sticking to a safe formula. And this approach is present again in the new two-minute film that depicts the triangular relationship between a little girl, Bridget, her family dog Buster, and a trampoline.


So, yes, we have the classic song, this time Randy Crawford’s One Day I’ll Fly Away re-created by English electronica band Vaults, and a cast of cute animals just begging to be turned into a neat range of merchandise.


It’s all very comforting, sweet, and vanilla and is unlikely to ignite the emotions in the way  last year’s ‘The Man on the Moon’ did. This is a deliberate attempt to make people smile after a difficult year, but, given the hype around every John Lewis ad, this one doesn’t quite live up to expectation.


This is the same old safe stuff, calculated not to upset anybody. But then the narrative doesn’t really fit the buoyant tone of the ad. The dog, Buster, appears to steal the girl’s present at the end of the film, conjuring headlines like  “Dog trumps little girl on Christmas Day”. Hardly the stuff of happy endings.


The big add on this time around is the virtual reality experience (building on a toe-in-the-water attempt with 2014’s ‘Monty the Penguin’). Shoppers at John Lewis’ flagship London store can slip on the Oculus Rift headset and experience what it’s like to jump around on the trampoline with the animals in the TV ad.


This is where I’d start to question the basis of the advertising. Has the need to use technology and do something new with VR driven the creativity in the ad? It would certainly explain why we’re faced with a bunch of furry creatures bouncing around on the trampoline. And it’s also a story that seems to be jerry-built around the need to flog themed cuddly toys. Go to the website and you are encouraged to “Shop Buster and friends”. The dog, Sid the Squirrel, Betsy the Badger, and Olivia the Fox can be yours for £12 each.


Beyond the attempt at virtual reality in stores, perhaps the most interesting thing about the campaign is the casting. To continue to be successful and drive growth John Lewis must broaden their demographic appeal and shake off any last remnants of perception that it is a store for the established wealthy middle classes. In my view they do that well here, with a happy family in a comfortable house that’s, nonetheless, a far remove from the sprawling mansions of the Home Counties.


John Lewis successfully uses the ad to get this message across but, at a time when the UK’s Christmas ads provide a showcase of creativity that’s close to our equivalent of the US  SuperBowl, #BusterTheBoxer isn’t an out and out winner.


The secret of retail tech innovation? Never forget the customer

First published by Retail Week on 4th August 2016

While I spend most of my working life looking to the future, I’m not afraid to take inspiration from the past.

I still occasionally dance around to my 1980s alternative singles and remain fond of classic movies such as The Belly of an Architect.

The return of a 1990s phenomenon in the format of Pokémon Go illustrates the point nicely, showing the power of brand affinity, of past associations, to engage a vast audience.

More importantly for retailers, the craze demonstrates that it’s possible to drive engagement very quickly if you get it right with mobile innovation.


French retailer BUT has already used the popularity of Pokémon Go to drive store Traffic and offer discounts to shoppers.

While the rise of the game is set to benefit retailers greatly, through sponsored locations, promotions and merchandising, what it says more broadly is that consumers crave fantastic and entertaining experiences alongside a sense of community and adventure.

AdTech AdThis was heavily in evidence at the recent Cannes Lions advertising and marketing festival. Many winning campaigns in categories such as mobile provided examples of innovation that deliver a human and interactive customer experience.
They included Burger King’s activity in Argentina, where it created an interactive Snapchat game, Snapking, using an entertainment experience to drive a voucher-based mechanic for participants.

Perhaps the best use of innovation applicable to retail was the Sydney Opera House’s #comeonin, using social platforms and location data to create and then invite people to a personalised experience.

Retailers that understand the need to build human connections into their technology innovation have a greater chance of success.

However, when Cheil spoke recently to more than 150 senior global retailers we revealed a disconnection between the focus of their technology innovation and the delivery of better customer experience.

It is very clear that consumers want innovation in technology to be rooted in delivering customer benefits. Yet the conversations with retailers highlight that innovation budgets are not primarily focused on meeting unfulfilled consumer need.

A majority are confident that they have a world-class innovation culture. And, in many cases, this is driven by new technology. That sounds encouraging.

The issue that emerges, though, is that technology displaces meeting unfulfilled consumer need as the driving factor in innovation.

Meeting consumer need was identified by just 18% of retailers as the main reason for innovation, indicating a danger that retailers are losing sight of the consumer.

Consumer research shows that this is an issue for customers. Amazon emerges as the most innovative retailer because it uses technology to make it quicker to find, pay for and receive products.

Where Amazon is identified as less strong is in providing a ‘human service’, but it has maintained customer perceptions in this area at acceptable levels while more traditional offline rivals struggle to deliver against even this hygiene factor.

Retailers could gain greater competitive advantage by using technology in ways that improve perceptions of human service, with a big opportunity in focusing on the greater personalisation of the shopping experience.

This is where they can learn from the success of experiences such as Pokémon Go and brands that use mobile not only to bombard people with messages and offers but to entertain and delight.

In doing this, retailers shouldn’t lose sight of the need to improve the customer experience by using technology to simplify and accelerate the retail experience.

This should be the main focus of retail innovation budgets, rather than investing in mobile and other tech merely for its own sake.

Why shoppers are demanding fresh thinking from retailers

Click here!First published in Retail Week 12th May 2016
Chewing the fat with retail leaders is usually a fascinating experience, but a chat with the people who shop in their stores can prove equally illuminating.

That’s why Cheil spoke to 150 leaders in the top global retailers and also to a representative group of shoppers. The aim? To test our belief that retail success is increasingly linked to a strong internal culture and a focus on innovation.

And by innovation I don’t just mean the bells and whistles, the phones and the drones, that are coming to play a key role in the business, but also in terms of adopting a progressive approach to all elements of the business, especially the customer.

What’s startling is that the results, especially from the consumer angle, suggest innovation is not only essential for retail success but also for survival. But first, a bit more about the findings. While the retail leaders identify Apple as the most innovative retailer in the world, consumers don’t agree. They select Amazon, for very clear reasons to do with innovation around providing shopper benefit.

In the eyes of retailers, Apple leads the way in terms of consumer and shopper innovation. Amazon is placed second, with Google third, followed by Walmart. The other companies, completing a top 10 dominated by tech brands, are Dell, HP, IBM, Microsoft, Samsung and eBay.

Regional variations

Some striking regional variations emerge from the research. While Apple’s reputation for consumer and shopper innovation is consistently high across the world, there is some good news for those at the more established end of retail, because US retailers consider Walmart to be the gold standard. This most likely reflects a rounded view of innovation that considers Walmart’s attempts to try new things in areas such as community engagement.

But what do shoppers think? Well, they agree with retailers that the more traditional store-owners are lagging behind tech-driven companies in providing innovation. With shoppers, though, it’s Amazon, not Apple, which wins the plaudits. Globally, 23% of shoppers identify Amazon as providing the best retail experience, followed by eBay on 5%.

Several traditional retailers, offering a combination of online and offline experience, have made the top 10 from a shoppers’ perspective. These include Target, John Lewis and Walmart. Overall, though, they lag far behind retail brands that have evolved out of the online space in terms of providing the best experiences for shoppers.This is supported by the UK-specific findings, which show Amazon is identified by 29% of shoppers as offering the best retail experience, well ahead of John Lewis on 14% and our biggest grocer, which is at the bottom of the list, just below some well known high-street names.

Generally, these findings support the idea that customer expectations of retail experience are being reset by digital-first retailers (such as Amazon and eBay) and the legacy retailers, particularly the grocers, have much work to do to bring innovation to their stores.

Shoppers identified Amazon as providing the best retail experience

When it comes to providing an innovative shopper experience, it’s clear that consumers crave, above all, technological innovation that delivers convenience, personalisation and simplicity of service. This supports my own belief that where retail innovation does involve technology it must be driven by customer need above all else.

Brands, such as the aforementioned Amazon and eBay, are seen to understand this, while others have much to learn at the same time as falling down on basic hygiene factors, such as providing a human service and being helpful. What’s emerged from our conversations with retailers and shoppers is that delivering innovation that truly benefits the consumer provides a clearer path to retail success than any other.

Will a cashless retail vision work in the wider world?

The future of the cashless shopping experience creeps ever closer. Adobe recently announced a new prototype of the retail store featuring RFID chip-enabled bags that enable shoppers to automatically buy items by placing them on the checkout counter. In Adobe’s prototype store in Las Vegas, there’s no cash, no card, no mobile payment. Just a step towards a retail world connected through the Internet of Things.

This innovation, providing a truly cashless store, inspired me to use a recent visit to the United States to test something I’d wondered for sometime. With the rise of retail technology and new payment models such as Apple Pay and Samsung Pay, how possible is it to live and travel without any cash at all?

The cashless, week-long work visit started well on arrival in Chicago and the easy journey with Uber to the hotel. Initially, it was easy to exist with just a credit card.

The first problem arose the following morning when the time came to catch the free hotel shuttle bus to the airport. It soon became clear that tipping would be a big issue in the cashless society. A surly bag attendant, expecting his five bucks for shifting my luggage, wasn’t pleased with a half-whispered explanation about trialling society’s future of electronic monetisation.

Smooth progress was resumed quickly. Next came the flight to North West Arkansas and a local taxi to a business meeting. This was only a small firm but it was easy to pay by card. Then, after the meeting, I took another Uber (apparently in plentiful supply in Arkansas) to Starbucks, where the coffee retailer’s app delivered a much-needed shot of caffeine.

International boundaries

Next came the Bentonville Square Walmart where, at the self-service till, I was about to pay by credit card before being offered another cashless solution in the shape of the Walmart Pay App.

This was all set to be another seamless cashless situation before an issue arose in the shape of international boundaries. Convenient as the Wal-Mart app option looked, it was a no-go as the US app wouldn’t work with my version of Google Play Apps. Uber has managed to solve this compatibility across borders issue, which is an important one for retailers to address if they’re to grab a share of payments revenue. You can be sure Apple and Samsung Pay are moving towards this cross-border functionality as contactless payments gain traction, with transactions expected to reach 148 million this year.

Musing on this, it was time to travel from Arkansas to New York City for the final leg of my trip. And an experience that highlighted the current limits of cashless society.

Tipping crisis

Talking to a friend at the shopper marketing event we were attending in New York, it soon became clear she thought I wouldn’t get far in the city without cash. She insistently forced a dollar into my hand to at least get me somewhere when tipping. And she was right. In several situations in hotels and other places it was hard to get very far without tipping with cash. Too embarrassed to offer one measly bill, I managed to hold onto my dollar but received more than a few frosty looks and not much in the way of good service. Sure, in bars and restaurants it’s easy to tip electronically but it gets tricky when you go further into the service economy. An economy that soon merges into the grey economy and, eventually, into the black economy.

There are serious consequences of a cashless society that will require everybody to have a bank account to exist and where every transaction is traceable and accountable. Let’s face it, beyond the equality issues at play here, there are a whole lot of things people will want to pay for and yet not have a record of.

It won’t be long until Adobe’s connected vision becomes the reality for millions of shoppers but my US trip clearly showed me that society is moving towards a largely cashless environment built around straightforward use of mobile apps to pay for almost everything. It’s not going to be difficult in places like London and US towns and cities. But what about the “grey” areas of the world, where are the solutions for the difficult deals in the service economy?

This is a perplexing problem for society and for those in some parts of the service economy, if not for mainstream retailers. There’s a short-term solution at least because, for the foreseeable future, I’ll travel with a bunch of dollar bills to pacify combustible luggage attendants.


Let’s not get wrapped up in algorithms and remember retail’s about understanding people

First published in Retail Week on the 12th February 2016

Twitter is no longer growing. This week’s announcement that numbers of active monthly users are on the decline follows a weekend when the social media channel topped it’s own trending chart with the hashtag #RIPTwitter following reports that it plans to launch a timeline driven by algorithms that will see the “best” tweets rise to the top.

In fairness to the social media giant, this change, since confirmed by Twitter, might actually help some of its users, especially the majority who are not part of the ‘Twitterati’ and dip in and out of the channel. Like me.

But the reaction shows that the public consciousness is awakening to the tyranny of the algorithm at a time when our private data is becoming the topic of even more public debate around the implementation of the EU Data Protection Directive.

Understanding the implications will make this an interesting time for retailers, many of whom are still relatively new to the on-line world and are struggling to make it profitable. Perhaps it is time for them to go back to the core of what they are good at, which is understanding what people need and meeting their requirements.

When I buy a patch to repair a waterproof coat on Amazon, I don’t need to be served ads and recommendations for alternative products. I bought what I needed and I have already solved the problem. As we all seek automation in operations, we must not lose sight of the fact that our customers are human.

I’m a big fan of Dollar Shave Club. It has disrupted a category with a subscription format that has moved the razor purchase out of the physical store and this week they took their unique brand of advertising to the most famous commercial break in the world, the superbowl. But their success is not just down to quirky creative or value, a quality product and convenience, what they understand is that every customer touch constitutes a brand experience. They use data to create deliver personalized customer experiences, but also understand that the club’s Member Services organization is the day-to-day front line of the DSC brand.

A recent trip to Maplin reminded me of just how important customer experience is. I’m sure the store is an Aladdin’s cave for people, who write algorithms, but for something like me help is required and that is what its floor staff do so well. I went in with a problem and they solved it for me.

Much of what people do when they shop is about problem solving and that is something that Asda’s new chief customer officer knows very well. Andy Murray joins from parent Walmart, but before that he built a very successful agency grounded in human behavioural insight that transformed communication in-store and he is one of the founding fathers of shopper marketing.

What happens when he arrives in Leeds is going to be very interesting, given Walmart’s work in the US on building emotional connections with shoppers through its brand advertising and forging links with social issues.

Whatever Murray does you can be sure he will need to get to the heart of the Asda brand and ensure the retailer is in synch with customer needs and wants.

CES 2016: IOT, VR, AR & groceries  

Try to contain your excitement because the connected fridge is finally here. This future blend of refrigeration and grocery retail was launched at CES in Las Vegas.

MasterCard joined forces with Samsung to unveil their Groceries application for the Family Hub refrigerator, which boasts a 21.5 inch display allowing consumers to view their fridge contents without opening the door and order replacement items with taps and swipes.


It’s smart too, having the capacity to learn what types of food and drink products consumers’ favour. In time, I suspect the capability will be added to automatically order the items consumed most regularly and bring new meaning to ‘out of stocks’.

The fridge will also tailor product recommendations as it learns. This will bring some solace for the Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) brands that have fought for attention on supermarket shelves for so long and are now trying to understand how to bring this same fight to eCommerce.

Shopper marketers must now ask the question, how do you win in grocery if your consumer is buying from their fridge? Part of that answer must be in recommendation and the other part will come through shoppable media that connects brand communication seamlessly with ecommerce. Groceries by MasterCard is on to this already and the companion app will work on smartphone, tablet or PC and enable consumers to add items to the household shopping list. It’s surely only a matter of time before we see a Groceries by MasterCard ‘buy now’ button on CPG brand communication.

The cynics out there will be quick to suggest it will be more than five years before the connected fridge poses a real commercial threat to traditional grocery retail models and, given the $5,000 price point for this Samsung model, they have a point.

Transforming shopping and ecommerce with VR and AR

Virtual reality applications are much cheaper to access, making them very big news at CES this year because they promise an experience that has previously been the stuff of science fiction. Gamers will be the big winners in this, but shoppers should expect to see more VR too.

A Google Cardboard headset costs around £5 and a consumer can already enter a far more immersive experience than is provided by a holiday brochure by coupling Cardboard with Google Maps or, as Nestle offered in its partnership with Google, the experience of touring a Brazilian coffee plantation.

VR has the opportunity to transform ecommerce, enabling a near real experience of a product that had only been available in-store until now. But we will also see more retailers using VR in their shops to educate, inspire and sell product benefits. This will provide a reason for new customers to visit stores and, if the experience is good, it will keep them coming back.

Augmented reality is set to enhance shopper experience and the ModiFace Mirror shows just what can be achieved in-store. The mirror allows users to change not only their makeup but also whiten their teeth, alter their eyebrows, reverse the signs of aging, and change eye color while also delivering a 3D makeup tutorial. At an expected $2,000 per unit it’s not cheap, but compared to the salary of additional sales associates it represents value.

I’m not a big fan of removing staff from the shop floor as they make the biggest difference in customer experience, but the idea of being greeted by a Segway advanced robot in aisle seven sounds like fun.

Innovations in cash management

Where retailers do need to manage cost is in cash management and a new addition to CES this year was the Digital Money Forum. Apple, Google and Samsung all see the future as being in smartphone-based payments that deliver fast, seamless and secure transactions for consumers. More exciting is the innovation at the intersection of wearable technology and payments.

MasterCard and fintech firm Coin announced a partnership  that will enable manufacturers to integrate mobile payments into pretty much anything able to accommodate an NFC chip. Fitness tracker-makers Atlas and Moov and smart watch producer Omate have already signed-up to MasterCard’s Digital Enablement Service and I am sure we will see many more products do so very soon.

All this talk of the future makes me feel my age and I’m starting to think those oldies who don’t own connected fridges and still use cash will be the only people left in our stores. Help is at hand though. The Genworth R701 Exoskeleton could become the must have tool to help retailers shape stores for people like me in our old age because wearing the product simulates what it feels like to be an elderly person. That brings to mind an apocryphal story involving a CEO who wore a pregnancy suit to shop his store and then conceived the idea of parent and baby parking.

This anecdote provides a reminder that while CES brings us fantastic insight into technology that might shape retail in the future, we must never forget that the customers who shop our stores are real people and that true transformation in retail experience is always grounded in human truths.