Departments of discontent: Retail's big content challenge

25th Aug 2016

Department stores are struggling to cope with sizable challenges – they are navigating a complex and competitive marketplace while attempting to connect with increasingly distracted consumers who see little distinction between online and in-store experiences.

This is a world in which niche multi-brand retailers like Urban Outfitters are showing the way. The future is about brand engagement, not price. Obvious success factors like product assortment aside, that means delivering a different kind of retail experience – and digital content is playing an increasingly important role in defining that.

However, content alone is not king. Shoppable content, integrated with and relevant to every customer journey, is the key to success in the new retail reality.

What does this mean for department stores, and are they moving with the times? Well, the early signs are positive. For example, Selfridges debuted a shoppable app earlier this year including a ‘shop-by-Instagram’ functionality, using self-generated content as a means to drive sales.

The ‘Big Content’ challenge

The merging of online and in-store into today’s commonplace ‘bricks and clicks’ intergrated retail propositions has put content at the front line of consumer engagement. Shoppable media, editorial content, rich media, social and user generated content (UGC) enhance the brand experience and community aspect of retail decision-making by integrating content directly into the commerce journey.

Smart retailers have recognised this and are investing in their content assets to deliver a high-level, engaging experience across all channels. Similar to Selfridges’ approach, Dune, the fashion and footwear company, uses Instagram to share its shoppable products with customers.

Success here is driven not just by the quality of that content but also the frequency and reach of digital content. Putting engaging shoppable content in front of more people and updating the retail experience more often creates a sense of ‘newness’.

Driving improvements in all three aspects, rather than trading off one against another, is at the heart of the challenge for department stories: A big content challenge.

Unfortunately, this is where large established retailers are largely failing to keep up with smaller, nimbler challengers. The results from volume two of the Amplience Big Content Index (BCI) demonstrates this clearly.

The Big Content Index, volume two

The BCI assessed ten European department stores – Brown Thomas, Debenhams, Fortnum & Mason, Harrods, Harvey Nichols, House of Fraser, John Lewis, Liberty, Marks & Spencer, Selfridges. It considered how well the companies did across five dimensions: Their use of editorial content, rich media, social media, user generated content (UGC) and guided selling, assessed through a final score.

The good and the bad

Only two retailers, Marks & Spencer and Debenhams’ managed scores above 50 per cent in the BCI, which tells a story of missed opportunity. Seen on the flip side, this also presents a chance to steal a march on the competition in a fiercely contested sector.

It’s not all bad news. Most did well in making use of editorial content, with Debenhams scoring the highest at 70 per cent and Harvey Nichols and John Lewis demonstrating room for improvement with 29 per cent. In fact all of the department stores had some piece of editorial content on their websites. Historically, department stores published regular catalogues; today they are mixing ecommerce with editorial and putting online content front and centre for the consumer.

Similarly, social media was a relatively strong area, with most scores over 80 per cent, and two brands – Marks & Spencer and John Lewis – scoring 100 per cent. This indicates that many brands are using social smartly – linking to their channels from the website, posting a good mix of content, and making content shoppable.

However, this success was not consistent across the other aspects. Many brands struggled in certain areas, like rich media and UGC, where average scores were only 31 per cent and 11 per cent respectively.

UGC in particular represents a huge opportunity for department stores. It may be a relatively new form of content, but it offers great potential for brands to better engage with users and expand their brand presence across geographies without heavy content investments.

Liberty London, with a score of 44 per cent for rich media, faces a challenge creating and maintaining a responsive and rich content experience. Frequent updates are critical to keeping content fresh and engaging – especially when serving such a sophisticated and loyal customer base. Liberty is now working with Amplience to deliver a content authoring solution that quickly launches a responsive site without compromising quality or innovation. Liberty will be able to drive value from content by making the online experience shoppable, rich and localised in nature.

Departments of discontent?

So, what’s the big takeaway from this BCI assessment of department stores?

Put simply, few of these brands have overcome the big content challenge. Even though most are aware that success increasingly depends on the delivery of high quality, diversified content.

To that end, many are making significant investments to improve their use of content. As the space continues to develop, we expect to see continued adoption of all five content areas as well as growing content sophistication.

Ultimately, department stores need to monitor content performance and develop clear content strategies to drive measurable improvement and enable effective targeting of resources and investment. Those that fail to do so will become departments of discontent.

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