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Why Primark’s decision to go digital could damage customer experiences - and how it can be avoided

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Budget fashion chain Primark is finally embracing multichannel retail with a trial of a click-and-collect programme. But there are fears it could backfire and harm customer experiences. How can this be avoided?

28th Jun 2022
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After years of defiantly thumbing its nose at multichannel retailing, High Street chain Primark revealed last week that it is to trial a click-and-collect service in the UK. 

In what would be the budget fashion firm’s first serious foray into online shopping, the trial will see 25 Primark stores in the northwest of the country offering click-and-collect across some 2,000 clothing and lifestyle products, some of which will be exclusive to click-and-collect customers. 

The move marks a significant shift of strategy, with Primark having only launched a website recently, and even then only using it to preview the clothes on sale at its stores and - more recently - provide information about stock levels. 

"Primark offering online ordering is massive, as the retailer had maintained for a while that it would be strictly brick and mortar,” notes Melissa Minkow, director, retail strategy at CI&T. “Considering how price-sensitive consumers have been forced to become, an affordable retailer like Primark increasing its accessibility is a helpful move to shoppers.”

“Primark’s reluctance to join the digital age seems to have faded,” adds Sarah Painter, vice president of customer experience at Merkle Experience & Commerce, UK. “Online interactions now make up a big chunk of our lives, so this move will be beneficial. Digital stores can offer immediate and tangible experiences, which is crucial for an increasingly digital world.”

The decision to dip a toe in the digital waters has been welcomed by some. Minkow says: “Primark stores can be challenging to comprehensively shop on a time crunch, especially when crowded, so the online channel will create an efficiency for many. While the retailer will have to assume more returns, this decision is absolutely the right one in sustaining Primark’s positioning as a modern brand. If Primark didn’t innovate to match shoppers’ buying behaviours, the brand would risk obsolescence." 

But there are also commentators that believe the move will backfire. 

Justin Biddle, UK lead at Shopware, explains: "Primark's decision to launch an online store last year was bold - especially since it had shied away from ecommerce for so long. Because of this, the launch of its new click-and-collect service may be too ambitious. Primark lacks a deep tech experience, and this can risk putting a strain on the business if it fails to deliver, especially given the pace and efficiency of its competitors. In addition, the complete redesign of store processes and extra time needed to retrain store staff could create severe disruption across its store network.”

Amy Bastow, managing director at StorIQ, also has concerns. “Sensibly it’s decided to trial the launch later this year across only 25 stores in northwest England initially. But even with a pilot scheme, if it doesn’t have the right processes in place to support store staff or manage the logistics correctly, it could fail to deliver on getting the customer experience right.”

Could going digital do more CX harm than good?

Bastow emphasises that today’s retail environment is challenging, and retailers are having to work harder than ever before to keep stores open and drive return from their store estate. And while click-and-collect provides customers with convenience, it’s also not without its problems.

“Post-COVID lockdowns, the exodus of retail workers thanks to the great resignation and the ongoing drive to create the leanest possible operating model has meant that retail workers are constantly being asked to do more with less.” explains Bastow. “As the economy faces more tough times and the cost pressure on retail increases, this will inevitably filter down to put more demands on already stretched and stressed retail workers. That’s not a recipe for great customer service. In addition, new procedures are bound to have teething issues so creating a structured way to communicate new processes to store teams, and for stores to report problems that can be tracked by the team in head office will result in quicker resolutions and a happier workforce.”

Click-and-collect undoubtedly adds another layer of operational complexity into the mix. But if the right process are in place, a negative customer experience can still be avoided. So what does Primark need to do?

Bastow shares the following measures:

1. Streamline communication channels

Retailers often use a variety of methods and tools to manage operations. One of the most surprising is the proliferation of Whatsapp as a communications channel. While on the surface it’s a great, simple, and free tool, the data privacy concerns, and lack of control shouldn’t be ignored. But the biggest problem is that it’s another source that store managers have to check along with emails and company approved IM channels.

Having communications spread across so many different platforms leads to fragmentation and important updates and messages being missed. Head office may have spent time developing a process and sharing guidelines on what’s to be expected, but if employees don’t know where to find this information or managers need to individually check with employees that they’ve read the guidance – it can slow the process down. With consumers often choosing click-and-collect for convenience, the last thing they need is delays in store because employees haven’t been trained on a new process effectively.

Instead, retailers need to prioritise a single source of truth where information is shared and in an easily digestible format. Adding the capability to check employees have read and understood the guidelines can also bring more agility in retail operations. 

2. Digital-first

Despite the many benefits of digitisation, it’s also still surprising to discover the number of paper-based records or documentation that takes place. Aside from the environmental reasons of reducing the amount of paper (forms, checklists, policies, and visual merchandising guidelines) used in store, there’s also the cost savings. At an estimated print saving of £200 per store, per year, this adds up to £50k for 250 stores.

But the biggest benefit from a digitised platform is the opportunity to monitor and improve retail operations metrics and store compliance to brand standards in real-time. These insights – together with tracking product and consumer data can help deliver a better customer experience in stores by ensuring a great in store experience so customers don’t leave disappointed. This is even more important given Primark’s new click-and-collect service will likely lead to an increase in footfall to stores. 

3. GenZ-friendly onboarding 

Gen-Z, the generation born between 1995 and 2010, will make up 24%  of the Global Workforce in 2020 and are the first generation born into a digital world. They’re used to using technology in every aspect of their lives and in fact 91% said the technology an employer uses influences their job choice in a survey from Dell.

As one of the biggest groups to be in the workforce, using technology as part of onboarding to include customer experience and what is required for any new click-and-collect services will be hugely important. But retailers can also ensure the experience is a familiar one, such as a user interface that mimics the look and feel and scrollable feeds of social media. This will help ensure the technology in place is intuitive and easy to use without requiring intensive training. Great tech can also improve workflow and help employees manage their time more efficiently.

If Primark is committed to making click-and-collect work, it needs to have considered the implications on store staff and if their existing retail operations platform – if they have one – will make the process run smoother not harder. Driving customers to stores is a great thing and click-and-collect will absolutely drive footfall and increase sales but only if the team have the right tools for success and the experience doesn’t fail to deliver on customer expectations. 
 

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By marksgould
01st Jul 2022 10:21

Neil, Whilst I think your analysis of the general risks of a negative impact on customer experience is accurate, having worked with Primark as a client, I believe that they will have considered these at length and planned meticulously. With 58% of UK shoppers now researching online before visiting a store (source: ecommerceDB November 2021) the pandemic has changed shopping habits significantly and Primark is responding to this change. Primark is an exceptional retail business, particularly at analysing markets and trends, deciding a position and then executing brilliantly. Their entry and growth in the US market are testament to this when so many UK retailers have failed in that market. They will pilot and learn before rolling out at scale if it improves their customers' experience profitably.

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By Neil Davey
01st Jul 2022 10:47

Thanks for your comment, Mark. As you say, Primark has been highly successful up to now and the whole purpose of the trial is to identify risks and challenges, so I'm sure that they will only proceed with a full roll-out if they are 100% sure that it will cause no damage to the business or customer experience.

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