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Mary Portas: Convergence is the future of everything

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9th Oct 2014
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Mary Portas became Queen of Ships for an hour-long keynote session at this week’s Marketing Forum event, held on the Aurora cruiseliner at Southampton docks.

Discussing her views on the future of customer needs and behaviour to a conference theatre made up of marketing and technology professionals, the outspoken retail expert talked openly about the brands she held both an affinity and distaste for – and that the most innovative brands weren’t those focusing solely on their customers’ digital footprint but those that understood how to best link experiences across digital and physical platforms in a thoughtful way.

“What binds people together and gives us a sense of belonging is a shared understanding; a collective experience or a common interest,” she said, in relation to current customer behavioural trends.

“We seek people who we judge to be similar to ourselves and the internet is making this gathering of shared interest much, much easier – so if you’re a customer or a consumer, you’re now a participant. You’re proactive, interactive and you’re now bringing your experiences online and demanding it offline too, from shops, gyms, banks, bars, hotels. Everything.

“We know that we’re in the age of engagement with brands – that’s a given. However, the brands that are really succeeding are the ones that help people to connect off and online. Brands that help us come together and really share experiences. Brands that are useful; not bossy or controlling or talking at us.”

Connecting online and offline

Portas highlighted Argos, in particular, as a brand that understood the importance of connecting the on and offline experience, and that it continued to succeed “against the odds”, not by closing any of its 745 physical stores, but by slowly turning them into ‘social hubs’ that were just a part of a connected shopping experience:

“It didn’t take huge intellect from John Walden (appointed Argos CEO in May 2014) to realise that all of his business should go online, but here he was with 740-odd shops and he was declaring he’d continue to keep them all open… he saw that the internet was just becoming part of our everyday lives. He brought in boutique designers to create this ambient, relaxed atmosphere for Argos. He wanted to make Argos stores feel like peoples’ front rooms. The proof is there to see – Argos leverages and drives 460m users online into 130m people through the shop doors – it’s extraordinary.”     

Portas also singled HMV out for its slow re-emergence onto the High Street, and that its shift in philosophy from just being a record shop to being a venue for gigs with the shop on the periphery was a potential example of how High Street stores can change their approach to the retail experience.

“The big ‘but’ for businesses is – are you set up for this? If you look at the focus for most businesses over the last 30 years, their energies are funneled into an obsession with digital: digital content, digital departments…we know digital is here to stay but it has now become a part of our everyday lives and now we’re seeing people demanding that these brand experiences feed their lives in a richer way.

“What’s happening as a result is, there’s a creative tension between physical and digital retail. But it’s proof that there’s a really fertile sea bed between the two that enables brands to mix conviviality and community with technology and design innovation. So much so that digital businesses are now seeking physical spaces to really use those tangible expressions of their brands where they connect to their communities. Look at pop-up shops – they  took £2.1bn for the UK economy last year. 

“Boundaries are being blurred between retail, hospitality, entertainment, art – it’s this convergence economy that we’re seeing and I genuinely believe this is where investment will be for selling in the future.”

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