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Insights

The art of the possible: Decathlon

SHIFT Magazine visited Decathlon’s flagship store in Surrey Quays, London to see how its highly publicised refurbishment aims to satisfy the demands of the modern, omnichannel consumer.

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The art of the possible: Decathlon

Decathlon, the world’s largest sporting goods retailer, has remained resolute in the face of a shifting market that has claimed the scalps of major former rivals.

The French company has expanded into new territories around the world while continuously expanding its presence in the UK, despite the same period seeing JJB Sports bought out by Sports Direct, and American giant Sports Authority disappear from over 450 locations in the US following its liquidation.

Now, as part of an aggressive ten-year expansion plan, Decathlon looks to grow to 300 stores nationwide, initially by building its presence around London, Birmingham and Manchester. To set the bar high ahead of this ambitious strategy, it has spent millions refitting and doubling the size of its flagship store, aiming to create a shopping experience that can be rolled out across the country.

After reading a report from Retail Week that showcased the £14 million refit of Decathlon’s Surrey Quays HQ, SHIFT Magazine took its own trip to London in September 2018 to see if the store matched up to the positive headlines it had already garnered – and if its strategy of getting people in store for expertise and interactivity was a worthwhile investment.

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Bridging the gap

Ahead of our visit, it was already clear that Decathlon did not have the physical presence once held by its former rivals, but we thought its pragmatic approach to online growth had put it in good stead – a firm investment in its logistics provided a strong basis for store expansion.

Customers visiting its website are offered a salvo of perks that many established players and competitors simply don’t provide, including:

  • A 365-day returns period;
  • Accurate stock check;
  • Free click and collect from any store within 24 hours;
  • Standard delivery within three working days for £3.99 (and free over £30) – including bulky goods such as table tennis tables to anywhere in Great Britain.

These provisions still have some way to go before consumers get the seamless experience they want – most notably, introducing immediate click and collect, given the fact Decathlon has accurate in-store stock check. Yet unlike most other retailers, the company proudly declared itself as an omnichannel business: a tactical direction that already culminated in it building its logistics hub in Northampton. As a result, we presume that it’s only a matter of time before the company adds further benefits.

The company seemed to have designed its online offering to complement and overcome the location restrictions of its national network which, despite comprising 43 stores in the UK, only has four north of the M62. As such, the multimillion-pound refit and expansion of its east London flagship could effectively give the green light for this new template to be copied and pasted into existing locations, as well as brand-new outlets opening in new markets across the nation and beyond.

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With this approach, Decathlon could hit competitors hard and keep customers very happy indeed, thanks to certain store developments – many of which we tried for ourselves.

An enhanced, hands-on approach

To capitalise on cross-selling both sports clothing and equipment, Decathlon has invested heavily in bespoke product testing areas, where visitors can try products before they buy. Over 70 sports have been represented by these zones; the most impressive of these are a virtual golf course (with PGA tour golfer Paul McNulty at hand to help people optimise their swing, so long as they book and pay a fee), as well as a rooftop basketball court – which sadly wasn’t open for us to view on our visit, nor could we quite ascertain when or how it could be made available.

While the facilities we did manage see to were far from bleeding edge, they were nicely implemented and perfect for on-site upselling. True enthusiasts could try out new clubs or racquets, while players of similar sports could spend 15 minutes in a safe, comfortable environment to test whether they could extend their sporting pastime to a similar discipline – for example, tennis fans could try badminton, squash, or table tennis.

We also saw how well the site was geared towards children. Upstairs, we found a bike track and scooter circuit, as well as soft-play archery boards, child-sized basketball hoops and miniature football goals. Instead of being dragged around by their parents, youngsters could get interactive. Given the adult customer base often associates Decathlon’s modus operandi with healthiness, skill development and the opportunity to make friends through the shared passion of sport and fitness, it’s a positive trip all round – one that encourages spending on youngsters by parents eager to push against the continuing rise of tech-based entertainment.

Yet the most important thing these interactive zones did was encourage shoppers to avoid making simple beelines for their chosen section, pushing them instead to explore every area of the store, meaning they were exposed to a much larger range of sporting goods between each aisle. That said, we felt that the display areas could have been better placed.

The least interactive product ranges in the store were found across the bottom floor; fitness gear and trainers were particularly dominant. This seemed to prioritise ease of sale to busy joggers rather than reflect the opportunity to excite, involve and potentially upsell to an already captive audience, as was promised by reports of the refit. Upstairs was far more exciting: golf, basketball, archery, scooters, tennis, football and more were free to explore first hand, and there was a strong argument for swapping the floors entirely in order to encourage customer engagement from the first moment.

Function over fashion

What’s safe to say about Decathlon’s flagship store is that the £14 million has not been fully extended to the looks of the store; its bare concrete floors, often-sparse shelving and whitewashed walls initially seemed a little more reminiscent of a Costco than a sports retailer.

However, once we started to explore, the Surrey Quays store felt open and easy to browse. It made sense for there to be no flooring on top of the concrete from the first moment we wandered in; people were actively riding their bikes into the store for them to get fixed or serviced, in what proved to be a monumentally sized area for bicycle maintenance at the front end of the ground floor.

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Meanwhile, the lifeless floor helped more colourful underfoot displays catch the eye, from the bright tracks and fake grass of practice areas all the way through to a comparably innocuous – though no less useful – floor print that demonstrated the different sizes of the rolled microfibre towels offered above it.

On top of this, the otherwise austere décor of the new warehouse certainly felt like it placed a firmer focus on the products and testing zones. An often-heard criticism of Sports Direct is the perceived “pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap” mentality, with ceiling-high racks displaying products in every direction. While this approach suits some shoppers, Decathlon’s simpler approach ensured that everyone in store was engaged with products, whether they’re browsing or actively testing, and they at least have room to negotiate fellow customers.

Sometimes, it felt like Decathlon missed the mark; the painted running track, which ran an oval around the central footwear aisle, may look the part but in the context of the store’s push towards creative interactivity, little good may come from implying that someone should sprint around the shoe racks. It provided a clear sign as to where footwear could be found, at least.

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Yet everything felt purposeful. Sure, there still might be an argument for more comfortable lighting, or other small flourishes that improve its perception as a higher-end retailer, but on the other hand, Decathlon is already planning on undercutting Sports Direct’s cheaper price point by 20% on its entry-level products (which do seem to take up a major percentage of in-store stock). The interior design undoubtedly plays into this push towards a simple, honest approach.

Expertise on all levels

In another omnichannel approach to customer satisfaction, Decathlon is actively encouraging its staff to become bona fide specialists in their fields, underlining both in-store and online efforts to stay relevant and respond to evolving trends and tastes.

As Retail Week reported, 40 or so members of Decathlon’s 1,300 UK workers have been designated “sport experts” across its biggest sales categories, who “continuously research products, visit the sports retailer’s international estate and tailor the UK offer”. Ultimately, this means it will get the right products at the right time, anticipating the future requirements of both new and returning customers.

Meanwhile, it is actively developing the knowledge of in-store staff – killing two birds with one stone by appealing to the customer and the employee through their personal development. The bottom line is friendliness and building a relationship with the shopper: staff are told to get the best product for them, ignoring price point in favour of true service. There was no shortage of these helpers on hand when we were there, even on a weekday morning.

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Given that sports equipment can often be technical or a major investment, this keen eye on the customer is exactly what the company needs to flourish, especially given the poor customer feedback competitors such as Sports Direct continue to receive.

A transparent goal

Decathlon isn’t backwards in coming forwards about its future. It already has many of the ingredients needed to power its ambitious growth target and operates in a market that still lacks brand dominance. While it still has a lot of ground to cover – particularly in perfecting its prized omnichannel experience – the foundations have been firmly laid. Its HQ surpassed expectations once we were there, and even our own photos don’t do the experience justice.

What sets the business apart from its rivals isn’t that it’s responding to customer demands; Decathlon is anticipating them. While it has very much had a “slow and steady wins the race” mentality up to this point, Decathlon certainly looks like it could transform from the tortoise into the hare in its race against rivals – except that it doesn’t exhibit any arrogant traits that could see it lose on the final stretch.

Insights

Why retailers cannot ignore McDonald’s’ touchscreen innovation

Replacing staff with touchscreen technology at the point of sale hasn’t made the experience less personal for McDonald’s customers – it’s delivering better consumer value than ever before, and high-street counterparts could learn a lot from it.

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Why retailers cannot ignore McDonald’s’ touchscreen innovation

McDonald’s rarely gets things wrong, and its continued success proves it. While it constantly sets the bar for fast-food, its most recent technological adjustments could raise the stakes for the high street as a whole.

The company has always quickly responded to the changing tastes of its customers. From its “grown-up” redesign of European outlets (a strategy since adapted by competitors such as Greggs), to the expansion of its healthy food range (a strategy since adapted by competitors such as Greggs), its decisions have maintained its high-street, fast-food dominance despite there being more competition than ever before, and at a time when consumers are more impatient than ever.

Over the last couple of years, McDonald’s has rolled out Evoke’s touchscreen ordering system at an alarming rate. Cynically, it can be seen as a shrewd move, given it lowers demand for point-of-sale staff and could drop the wage bill significantly. However, McDonald’s has demonstrated how the facelessness of technology does not replace the faces of its staff – instead, it can complement and enhance the consumer experience, responding to a greater demand for personalised service using more suitably modern tech.

The introduction of touchscreen ordering will undoubtedly become a norm in fast food, but retailers in other markets need to take notice of the possibilities this specific development could have for their own high-street presence – so long as they use it correctly.

Temptation stations

McDonald’s makes changes that make it more profitable, and touchscreen ordering systems are no exception. As identified by Brandon Weber of Big Think, the company may see sales rise by over 5% in the first year of the tech’s rollout. While McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook attributed this to dwell time in front of the screen, Weber cited a 2017 study that asserted how the “physical experience of touching products – even on screen – increased the likelihood that a consumer would make a ‘hedonic’ purchase”.

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What retailers can learn from this: By opening a touchscreen channel, you provide customers with a middle ground between online browsing and in-store exploration. While the technology itself is another means of enabling sales, its clever use within your store – such as combining it with a stock check facility, an item finder or an ordering form – you can provide a customised service at a key location in your store, encouraging more footfall and product exploration to an increasingly technologically-minded consumer.

Complementary ordering

It’s no surprise that a fast-food restaurant inspires hedonistic tendencies in its customers by giving them easier technology to order from. But it’s not all down to self-led temptation – McDonald’s follows the standards set by Amazon and friends by recommending complementary dishes, such as sides and desserts. It’s simple yet effective upselling, and the removal of face-to-face ordering only makes the decision more guiltless.

What retailers can learn from this: It’s not too difficult to inspire a customer to buy something related to a searched product (e.g. the correct cable to go with electronic goods) – but it’s easy to take this concept a step further by analysing wider purchasing trends. For example, fashion retailers can use touchscreen ordering outside of changing rooms to promote a wider set of clothing, potentially tailored to the shopper’s tastes, size or outfit purpose, based on recommendations set by either stylists or an AI system which analyses other shoppers’ paired purchases.

And just like McDonald’s, businesses can take this one step further by putting point-of-service staff in a more positive, personal role than the dreaded, shopper-bothering “is everything OK?” approach.

Repurposing and enhancing the role of staff

Weber also noted how McDonald’s staunchly defended its introduction of touchscreens by claiming they allowed staff to better serve customers – not replace them. This is largely down to its table service option: after ordering your food, you can now pick up a plastic table number and have someone deliver the food to your table – effectively aligning it closer to Nando’s than Burger King. While POS staff still exist, this bonus means customers can now sit and wait, as opposed to getting a ticket, aimlessly standing and grumbling to oneself – or engaging in the 2am bunfight of climbing over tired and emotional people trying to get served.

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What retailers can learn from this: Businesses cannot afford to use touchscreens to replace staff, as consumers are now crying out for the personal touch, alongside more convenience. Workers can complement touchscreen technology in fashion stores, for example, by acting as personal helpers or even stylists, fetching alternative or complementary outfit options for those in changing rooms to try on. As well as keeping people in store, it showcases the benefits of ecommerce-style technology with a service customers couldn’t possibly get at home.

And as we discuss in our 2018 Fashion Analysis in our first-ever Retail Experience Score, demand is higher than ever for click and collect; retailers already need to use staff better to offer a faster and more accurate stock-led service, so they can be reassigned to meet this demand and help drive footfall further.

Accessibility for all

While this benefit may be overlooked by the average consumer, McDonald’s is also making orders easier for those who don’t feel comfortable with human interaction. Whether helping people with experience of mental health issues to those who are introverted or just someone who personally prefers the tech, the ability to order on a screen breaks down another boundary for countless consumers.

What retailers can learn from this: Aside from the obvious benefit of being more inclusive, touchscreens can be adapted to other environments with ease. Retail, unlike fast food, can often be notorious for its high-pressure sales tactics. Factoring in this system will help people discover the products they want at their own pace, while a complementary personal helper service can work with it, if required. Additionally, the likes of clothing shops – where people may not be comfortable asking for a certain size – can be better catered to if they request an item to try on, before finding these sizes hanging up for them in a dressing room.

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What you want without the pressure

As with coffee shops, fast-food outlets offer increased customisation with pretty much everything they sell, satisfying different budgets, appetites and health concerns. Personalisation through touchscreens represents the easiest means of doing this, not least because people often don’t know what options are open to them at the counter; the technology also stops someone rushing an order because they’re at the front of a queue of hungry consumers. This opportunity for detailed personalisation wins customers back – they get what they want, how they want it, and can take their time to switch things up if the mood takes them.

What retailers can learn from this: The ability to explore, compare and customise purchases with touchscreens could be hugely impactful for a number of retail sectors. Electronics sellers in particular could benefit, given the huge choice available for major purchases, notably laptops and mobile phones. Customers looking for either of these know that they will commit to their choice for a minimum of two years, so high-pressure face-to-face sales can be intimidating for many, especially if the member of staff securing the contract looks for upselling opportunities.

If touchscreens were more prevalent in electrical retailers, customers could take their time to browse aesthetic options like colour, but also explore the benefits of performance issues such as memory, data, screen size, and more. The addition of comparison tables, similar to those offered online by the likes of GSMArena.com, could not only help the customer, but actively get them in store to compare models, test them in store, and get human input when they want it. They can be in charge of their purchase from start to finish, imbued by expertise offered by the store in question.

Tailored correctly, touchscreens can and will enhance retail experiences, and could reposition staff doing what customers want, and in a way that’s much more comfortable for them.

Showcasing more in store

It’s as simple as it is effective: touchscreens, when not helping people order their food, show video advertisements for other McDonald’s products when not in use. It means no opportunity to sell is wasted – and new products, sales or underselling stock can be prioritised at the touch of a button.

What retailers can learn from this: Advertising is part and parcel of any store, from window displays to end-of-aisle promotional shots. Replacing these often-static set-ups with eye-catching moving ads – which can transform into interactive hubs at the touch of a button – can offer the best of both worlds in most, if not all, retail environments.

Customers are lovin’ it

Tailored correctly, touchscreens can and will enhance retail experiences, and could reposition staff doing what customers want, and in a way that’s much more comfortable for them. McDonald’s has committed to the technology for the future and while it already looks like it’ll spell great success for the fast-food giant, the blueprint it follows is one that can be easily followed by even the newest retailers taking their place on the high street.

While real success for this technology requires many cornerstones of omnichannel excellence to work properly – specifically accurate stock check, intelligent upselling and (even limited) personalisation – touchscreens could pave the way for bigger and more responsive tech. It’s just surprising that so few businesses still haven’t considered its vast array of benefits yet.