Mano Manoharan
Mano Manoharan
A view from Mano Manoharan

Think BR: How our independent retailers can re-build their brand experience in 2013

Giving customers a more personal shopping experience could be the key to success for independent retailers, writes Mano Manoharan.

News that HMV has called in the administrators is further bad news for all music lovers - and another kick in the teeth for our depleted high street.

HMV’s Chairman Philip Rowley had been fighting seismic shifts in the music business model - which even his considerable skills couldn’t withstand. I say this with a degree of personal experience, since he had previously been my boss at EMI Music.

HMV's demise follows on from news that Tesco was expanding big time into coffee stores, under the name of Harris + Hoole. Which must be the straw that will shortly break the back of many an independent coffee store Barista.

Ex-independent newspaper, stationary, book, photo print and wine retailers - would be available to shed a sympathetic tear - since they’ve already been there…

What with supermarket Goliaths expanding into every niche offer, the relentless growth of online (now nearly 15% of our total spend) and the flight from our city centres - what remains of our once proud Independent retail sector - must believe that the end is truly in sight. Oh… did I also mention the recession?

All is not lost however - one independent retailer’s approach may point the way for others.

Last week I popped into Sweaty Betty - a sports outfitter for women - that had just opened on our gap-toothed Muswell Hill high street.

While my wife tried on an array of brightly coloured gym tops, I noticed that a blackboard prominently advertised yoga and running classes. Curious, I spoke to the manager who excitedly told me they run free classes two or three times a week - to encourage woman to get fit. The yoga takes place in the specially created basement space. The running is in the nearby Highgate Woods.

Highly noble perhaps - but this is also a brilliant yet simple marketing strategy.

  • It demonstrates to all visitors to the shop a clear passion for the activity they are in (keeping woman fit).
  • At a low cost (there are no equipment or additional need for space.
  • With little admin - an employee with the right skills would only need three to four hours a week to run all of this - again not a great cost.

The result is loads of feel good brand engagement, which means greater brand loyalty for Sweaty Betty - with all the commensurate commercial benefits.

Putting my cynical hat on, I remarked to my wife that even if no one turned up for a single class, or the classes were poorly run - the blackboard image of real customer engagement - in itself speaks volumes.

Indeed, in the time it took for my wife to make a purchasing decision, three women signed up for the free yoga and running classes.

Goliaths such as Tesco and Sainsbury may have the advantage on sourcing of product and pricing, but they would find such a bespoke brand building strategy very difficult to replicate - across 1000+ stores. Size and corporate red tape precludes such personalised tailoring to a local market.

I have to admit, Tesco’s Harris + Hoole impressed me on my first visit. I particularly liked the chalk scribbles about each of the staff and what they were wearing that day (another use of a blackboard to convey ‘authenticity’).

Three days later the affect was diminished when the same scribbles remained - with a different set of staff behind the counter. So not that authentic then.

This is perhaps the source of salvation for our high street. The independence and small size of sole traders can have its own advantages after all. They can be more tactically nimble and thus provide a more genuinely ‘personal’ shopping experience.

Lets call this customer relationship: Brand "Genuine-Lasting-Useful-Engagement" = Brand G.L.U.E.

So, adopting the Sweaty Betty approach, what can our other hard pressed Independent retailers do for little cost and admin - to enhance customer passion and make them stick to their retail brand like G.L.U.E?

The basis for my Brand G.L.U.E approach is that the world is full of passionate experts with time on their hands. Maybe they have made their money, had their 15 minutes of fame - but ALL would, if approached in the right way, give up their time to showcase their skills to a small informal group.

Ex-footballers, musicians, pop stars, writers, chefs, hairdressers and professionals of all types are sitting at home, waiting for that well-timed and constructed call…

And if done in the right way this should be a zero cost marketing initiative.

So looking across our depleted high street this is what Independent retailers could consider trying to do to create Brand G.L.U.E.

Bakers/patisserie - perhaps short baking sessions of cakes and bread in the shop - by a local cookery author or chef? Customers will then be able to buy the product ("this is one I made earlier…")

Bookshop - local writers talk about their work. Brings in footfall and again stimulates related sales. Align with book reading groups and allow them to use space in your shop to meet up. Even if it is after closing time, the sight of a group of engaged people is bound to be brand positive.

Records/music shop - there are plenty of pop stars and musicians around wanting to reminisce! As an example of how un-proactive some retailers can become - I was astounded in the summer that my local classical record shop had made no attempt to showcase the classical music played during the Olympic ceremonies - until I mentioned it…

Sports/Cycling shop - too early to get Bradley Wiggins to turn up for free, but there are a lot of ex pros out there wanting to inspire others – for the cost of a cup of tea and cake.

Hairdressers - What about ‘how to achieve famous celebs hair dos’? Target 6th form colleges to create a real sense of energy for all by-passers to witness.

Kitchen/bathroom fitters - Attract kids with SIMS design your own kitchen/bathroom exercises on ipads – and the parents will have to follow and stick around!

So, for the independent retailer it could be as simple as this. Demonstrate passion in your product and service and your customers will return it and stick with you.

The Sweaty Betty Brand G.L.U.E approach is perhaps the best and most effective weapon in the fight for consumers’ hearts and wallets.

Mano Manoharan