Marks & Spencer says its new flagship store in Chester marks a new high in environmentally friendly and hi-tech retailing.
Giant digital display screens, touchscreen ‘browse and order’ points, free Wi-Fi, iPad-equipped shop assistants, QR codes everywhere… the new Marks & Spencer in Cheshire Oaks, Chester, is a showcase for M&S’s vision of the future.
A vision that M&S hopes will not only provide the blueprint for new stores, but for a revival in its fortunes. The latest trading figures show total like-for-like sales fell 2.8% in the first quarter to 30 June and general merchandise tumbled 6.8% - a worrying deterioration on its year to 31 March results, which showed 0.3% growth and a 1.8% decline respectively.
The Grocer visited the 151,000 sq ft behemoth ahead of its opening last week to see for itself whether the store that M&S boasts is bigger, greener and better than anything it has built before lives up to the billing.
The store, M&S’s biggest outside London, certainly ticks a lot of boxes on the environmental front. Recycled materials were used in 30% of the building and energy consumption is 30% lower than at other recent new stores. Foodwise it looks the part too, taking its cue in terms of artisan deli ambience from its 77,000 sq ft High Street Kensington store (the first to be revamped as part of its £500m refurb programme last September).
But what really sets this store apart is the technology. A testbed for new technologies, it brings under one roof concepts M&S has been trialling in different stores for several months and breathes life into Laura Wade-Gery’s vision of ‘multi-channel shopping’, the combination of virtual and real, online and offline, retail.
“Multichannel isn’t just something that’s relevant to other people’s customers,” says the e-commerce and multichannel director and former Tesco.com boss. “Take affluent women aged 55 to 65 - 52% now have a smartphone and a third have an iPad or tablet device.”
M&S is forking out huge sums on making sure it’s appealing to this increasingly tech-savvy customer. It is investing £140m in a new web platform it plans to launch in 2014 and will spend a further £100m on in-store technology over the coming years.
“M&S is putting more behind this than I had at Tesco,” says Wade-Gery.
It’s easy to see where the cash has been spent at Cheshire Oaks: 12 touchscreen ‘browse and order’ terminals give shoppers the opportunity to order from the entire M&S catalogue and pick up items from collection desks or have them delivered. The store boasts 10 iPad-equipped customer assistants, mainly roving the clothing and wine sections, who can look up additional product details and sell lines, sizes and colours not in stock.
The store also offers a more personalised shopping experience with two pioneering touchscreen terminals - one in homeware and the other in Health & beauty - for customers to use. The former, a ‘duvet and pillow selector’, recommends products based on personal profiles and the ‘virtual makeover’ counter in the beauty section models different beauty products on shoppers.
As well as being functional, the technology needs to look good and offer excitment, in much the same way that apple does at its high street showrooms. “We need to embrace this ‘showrooming’ ,” says Wade-Gery, pointing to the slick, mobile phone-shaped design of the terminals placed prominently around the shop floor and the many 70-inch digital displays broadcasting the latest designs and offers in store. “The visual appearance of the kit is important.”
Many of the store’s features will be rolled out to the rest of its 700-plus UK stores over the next few years, but not all. Some innovations won’t make the grade, says Wade-Gery, and her philosophy is “if it’s not going to work, fail fast and move on”. Other technologies for online shopping may be best suited to smaller stores, with a limited product range.
But the early signs are encouraging. Ten per cent of beauty sales are now made online, which M&S says is testament to the popularity of the virtual make-up counters. And the iPads have gone down sufficiently well in trials for M&S to roll them out to all its major stores.
The big question now is whether this hi-tech vision of the future will be enough to reboot M&S’s sales as well as the aesthetic appeal of its stores.