Joule’ Chief Customer Officer on tech-driven customer discovery
When Hardy joined Joules in September 2016 in a newly created role, her appointment was part of a restructure of its marketing and eCommerce teams. Previously Chief Operating Officer at Holland & Barrett, where she was responsible for e-commerce, marketing, CRM and PR, her arrival also marked her first foray into the world of fashion.
“My observation from the outside looking in at the business was that they were doing a lot right,” she says.
The figures back this up. In the six months ending 27 November, Joules reported a 16.2% boost in revenues to £81.4m and pre-tax profits of £7.5m. Online sales contributed significantly, up 30.3% against an overall sales hike of 15.8%.
“It wasn’t about me coming in to change everything that they had been doing,” she says. “The thinking internally was around the need to focus on the customer and get the business oriented around the customer”.
Marketing and e-commerce
Joules has historically been associated with older females, but part of its active customer growth (up 30% year-on-year in the 26 weeks to 27 November) is coming from a younger demographic.
“Our heartland is 35 to 45, but actually we are appealing to customers much younger than that and much older than that,” Hardy says.
The notion of family values is what applies equally to all Joules’ demographics and Hardy admits that the brand is skewed more towards rural customers.
She does however, stress that that is due to a great extent to the business’s distribution model, which has been concentrated on stores in market and seaside towns and a presence at country shows and fairs.
“If you look at new stores that we’re opening in urban locations, they are doing extremely well. And if you look at the spread of our eCommerce sales, whilst they are slightly weighted more towards rural, we are seeing fast-growing urban areas.”
Joules’ marketing activity mirrors the spread of its distribution model, ranging from its “beautiful colourful” catalogues (published in four to six times a year), to a lot of email activity. “Social media has been a very important channel for us, mostly oriented around Facebook, but we do have Twitter and Instagram feeds,” she says.
Human to Human marketing
Hardy admits that personalised, human to human marketing at Joules is at a fledgling developmental stage and that it is part of the reason behind the creation of her role.
“There’s been some focus on it primarily through the eCommerce team, looking at targeted emails so we don’t send the same email to everyone, we segment and focus what we’re sending out. But it’s not terribly sophisticated, if I’m honest, without being dismissive of it. They’re just beginning that journey.”
Accordingly, Hardy and her team at Joules have been examining customer segments and how to take human to human marketing “to the next stage”.
“We’ve just started to do personalised web presentations,” she says. “Now we can send you an email that when you click through you’ll get a different version of the web homepage than somebody else might get.”
Human and machine
Hardy is adamant that personalisation should not be entirely beholden to data and tech, that the human element is a crucial ingredient in the human to human marketing targeting mix.
“In the many years I’ve been in marketing, technology has evolved enormously. While it’s always very tempting to jump on the latest technology and think, ‘Great, this is going to allow me to do X, Y and Z’, I think you’ve always got to balance it with that human insight,” she says.
“As eCommerce has grown, businesses have ended up in a multi-channel situation where you’ve got your eCommerce channel, your retail channel, usually run by different people, and both have benefits.”
While eCommerce is hugely convenient and quick to use for customers, it pays to consider some of the tenets of physical retail. And vice versa. “There are benefits that each channel can learn from the other and move to what’s commonly called the omni-channel experience,” she says.
“For me, eCommerce needs to become like a human interaction that happens in a physical store. And you’re starting to see that with online chat coming onto websites, more content and advice available on websites, rather than just a shop.”
Fashion at the forefront of personalisation and Human to Human marketing
“In terms of the different retail sectors, fashion is very good at adopting and is one of the trailblazers on personalisation,” she says.
She cites ASOS, Marks & Spencer and John Lewis, as exponents, allowing shoppers to enter their personal tastes into searches so that they filter out what they are uninterested in seeing.
“I think that’s an interesting way to do it as you’re not deciding for the customer, you’re asking them to put their tastes in and trying to show them that you’re learning and letting them take the lead.”
Sense of discovery
But Hardy again stresses the need to balance data and technology with human instinct and intuition when mastering human to human marketing. Sometimes a customer might be waiting for a bus and just wants to make a quick purchase on their mobile and “they’re not interested in discovering anything new”, she says.
“But another time, they’re sitting with their iPad in front of a boring TV program they might be perusing around and they might want to discover some stuff. It’s hard to know which moment they’re in.”
One aspect of personalisation that has captured the imaginations of Joules’ consumers is customised clothing.
“We have VIP events in stores where we have a machine that allows people to embroider initials onto scarves to create a personalised version of the scarf, and it’s hugely popular. So there is definitely something about people wanting something that feels very individual.”
But the challenge for retailers is to deliver that at scale in a cost-effective way and it is partly the reason that for Hardy the jury is still out regarding certain nascent technologies like 3D printing. “I think there is a drive in demand for personalised products. I can’t clearly see how that happens in a way that’s economically viable.”
Boosting the economic credentials of eCommerce by minimising returns is another consideration for the online retailer. But can returns ever be eliminated entirely?
“I would love to believe that,” Hardy says. “But I think it’s a way off. Certainly for a fashion business returns is a big lever — if we can improve on that, then it helps with our commercials enormously. It’s in our interests to work with technology and improve it.”
Perhaps augmented reality or virtual reality will help, she muses, or other yet-to-be-invented techs with the answers.
There are other headline-grabbing technologies that for Hardy have hitherto failed to set eCommerce alight but which are rich with potential in conjunction with human to human marketing.
“Wearable tech hasn’t really taken off to the degree that people expected,” she says, questioning whether it is a matter of time before retailers will be able to “almost personally identify a customer when they’re walking into a store”.
“Loyalty cards have now moved online so you’ve got loyalty apps,” she adds. “Is the next step some kind of wearable tech where you know immediately that someone walks into a store that they’re a VIP and so they get personalised treatment?”
While questions surrounding a lot of technology abound, Hardy definitely envisages AI being used increasingly to analyse customer data and develop segmentation models, ultimately to “understand what the next best action is”.
“I can definitely see a world where AI would take that on and start to automate some of those processes, which means you can do things much quicker and get learnings much quicker.”
And while she is reticent about the prospect of AI being used instead of a human in a customer interaction — until perhaps “technology makes it indistinguishable from a person” — she is much more enthusiastic about the prospect of AI personal assistants within human to human marketing.
“You only need to look at the Amazon Dash button — that’s all about convenience and making it really easy,” she says. “Sometimes the customer just wants a really quick transactional experience and other times they want a different experience.
“I do see that coming. But when it becomes mass market, I’m not sure.”
A marriage of tech and tradition
At Joules, uniting the various retail channels so that they complement one another and create a consistent brand experience for customers is the key to its future, and the reason why Hardy’s chief customer officer role was created.
“A lot of these bits of technology are happening in isolation,” she says. “So trying to bring all that back to get a single view of the customer is difficult. Finding a way of bringing in all of that insight together — and that’s perhaps where AI will help — that would be amazing.”
Hardy is very curious about how tech such as virtual reality and augmented reality can help create both consistent and complementary experiences to customers across all channels and enhance human to human marketing. She references virtual and augmented reality technology that enables people to ‘paint’ in a virtual space around them.
“I think it would be amazing if buying clothing, I could put myself into the middle of a world where I’m trying on the clothing even though I’m not physically there,” she says. “That brings a whole new dimension to the experience of buying online.”
While Hardy is ebullient about the potential for VR and AR to allow customers access to virtual changing rooms, she is equally excited about how technology can be used to create personal brand experiences for customers.
She refers to John Lewis’s use of VR to bring to (virtual) life its trampolining animals Christmas TV advertisement at its flagship store on Oxford Street.
“You stepped onto a mock-up trampoline and put these VR glasses on and you were physically in the advertisement,” she recalls. “The animals came out and you could stroke them.
“I think those kinds of uses of technology, which help people experience the brand more immersively, they could be really exciting if you get them right and in the right application.”
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