Back in 2001, I was a relatively new member of the fledgling Argos ecommerce team that had only fairly recently launched it’s first transactional website. Hard as it might be to believe these days, but back in 2001, online shopping was definitely not the norm for many people. However, the Argos management team had a clear vision when it came to digital innovation for it’s customers. It was an exciting time to be part of such a forward thinking business and especially as it took on it’s next major digital challenge – Click and Collect.
Thanks to it’s established in store stock check system and it’s network of distribution hubs across the country, Argos was always well placed to deliver click and collect and home delivery. The company also really and truly valued the opinion of it’s customers and one of the things we knew from our research was that customers found it frustrating to turn up to store only to find their item out of stock. If only there was a way we could let them know if something was in stock and allow them to reserve it…
Designing and developing the product
OK, so we knew there was a customer need and we also had a head start because of the stock check system. But how could we turn it into a product customers could use? My own particular role was as part of the team who designed the online customer journey, trying to translate the customer’s desired outcome into a quick, easy and reliable service. I was also responsible for analysing the customer journey and online performance of the product once it was live. So I had a front row seat as Argos set about delivering a UK online first. But like any e-commerce project, there is so much more to it than what the customer sees on the screen and there were a great team of people working all across the business to really understand the impact of every possible click and decision a customer took. For example…
- What if a customer reserves something and then doesn’t pick it up?
- What it two people reserve the same thing at once?
- How often will the stock feeds need updating?
- How much CPU space (yes, we really struggled to get the site to load quickly enough in the days before broadband and WIFI) will it take to do a stock query?
- Should the customer have to pay before they collect?
- Can a customer choose any store?
- Can a customer check stock for multiple products at once?
Plus a million other questions along those lines. Working in an ‘agile’ way is common practice now in many organisations, but back then we were working like this before agile was a ‘thing’. We workshopped ideas, built little test models and screens, did regular screen testing with customers and colleagues, stopped doing things if they didn’t work, sped things up if we thought they were great. All the while working in conjunction with our IT and retail colleagues.
The cultural challenge
When Argos launched click and collect, it was the first business to do so in the UK. Shopping in this way was simply not normal in 2001. Not only was it different for customers, it was different for our retail store colleagues. There were many concerns from store managers. Would it reduce footfall into the store? Would the sale be attributed to the store or the online team? Some just didn’t think it would work at all – mainly because that’s ‘not how customers shop’. Whilst obviously not a franchise model like the automotive industry, there were some distinct parallels with some of the challenges we hear and see today when you mention buying cars directly online. But the reality was that the customer demand was so clear, we were very confident it would work.
Rolling out the product
To deal with the cultural challenge and to deliver a soft launch, we settled on a regional, gradual roll out of Click and Collect (they selected the North East region). This did two things. Firstly, it allowed us to make very quick changes based on that early customer usage so that we could refine the product for the wider public rollout (get something out there, test it and learn was our mantra).
Because we were confident that the product would be a success, we believed that the store managers (some of whom remember were against the product) would end up becoming advocates for it.
There was a huge programme of engagement (some of our retail colleagues actually formed part of our product design team), training and clear communication and then we switched it on…
I have two very clear memories from that launch 19 years ago
- One of my jobs was to report on the number of reservations we were getting through the click and collect system as well as the number of customers who had picked up their products. Of course, we had some internal targets to hit and they were bullish. When I ran that first report and then sent it to my director, I got an email back almost straight away asking me to ‘run the report again – it’s wrong’. I ran it again and the numbers were the same. She then insisted she sit at my desk as we built the sales report from scratch (using Business Objects). Once again the report came back with the same number and she looked at me and said ‘we’re on to something here’!
- From a cultural perspective, those same, slightly cynical store managers were soon phoning their colleagues in other parts of the country waxing lyrical about the results. Store footfall was up, people were not just picking up their reserved items but buying other ‘impulse’ products and essentials like batteries and lightbulbs (just like we do on Amazon today). Store displays overnight became more important than ever. It wasn’t long before we had regional managers lobbying to be the next part of the country to roll out.
Lessons learned still valid for today
- We made mistakes but we learned quickly from them. For example, after a while, we changed the Argos.co.uk customer journey to force customers to decide whether they wanted to click and collect or have something delivered – before they’d chosen their item. We wanted to promote the service and steer customers this way. This was a huge mistake – we quickly learned that asking customers to select their delivery/collection method before they had settled on their product was confusing and off-putting. But we learned and we switched it back.
- We got a product out and we tested it with customers. My role as content manager was to understand how customers were using the service and the effect any changes we made would have on results (this was before conversion software did a lot of that for you). We probably had at least a dozen small tests going on at any one time on the live service. We learned so much so quickly.
- Online sales are not just a digital project. This piece of work impacted on our IT infrastructure, our supply chain, store capacity, pricing model, retail store management practices, our store display strategy (more customers waiting to collect meant making sure those collection areas were being utilised properly).
It might have been almost twenty years ago, but I see so many parallels with where car manufacturers sit today when it comes to omni-channel direct sales. We know there is customer demand for the service. For sure, there are cultural challenges to overcome at head offices, NSC’s and in the retail networks. We also know that the work is so much more than a digital project – it’s true business transformation.