Argos. Clearly doing well as the UK's most popular 'catalogue showroom retailing' store in the UK. More than 700 stores, 130m customers and £4.3b in sales in 2008 isn't bad. They also take 26% of their sales online, aided by an Argos catalogue found in 18m households across the country. Not bad for a chain who relies on a strictly 'self-serve' philosophy that doubles as a business model... but they could do it so much better.
Having just moved flats, I've probably done the 'Argos dance' more times in the past 3 months than I care to mention. You know - the one where you:
- Enter the store
- Find/wait for a laminated catalogue
- Emphatically flip/slide/skim through the 2000+ page bible
- Find your desired product
- Check if product is in stock using a calculator-style keypad
- Write out the product's 8-digit code on a (provided) slip of paper
- Walk over to the payment kiosk at the other side of the store
- Re-enter the product code, re-check availability
- Pay with your chip & pin debit card (or reserve item)
- Wait for your number to be announced via tannoy
- Pick up your purchased goods
- Get out
So what's the problem?
There's a weak link in the process above - did you notice it? It's an expensive, cumbersome, and card-carrying member of a dying breed. No, I'm not talking about the tannoy system. Its the printed catalogue that Argos prides itself on. The huge, bulky book that Argos boasts is in more than 18m households throughout the UK.
Argos launch this behemoth twice a year. That's 36m catalogues up front, not to mention the number of books used in-store, or made available year-round, or the ones left in the rubbish bins after being shoved into the arms of passers-by on the high street on sunny Sundays. The costs associated with the printing of these catalogues must be astronomical (regardless of where the printing's outsourced to), not to mention the negative impact on the environment. Why bother using a printed catalogue at all? Aren't we in the digital age?
Currently the physical Argos user experience is pretty easy, but it could (and should) be so much better. At the moment there are way too many components. Just as an ecommerce website is made to be intuitive and as simple as possible to drive revenue, the same principles apply to the real-world version: streamline your user's experience and you stand to make more revenue. Google, as we know, does this with ease. Although they have access to the entire world's online information, they never fail to offer a solitary search bar to remove all uncertainties, ambiguities and alternative choices for the user. All the user can do is search, which is what they came to do. The same applies to an Argos customer. The only reason they're in-store is to browse, locate, buy and pick-up a product. It shouldn't be so cumbersome.
What's important to mention here is that Argos already take a quarter of all sales through their online channel. The effort required for that involves making available an entire database of items, able to be cross-referenced with stores across the UK to check for local availability. That's a mammoth task, considering the sheer size of the Argos catalogue 18m households know so well. So, if there was a hard part to making the Argos in-store experience better, it seems to be done (quite well) already. If every Argos product is alraedy indexed and updated for use on the websites, why doesn't Argos pull that experience in-store as well?
So, let's catapult the Argos in-store user experience to the 21st century, Make it simpler, faster, more efficient and infinitely better than it is now by (ironically) applying the existing online experience to the real-world store.
Some first steps:
- Replace each store's outdated and eco-unfriendly catalogue setup with an up-to-date monitor, laminated keyboard and mouse. 76% of the UK population already has a PC according to Deloitte, and 80% are online, so familiarity won't be an issue.
- Integrate a chip-and-pin card reader to the setup above to allow for direct debit transactions.
- Index, itemize, categorize and tag every product in the central product database to make ready for search. Fortunately this, the hardest step, is done already - with 26% of sales through online channel, the Argos website already includes this functionality
- Segment the main database by store to allow for 'local' product search. Again already done via the 'branch availability' tool online.
- Create a single, unmistakable Google-style Argos-branded search interface. Make it the simplest path-to-goal possible so even the most non-web savvy in-store user can use it
- Allow the user to browse pages of products (complete with promotions/sales based on search query, much like pay-per-click ad targeting), add items to a temporary basket, and pay directly using the attached card reader and an SSL-protected payment system
- Add a permanent purchase history and login feature once a debit card is used. Membership/login details are created once, and activated via debit card chip recognition - negating the need to remember yet another password when in-store.
- Integrate membership details with online/website account for seamless offline/online transactions
- Email product purchase receipt to the registered user's email inbox (optional, if email address provided)
- Include email marketing opt-in option for coupons, savings, advance product notices and recalls
- Send product order number to user's mobile phone via SMS (optional) or printed receipt (optional)
- User waits and collects purchased goods as before, including the tannoy
The initial benefits
Coming from a marketing angle, the most dramatic benefit to Argos would be a substantial increase to their registrant database with rich transaction-based customer profiles. Taking a page from Amazon's book, this data would be used to create targeted and relevant, behaviour-based messages to recent customers.
Some other possible benefits:
- Use of increased digital marketing techniques to replace the traditional 'here, take a catalogue' promotion marketing techniques
- Increased customer retention through incentive-marketing, cross-selling via emailed receipts
- Fully interchangeable offline and online channels, internal efforts and resources become centralized
- User experience enhanced through simplification and familiarity of one primary interface (search)
- Uplift in sales through targeted on-page promotions based on search query
- Presumed uplift in sales through higher in-store capacity from more efficient browsing process
- Increased user affinity via efficiency of in-store and online experiences
- Reduction in printed materials lessens impact on environment, lessens costs associated with print
I'm not denying the several unaddressed issues with this idea like switching from print to electronic, the massive infrastructure required, system maintenance, server downtime, etc., but in the interest of providing a better, faster user experience to an already successful business model, there's potential. And if nothing else, it stands to be better for the environment, which I'm sure will be affecting Argos more in the near future as more companies go digital.