Is the death of Comet the death of the high street – or the trigger for a new shopping model?

By | November 9, 2012

cometAmazon has been one of the stratospheric success stories of the last century, never mind decade.   Can you believe it only started in 1993?  But with every revolution there are casualties.   And last week in the UK we saw one of these, with the electronics retail chain, Comet, going into administration.

As any marketing analyst would ask, the critical question that Comet should have been asking was ‘what was its purpose?’.

1. Comet’s competitive pressures

For some years now it has been quicker, easier and cheaper to buy electronic and white goods online.

Why would you go to a high street store where you have to drive, pay petrol, find a parking space and pay a parking fee (and maybe a parking fine)?   And then lug it home, rather than have it delivered to your door.

Like Clinton Cards and JJB Sports, these shops had not found their niche and purpose in this new world.  Against this, compare WH Smith which Kate Swann – our advisory board member-  has turned around by focusing on the customer.

She said: “At the strategic level, we face competition from supermarkets, the internet and specialist retailers. The threat of the supermarkets’ move into non-food is clearly real. However, in many of our categories, there are high-street specialists succeeding. The lesson is that success is driven by creating a strong customer offer.”

2. Service driven culture for businesses

What should Comet have done?  And all the other high street stores struggling behind Comet?

People do still go into towns – it seems as much to meet each other for a coffee than to shop, but that is the opportunity for stores.  They have to entice those coffee drinkers into their shops while passing.  And then get them to spend.

How often do you hear retailers complain that customers go to their shops to research, try out and find the best product. Then go home and buy it more cheaply on the internet.  Instead of complaining, what could they have done to make that shopping experience so fantastic that you don’t mind spending a bit more to buy it on the spot?

When did you last buy a laptop or game console?  Unless you are a techy, it is a pretty painful experience for most people.

"Image courtesy of vectorolie / FreeDigitalPhotos.net".

“Image courtesy of vectorolie / FreeDigitalPhotos.net”.

Why didn’t Comet turn this to their advantage?  Have sofas – and coffee! – and people who could talk English?  Learn from B&Q who have employed older people with practical skills such as decorating and gardening and can talk knowledgeably to customers about their needs and their products.

Who wouldn’t have liked to have their laptop set up for them at home or even in store, as part of the price?

3. The future of shopping

I did a Radio Leeds interview about Comet and took part in a phone-in.  Interestingly one caller pointed out that ten years ago, Comet had been responsible for killing off the many independent electronics retailers up and down the country – now they were getting a taste of their own medicine.

No doubt our business and management students would have many other such examples.

So we have to accept that change is inevitable – but how do we spot the new opportunities?  Mary Portas has already started looking at this for the UK government and yes, she is talking about service, being niche, making shopping fun – and make parking free.

What is going to be the winning strategy for the future?  Are there models for the UK to learn from around the world?  What would you do for our high streets?

About Julian Rawel

Julian Rawel is Director of Executive Education at the School of Management. He has previously held positions of Groups Sales and Marketing Director, Eurocamp plc and Marketing Director, Royal Armouries Museum. Julian has been a non executive director of travel industry bodies ABTA and AITO. He has a BA in Geography from Leicester University and an MSc in Tourism Management from Manchester Metropolitan University. Julian is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing and a Chartered Marketer.

Specialties:  Consumer and business marketing, Branding, General management, Management development

5 thoughts on “Is the death of Comet the death of the high street – or the trigger for a new shopping model?

  1. Dave Spicer

    You are spot on about focusing on the customer. What will draw us to the high street is that added value that comes from excellent service. I and others I know will drive past some shops which might be more convenient to others where you will get better and more knowledgeable service. This is one place where local businesses close to the customers really ought to excel. As an ex-retailer it is interesting to speculate on who is next, look who’s investing in their staff and where you get good service as a result – they’ll win out over their competitors who don’t.

  2. Pol

    To consider where and how bricks and mortar retailers need to change and adapt it is necessary to look to the experience of online shopping. A physical retail outlet relies on the shopper to ‘discover’ by walking. Product placement, height of display, presentation, information availability and more are all key considerations.

    Taking amazon as a model for online shopping, discovery is by multiple options – personalised recommendations, search, browsing etc. product pricing options (multiple seller options) are displayed. User and customer reviews are displayed. The retailer can adapt pricing strategies quickly and with ease. Delivery options range from same day to next day and longer. The shopper is in control.

    The real question to ask about Comet and other high street retailers is how can they best adapt to new buying decisions, new shopping expectations, to knowledge expectations and how can they blend the best of online and offline shopping experience, preferences and expectations to enhance decision-making. Part of the problem, cf course, is that everyone is buying the same items, the same brands and so increasingly shop on price. Can there be more to retailing? Is it really all about location, location, location or price, price price?

    The future of high street retailing must become a blend of innovation and customer experience in a mash-up of traditional retail experience and the world of technology. Neither online nor offline should aim to mimic the other.

    Right now the retail experience appears exceptionally fragmented. Look at the major department stores. All have their physical shops, they have their websites and all have ‘bargain basement’ type outlets on either EBay or Amazon. Map that out across all high street retailers and to the supermarkets and one wonders whether there is real strategic management and thought to the future – or whether the current approach is to fight fires by having a toe in everywhere? Why buy in House of Fraser on Oxford Street when you can buy the same item from House of Fraser on EBay at 80% discount? It seems the retailers are either digging their own grave, or the market has swung to a high value goods at low cost model……. But which space, which part of the channel represents the future of retailing? Surely confused strategies will do nothing more than to devalue the brand and lessen brand loyalty?

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