User friendly experience: how BT is tackling the online revolution
Our reporter on the €10.5m Grafton Street revamp set to woo next generation of shoppers
After seven years of austerity, Irish shoppers are finally loosening the purse strings and updating their wardrobes.
Yet, for a growing number of us, braving the rain and traffic to trudge round a suburban shopping centre or high street seems unnecessary in an era where you can browse for clothes on a smartphone from the comfort of our sofa over a glass of wine or shop online at our desk at lunchtime - and still look busy.
While it may seem like the internet has won the sartorial shopping wars, many of the fashion-conscious among us are overwhelmed by the choice of attire online, by the prospect of entering our measurements or wary of ordering a dress only to send it back by post because it doesn't fit or suit us. Only half of Irish people purchased a product online last year, far below the UK average of 81pc, Eurostat, the European Union's statistics office, reported last month.
Instead of exclusively shopping online, more of us are researching the new addition to our wardrobes on the internet, comparing prices, and walking through department stores and shops with smartphones or tablets to search for features or deals.
Small wonder that a growing number of retailers that emerged little scathed during the recession, including the upmarket Brown Thomas chain, are confident the future of shopping will be a mix between visiting bricks-and-mortar stores and online purchasing.
Brown Thomas, which has become adept at changing with the times since it first began as a haberdashery and drapers on Grafton Street in the 1840s, last week revealed it is undergoing a €10.5m revamp of its contemporary ladies fashion floor at its flagship Dublin store. The redesign will include a new café-bar, a less-is-more layout with just one item from each brand on show instead of railings of the same item in different sizes, bigger, more luxurious fitting rooms, and a space that may be used for fashion shows and exhibitions, all in a bid to tempt visitors to spend more time in the department store, managing director Stephen Sealey says.
The store, owned by Canadian businessman Galen Weston and his Irish wife Hilary, launched its first online trading website in 2013, starting off by selling 10 of its leading beauty brands, followed by selling handbags, shoes, clothing and homewares in 2014.
It now plans to unveil a new online, more smartphone-friendly platform in September, with options for customers to book time in the store to try on jeans and other garments.
While 70pc of Brown Thomas's designer brands are sold on its website and it expects online revenue for the fiscal year ending this month to have surged by about 140pc last year, the retailer's e-commerce website only accounts for 3pc of the chain's sales. This is primarily because its website acts like a virtual shop window for customers.
"This isn't a battle between online and store shopping - we think of it as one thing," Sealey says. "For us, having the product online is not necessarily about selling it online.
''We see very strongly that customers visit the website, look at the product - increasingly so on a mobile device - and will come into the store the next day to buy it.
"They might use our click-and-collect service for that and use their visit to town as a chance to do more shopping. What we are seeing is a convergence between the store and the online experience."
The revamp of the retailer's second floor comes on the heels of a €9.5m facelift of the accessories and beauty hall on the ground floor, a plan hatched during the depths of the recession in an effort to drive sales.
The new floor will be home to an eatery under a roof light to create a space for shoppers to meet and eat during the day or for a glass of wine after work. "It's all about creating a destination," Sealey says. "If you want the customer to get in their car and make the journey to you, then you need to offer them something special."
Brown Thomas's plans are a sure sign the digital economy is coming full circle, with the lines between online and offline becoming increasingly blurred.
For instance, Amazon.com, the world's biggest internet retailer, opened a physical bookstore in its hometown of Seattle in November as sales of Kindle, its e-reader, declined and feedback showed book lovers yearned for the immediacy and personal connection that comes from a physical shopping experience.
Brown Thomas isn't the only high-end fashion retailer that wants to sell us an experience rather than a mere shopping trip.
By boosting "dwell time", as it's known in the industry, shoppers are more likely to spend more time in a store, and therefore more inclined to buy something.
Burberry, the luxury fashion brand, opened an all-day café at its London flagship outlet last year, while Ralph Lauren opened Ralph's Coffee on the second floor of its Polo flagship on Fifth Avenue in New York in September.
Last summer, Gucci launched a bistro, Gucci Café, in its store in Shanghai's IAPM shopping centre.
Meanwhile, over in the Ginza district of Tokyo, customers can eat and drink at Bulgari, Chanel and Dunhill. When British menswear retailer Hackett London revamped its Regent Street flagship in October 2013, the new design included a gentlemen's club-style gin bar, and, at its concept store in Amsterdam, the cash desk doubles up as a bar.
Across the globe, there are 13 Armani restaurants and cafés, including one located inside its Munich store, as well as a Nobu restaurant housed in its Milan branch. There's even an Armani hotel in Dubai that occupies eight floors of the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building. In Ireland, the expanding Kildare Village offers services such as kennels for the dog-loving shopper.
John Murray, a lecturer in retail management at the Dublin Institute of Technology, says: "Crafting customer experiences are becoming more important for retailers.
"By offering food and other devices to keep you longer in the store, you can drive footfall and consumers may become more loyal to the store's brand."
Murray believes fashion retailers are increasingly becoming more like Ikea, albeit without the Swedish meatballs, flatpack furniture and couples squabbling over which bed to buy. "If you approach the concept of dwell time properly, you can achieve what Ikea did," he says.
"Ikea was meant to be a store where you spent 30 minutes. But now it's a destination where people spend two or three hours and don't resent Ikea for it because they're having a good time.
"By staying around and thinking about the product you want to buy, the retailer is breaking down any resistance to that purchase."