IMRG Online Retailer Interview: Argos

A Q&A with Chris Corbin, Head of Digital Operations, Argos

We spoke to Chris about same-day delivery, the merger with Sainsbury's, and preparing for Black Friday

In your own words, tell us about Argos

We’re a really iconic brand. A British brand. We’re 45 years old now and have been owned by Sainsbury’s for the last two years. We think of ourselves as a technology-first business with a human touch.

We’ve got over a thousand stores and collection points and over 30,000 colleagues around the business, so whilst we’re a digital business, our stores and colleagues have a hugely positive impact on our customers. 60% of our sales now start online and we get over a billion visits each year to our website. We’re the third most visited retail website in the UK, so we’ve got a huge digital presence.

What are your biggest challenges for 2018?

It’s really about the rapid change that’s going on in the market. We’re seeing a huge change in consumer habits, including the adoption of online and the importance of social channels. The retail industry is just changing so quickly. Legacy retailers are exiting and new competitors are emerging. It’s a huge period of change for the industry, and it’s a tough retail environment - last year was the toughest for 25 years, so our challenge is to ensure that we stay relevant to our customers.

We are focussed on staying relevant and improving our experiences, particularly mobile experiences. I mentioned earlier that 60% of our sales come through digital channels – well of that, 70% come through mobile – either smartphones or tablets. So it’s really important that our digital experience across mobile continues to improve and develop.

We are also investing to stay at the forefront - there’s all sorts of things happening right now that are really important for the future. For example voice search is a huge area of focus for us right now. We’re investing in people and investing in talent to unlock all these opportunities.

With that kind of mobile usage, it looks like you’re meeting that challenge head-on

And it’s not showing any signs of slowing. Mobile is continuing to grow fast. We’re seeing that show up consistently, but certainly at key times and key promotional periods. If you take Black Friday morning, one of our key times is between 6am and 7am. During this hour, over 90% of our visits to the website are coming through on mobile as people wake up or are on their commute. Even outside of Black Friday we continue to see a real shift from desktop to mobile.

Has click and collect had a significant effect on Argos’s survival on the high street?

Absolutely. For us, click and collect has been super important, and continues to be. I’ll give you another stat which I find quite interesting: as I mentioned, 60% of our business now starts online, but actually 80% of our total business finishes in-store. Customers are finding the right combination for them is a great digital experience along with the convenience of store collection – a true multi-channel approach.

And what our business has been successful in doing is that we have brought together a few important things. We’ve got a significant store infrastructure – 850-odd stores around the country, plus more collection points as well. We’ve combined that with fulfilment that is genuinely market-leading – including same-day home delivery. And then our digital capabilities on top of that. By bringing all of that together our customers get real choice, real flexibility, and real convenience.

Do you encourage and monitor reviews?

Yes, we’ve been at the forefront of this for a decade now. It’s ten years since we started putting customer reviews on our website. At the moment we’ve got well over two million reviews live online. We’re continuing to develop that and invest in that. We encourage our customers to leave reviews and they continue to amaze us with their willingness to give us feedback which is great for us and great for other customers.

Along with reviews, over the last number of years now we’ve been doing ‘ask and answer’: customers on our website can ask questions about products which either we will respond to via our own teams, or other customers can respond to, or increasingly, brand owners have access to those questions too, so they can also respond. Generally, the whole outreach to customers around reviews and questions is something that we’re pushing really hard: it’s really important to our customers.

Do you encourage negative reviews (if you get any, of course)?

That’s a good question. All of the reviews are moderated before they go live, but we’re not moderating them for bad reviews: we absolutely put negative reviews on the site which are calling out specific products’ shortcomings or issues. Customers are therefore getting a very balanced and authentic view. I think if we weren’t to do that then customers would see through it – we have to be transparent; we have to be open; we have to be honest.

Negative reviews are really helpful as they teach us things that we can do something about. And we do respond - we can develop and improve products, change product specifications, and improve the product information we put on product pages - it’s the best live feedback that we’ve got really.

How are you preparing for Black Friday?

It was phenomenal last year. It has been for a few years now. Last year we broke loads of records again. We had our busiest-ever hour last year and set new records for many of our categories including TV and video games. We’re expecting that popularity to continue into this year. It felt like even more retailers and service providers were getting involved last year, which makes for a very interesting and competitive market - great for customers.

We’ve been planning for months: we’ve got teams from many areas of the business working hard on Black Friday planning. There’s such a broad array of teams which need to be involved in the planning process to ensure we’re well coordinated, to make sure that our systems are strong, that we’re in great shape across our channels, that we’ve got the right stock in the right place and that our marketing and communications messages are strong. Getting the event right is a significant challenge and something that we take very seriously.

One thing in particular on Black Friday is the importance of mobile and getting the mobile experience right. We need to make sure customers are getting a great experience across all channels, but smartphones and tablets are critical on Black Friday. Customers make their own decisions about how they want to show up and we’ve got to be responsive to that and to deliver great experiences.

Has the merger with Sainsbury’s had an obvious effect on your brand?

The Argos brand is well-known and really well-loved around the country, so I don’t think that’s changed. The integration with Sainsbury’s has gone well and customers are seeing the benefits of it. One of the key things which we’ve been doing is opening Argos stores within Sainsbury’s stores, and we recently opened our 250th Argos store within a Sainsbury’s supermarket.

Customers are really seeing the benefit of that. What’s interesting is that it’s obviously great for Argos – it puts us in really convenient locations for our customers – and there’s also a benefit for the Sainsbury’s supermarket as well: for stores that have an Argos within them, we’re seeing footfall and sales increase, so it’s a double-win. That’s just one example of how bringing these two brands together as we have done in the last couple of years is great for customers and great for our business.

We’re way ahead on the plans that we had when the two businesses joined and it’s really exciting to think how much more we can do with two really iconic brands.

How important is same-day delivery to your customers?

At Argos you can get same-day home delivery in as little as four hours, which is a game-changer. What makes it work so well for us is that we’ve got 850 stores around the country, and our biggest stores in that mix act as distribution centres. Distribution centres for our smaller stores, but also distribution centres for home delivery.

With the fleet that we’ve got out on the road, we’ve got nationwide coverage for our same-day delivery proposition, which is really exciting. Customers love it, and the growth rates have been significant - it’s another example of our business innovating and developing propositions.

I’ve worked for Argos for over seven years now, and we’ve seen remarkable change over that time. Change in customer experiences, in digital experiences, and in store experiences - I think fast-track delivery is one of those great examples of something which is just really innovative, really customer focussed, and something we can do which nobody else can get to right now.

And it’s Argos colleagues delivering these parcels as well. The doorstep experience itself is great. I’ve experienced it loads of times myself as a customer – you get a friendly face from your Argos store delivering to you. Going back to the very start of our conversation: it’s a technology-first business with a human touch. It’s very much the human touch at the end of that experience.

Do you see a high rate of returns?

What we recognise as a business is that the returns peace of mind for customers is really important. Returns rates vary considerably between products and categories, but what we want to do, regardless of what you’ve bought, is give you peace of mind at the time you’re making that decision: we’re there for you.

We make our returns policy very straightforward and very simple. You can return a product to any Argos store, and if we’ve delivered a product to your home, we’ll come and pick it up free of charge. So, there’s no reason to be nervous: you have access to our entire store network for returns.

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