I’ve just finished the rather uncomfortable read ‘Stuffocation’, the best seller in which author James Wallman describes how he believes that we are making ourselves ill by the volume of ‘stuff’ that we have, in comparison to our thrifty ancestors. He cites the fact that women buy twice as many items of clothing today compared to 1950 together with rather worrying statistics about vastly increased risks of serious house fires proving fatal due to the volume of inflammable items that the average household now stores. 
Wallman argues that there are already signs of a shift in behaviour towards a world where experiences are valued more than physical purchases. Interestingly his hypothesis is supported in part by the rapid rise of social media, which allows us to exhibit our exciting lives in a way which previous generations were unable to do so; instead they had to rely on having more and better purchases to ‘keep up with the Joneses’.
Yesterday’s headlines were focussed on the imminent departure of Marc Bolland, the CEO of Marks and Spencer, coinciding with the depressing results showing a 5.8% reduction in clothing and general merchandising sales. Interestingly M&S food sales had their best ever Christmas sales increasing by 3.7%. John Lewis on the other hand had a great Christmas for general merchandising, but less so for its Waitrose food sales. 
Commentators are keen to put forward a whole range of reasons, but many are homing in on the experiential aspect of shopping; perhaps John Lewis has the leading edge for merchandise whilst M&S wins the day in the food halls.  
Many of the large retailers are part of the CCA network, some through their direct customer service operations and others through third party providers who represent the brands they are contracted to. In all of our discussions similar sentiments are expressed; it is a given that the online offering has to be seamless and intuitive, but where personal contact is required over the phone or chat then it must be knowledgeable, personable and critically; on brand.  
The buying experience is more than a transaction, with so many options on offer and beacons of innovation, like Apple stores for consumers to benchmark against, this is no market for the feint hearted or the laggards.
The advent of trackers means that it will become less likely to get routine calls asking the whereabouts of a parcel. Instead advice is being sought about product intricacies or indeed to log complaints. Having brand ambassadors instead of call handlers is essential; but how do you motivate those who are removed from the marketing function to be as enthusiastic as the TV ads show?
I’ve been really encouraged to hear about lots of innovation in this area from CCA members, examples of employing fashion graduates to represent clothing brands; having the latest editions displayed in fashion rooms in contact centres, and of course ensuring that those on the front line have themselves experienced products, such as new mobiles before they are expected to enthuse others.
CCA future scenarios from 2012 are beginning to become reality; in particular the depiction of service e-tail where remote knowledge workers are on hand to answer enquiries remotely from shoppers who are using store touchscreens. And yet all too often consumers are met with sloppy and unprofessional automated menus which destroy the image built by millions of pounds of marketing spend by the same brands. Simple things like celebrity voices, carefully thought out and regularly updated menus are still overlooked by brands who fail to understand that shoppers’ experience is truly end to end, and the choice of device and channel will depend on the consumer’s situation.
A clever approach for the retail sector is to put the customer experience at the heart of the business and to ensure that whichever door is opened, physical or virtual, the customer feels the brand value. I seriously doubt whether ‘stuff ’will go out of fashion anytime soon however we will be much more conscious of how it relates to our experiences and activities at large.
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