Selfridges has just relaunched its website, part of a £40m investment over the next five years, which aims to future-proof the business. 

We paid a visit to Selfridges' London offices for a preview of the new site, and a chat with the company's Multichannel Director Simon Forster. 

Here, he explains the thinking behind the redesign, the growth of mobile shoppers, and the challenges of presenting a luxury user experience. 

Could you tell us about visitor and sales volumes for Selfridges.com? 

At the moment we have an average of around 1m visitors per week, well over half which are on mobile devices. This is an area that is accelerating rapidly, as mobile represented 24% of traffic this time last year.   

25% of these visits are from users on mobile phones. There’s no doubt that we’ll see customers using their phones making up 50% and more of traffic in the near future.  

In fact, it will probably happen at some point this year. 

Are you now focusing more on these mobile users? 

I think the days of mobile users using sites only for research has gone. It’s down to us as retailers to make sure the whole experience is good enough. 

Customers want to transact through the phone, and we have customers coming from around the world. Indeed, a quarter of our traffic comes from outside the UK, and use of mobiles is often higher in these markets. 

The new site is designed to be touched, that is very important. We’ve also completely changed the mobile site.  

The new site uses responsive design, so the mobile site is now part of the overall site.  

I think the fact that we’ve been able to do that means we could change elements like the checkout. It was difficult to use, and there could be up to 11 steps to get customers through checkout. With the new version we’ll get that down to three.  

We’ll be able to make more improvements on that. On a phone customers just need to know the basics: where to deliver, payment, confirmation. That’s all you need. 

Is there a focus on linking customer journeys between the site and the stores? E.g. use of in-store tech, ordering etc. 

Increasingly, though we’re still fairly early on the journey. Take this store, we need to make a number of big changes to accomplish this. We have had wi-fi in other stores for two months and we’ll add it in this store in two weeks, along with 3G.  

That is a fundamental part of connecting store and site. It then allows us to do things like assisted sales. A member of staff with a tablet device will be able to show customers product details and help them with their purchases. 

We’re starting to do this in the Manchester store from Friday. Assisted sales will start in London after Christmas. 

What was the reason for the revamp?  

I think one of the things that was clear to us was that the luxury customer uses digital devices more than anyone else on average. They often have access to every device.  

Another thing is that any customer coming to buy in store is likely to research beforehand. This is part of the shopping journey so we need to think about the whole site in terms of that journey.  

For some time, we’ve been looking at the site and thinking that is isn’t giving the right level of user experience. It’s not as sharp as it could be, not designed for mobile and is too slow. I have a longer list of issues but you get the gist!

It didn’t feel like a site that was in the top quartile and leading the way and I felt that for any of those reasons, fundamental change was required.

We looked at the whole site and though this isn’t something we should be making one or two small tweaks to, we should be completely rewriting the whole thing. So things like site search have changed, which is like changing the spine. We put that in five weeks ago. As a result of changes made already the site is now three times quicker. 

We also know that the amount of visitors getting to product pages has gone up by 10%, which is significant. 

What’s happening so far is that customers are getting to where they want to a much greater degree. With the changes we’re making now, the whole experience of shopping will be closer to what it should be when you go to Selfridges. 

Can you tell us about timescales for this project. When did it 'kick off'? 

I joined two years ago, and for all the reasons given, there was always an intention to make some big changes. We’ve invested a lot in the capabilities of the team too.  

I always say the project itself has been 12 months, but we have been thinking and planning for about 24 months. 

Did you have to make a strong business case for the changes? 

The first thing is that the business has got to understand the customers are shopping n a very different way. 

Once the business gets that - and Selfridges does - then that’s the journey you have to go on. We have to make sure that all these channels are available to customers. It’s Selfridges, we don’t want toy be in the middle, we we heave to be at the top end. The best images, best experience, and so on.  

So once you have that acceptance, the challenge is to look at the next five years and see where we’re going. One thing is the look and feel of whole site. The roadmap we have goes out five years. Of course, what we have in mind now for the fifth year isn’t exactly what will happen, but we’re pretty sure about the next couple of years. 

Do you carry out testing and optimisation in house?  

Yes, we invested in an in-house team. We have three on the team currently but we will be expanding. They are monitoring the user experience, and they’ve been heavily involved in looking at the user journeys on the site. This is something which is permanent, rather than a short term project. 

It isn’t just moving big things, it’s also about the small things. When anyone visits on of our sites they’re not going to notice necessarily that is was an easy journey, but they’ll feel that it was.  

You have to work hard to ensure that all the little things that get in the way of this are moving. Also, we’re a very innovative business so I want to be trying new things. 

This new site isn’t something we’re going to create and then leave - we’ll be adjusting this from tomorrow. That is essentially about being a good retailer. You wouldn’t stand downstairs in the store and think, ‘well, we won’t touch anything for another year, you’re always changing and digital is exactly the same, if not more so. 

Where does content fit in to the new site? 

The simple content strategy is that we want everything that’s in store here to be online. We’re not there yet but we’ve made big strides towards it. What’s exciting is that a lot of luxury brands who aren’t online with anyone else are on our site. 

We’ve recently had Cartier come online which first time online for them. It’s a massive step which has been successful and the start of the plan, which is being able to have everything that’s downstairs (in the store) on the site. 

There’s the whole thing of will people buy jewellery online but we’ve found that, if people will buy it in store, they will look at in online, so give them the choice.  

Do you have to work harder to sell high ticket items online? 

Yes, in that the customer that is spending that amount of money will spend time on it. It’s typically a very considered purchase, and it’s the customer’s leisure time. 

No one comes to Selfridges and buys a coat because they’re cold. It’s all about the brand. We see a higher level of browsing and consideration for purchases made. It isn’t necessarily more difficult, but it does present an opportunity to cater for people who will keep coming back and looking. 

The challenge is that we have a great brand that we need to make that work in a digital format. 

You introduced click and collect about a year ago. How has it worked out so far?  

It can account for up to a fifth of transactions in any week. I’m pleased because we have four stores, and it proves the link between customers using the site and coming into stores.

Interestingly, the range of products that people are collecting in store ranges from a £5,000 dress to items for £10. It’s a similar mix to in-store sales. 

I knew that click and collect would be popular but I’m really pleased with how well it’s gone.

In my previous role at Debenhams we had hundreds of locations to collect items but Selfridges has just four, so I did wonder how popular it would be. 

John Lewis allocates some online sales to stores in the areas they come from. Is this something you do?  

Good question. We’re moving in that direction but are only part of the way there at the moment. We do credit all the click and collect sales to the store where items are collected. It’s important that the manager and staff at the store see this as a benefit for their business. Its very much part of their growth.  

The next part, which is what John Lewis does, is to take all of the online sales and allocate them to stores. That’s something we’re rolling out through October and will be very exciting. 

It is just reporting, but the difference it makes to store managers is very significant. We want those guys to be thinking not just about what they sell in the store, but how they can serve the customer in any way they want. 

They may not want to buy now, but see products in the store and order them later at home, or have them sent to where they live. 

We want people in the store to think about all aspects of this service, not just the channel they’re in. So you have to give everything the sales credit for that as you’re changing their jobs. s soon as you do that, people start to think differently.  

Do you customer satisfaction? Are you moving towards being a customer experience business? 

Yes, we measure experience more daily in store. For online, with the new site we’ll be in a position to do this more. 

What we’ve measured so far has been more about drop out rates, are they saying on the site etc as opposed to how they feel about it. 

Some sites from luxury brands can be very poor. How do you balance luxury and usability? 

I think the challenge is that the luxury customer is looking for a superb experience. I agree that some luxury brands' sites are poor, and that’s mainly because they have been designed really badly.  

Customers want great images, information and advice. You can’t replicate the feeling you get when you all into a store, as that’s about the crowds, the sounds and the building itself. What you can do is do what’s right for the channel, which is harder to do in store, and that is to provide the advice about the products. 

For example, a customer wants to buy boots, so which are the five he should look at? Online, we can do this. Digital is more powerful here and we want to bring that powerful voice into play. So we can say, ‘these are the coolest boots, these are the ones you should be buying’.  

The answer is that a luxury site has to provide a better experience than anyone else. I’m not saying ours is there at the moment, but it should have a clear, a more authoritative tone of voice.

When customers move an image, it should feel fantastic, not just functional. We spent a lot of time looking at how that works. 

Selfridges' Head of Digital Marketing Claire Higgins will be speaking at our Festival of Marketing in November, looking at 'Maintaining customer experience in the physical world and bringing digital to life'.

Graham Charlton

Published 2 October, 2014 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

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