Looking for defensible positions in multi-channel world

Apparently the pure-play retailer has had its day. This was one of the memorable points made by Jacques-Antoine Granjon the inspirational and maverick founder of Vente Privee at the World Retail Congress (WRC) in Paris.


Try telling that to the AO.com (formerly known as Appliances Online) that has garnered massive praise from customers, rapidly rising sales, and talk of a possible flotation.

Such has been the positive vibe around this business that I thought I’d give it a go when recently overhauling the kitchen here at Retail Insider Mansions.

In a great coincidence pretty much every appliance in the kitchen had ceased to function in the run-up to the decision to fit the new kitchen so it was necessary to replace all the white goods.

From a customer service perspective AO.com delivered to the highest level. Particularly strong is its keeping the customer informed throughout the fulfilment process, which in this case ultimately ended with a delivery on time and to specification.

Unlike many online-only retailers it successfully uses a call centre so the customer experience becomes multi-dimensional rather than wholly virtual, which can be a worry for shoppers when placing high-value orders. The ability to ring an actual person, should anything go wrong, provides a serious level of comfort.

Based on my experience the company is a force to be reckoned with and following its change of name – that undoubtedly provides it with the possibility to extend its remit beyond appliances – it represents a major challenge to merchants across various categories.

Another oft-repeated view at the WRC this year was that long-term success can only be truly achieved by having unique product. Ian Cheshire, group CEO of Kingfisher, and Lennart Lajboschitz of Tiger Stores were strong advocates of this line.

While we are on the topic of overhauling kitchens, the supplier of the units at Retail Insider Mansions was Yorkshire-based Symphony that has the advantage of unique products, which it manufactures in-house.

As well as having a defensible product range – to fend off cost-focused rivals – the company, like AO.com, was a pleasure to deal with – before the fitting, during their single day on-site, and for after-sales.

Like all respected operators they used computer-aided-design, which makes the process of home improvements so much simpler nowadays. Providing the ability to visualise the completed project removes the risk of buying the wrong thing. The fit-out was a painless exercise too and the odd after-sales point was dealt with efficiently and effectively.

The underlying theme at WRC was the ongoing worry by retailers of how to deal with the march of multi-channel retailing and it has been refreshing and uplifting to have a personal retail experience that shows there are quality practitioners out there in the market that will no doubt succeed regardless of the seismic shifts taking place in the market.