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Marketing and consumer researchers have long been interested in revealing and describing differences in the behaviour of consumers that arise from differences in culture between societies, nations and communities. Ignoring such differences can lead companies to making embarrassing and costly mistakes in international marketing. Culture sets ideas, values, norms, symbols and customs that influence and shape the thoughts, beliefs and actions of the people adhering to it; in particular, responses to marketing-oriented stimuli — products, advertising messages, websites, stores etc. — can vary specifically due to cross-cultural differences.

Kastanakis and Voyer (2014 [1]) propose that investigation of the effects of cross-cultural differences on consumer behaviour should look deeper into pre-behavioural processes, namely perception and cognition. Culture conditions perception and cognition, thus affecting how consumers perceive and understand stimuli, which consequently drive behaviour. Consumers develop perceptions and thoughts from the input of stimuli they attend to, but top-down processes set by pre-defined mind-sets, goals and beliefs (e.g., guided by culture) may inversely shape how consumers perceive, interpret and think of the information received from their environment. The researchers review ways in which culture influences perception and cognition in different functions or contexts. Similar to the greater part of research on cross-cultural differences, Kastanakis and Voyer concentrate on differences between Western cultures (individualist, espousing independence) and Eastern [Asian] cultures (collectivist, espousing interdependence).

Western cultures encourage people to see themselves by themselves, that is, developing an independent construal of one’s self-image; Eastern cultures on the other hand encourage people to see themselves as part of a group, that is, developing an interdependent self-construal. Thus, Easterners are predisposed to construe their self-image based on their relations with and similarities to others in a group of affiliation, compared with Westerners who view themselves as individuals independent from others, emphasising their unique traits. The tendency of Easterners to perceive and judge an individual person relative to surrounding others is demonstrated in this example cited by Kastanakis and Voyer: American and Japanese research participants were asked to judge the emotion of a central figure based on his or her facial expression when surrounded by other person figures showing the same or different expressions — “The findings indicate that the surrounding people’s emotions influenced Japanese perceptions but not Americans’ perceptions of the central person’s feelings.” [Based on research by Masuda, Ellsworth and others, 2008.] Contextual information (e.g., feelings of others) seems to matter for judgements in the East more than in the West.

In another implication of the independent-interdependent cleavage, whereas Westerners are mainly focused on achieving their personal goals, Easterners are looking more to help advance goals of the group they belong to, catering to others’ needs or wishes.  The authors suggest as a possible consequence that “Westerners perhaps tend to join groups to serve their own needs, whereas in collectivist societies, people serve the groups to which they belong”. This difference in approach may affect, for example, the way users of social media in North America and Europe participate and interact in these networks, differently from users in Asia (e.g., South Korea, Japan, China). It has been repeatedly argued that social media networks have not helped people in the West to socialise any better, perhaps even to the opposite, and that users engaged in social media may still feel in solitary. A similar discussion may concern also the use of digital platforms in the rising ‘sharing economy’ (e.g., Airbnb, Uber, LendingClub). Gaining true benefits from socialising and sharing platforms is based on collaboration, contributing to others or at least reciprocating helpful actions by others, not quite in line with values and norms taught by the individualist culture of the West (e.g., promoting competition and personal achievement).

The contrast between independence and interdependence further finds an expression in a respective distinction between thinking styles: analytic vs. holistic. Analytic thinking, associated with an individualist culture, is more focused on single objects and the attributes of each; holistic thinking, associated with a collectivist culture, is more attentive to the context or field in which any object is found. Thereby, Westerners following an analytic perspective would be more inclined to observe and judge objects in isolation, whereas Easterners (Asians) following a holistic perspective tend to consider the relations between objects observed and make judgements based on the context of a whole scene. This distinction can have important implications for the perception and evaluation of visual scenes. For instance, a Westerner would focus on a particular exhibit or display of products in a store (e.g., a dressed mannequin) while an Easterner would see the same display against the background of other in-store displays and interior decorations of the store. In front of a shelf display, an Easterner viewing it holistically would be more attentive to the collection of products on display compared with an ‘analytic’ Westerner focusing on each product at a time (note: such a difference may also be applicable to a screen display of products on a webpage).

The difference in perspective is applicable also in viewing photographs of scenes, not just when being physically present on-site. Easterners more accustomed to a holistic view would be more capable at capturing the gist of a photographed scene as it relies on perceiving relations between multiple figures and objects in the scene. Westerners following an analytic perspective, on the other hand, would be more capable at noticing the attributes of particular objects. It should be noted, therefore, that while people in the collectivist East may have the advantage of identifying relations better, people in the individualist West may have the advantage of observing object details better (i.e., could be judging single objects with greater scrutiny). It furthermore appears that people match their aesthetic preferences to their culture-orientated perspective. Kastanakis and Voyer give an example wherein Eastern portrait paintings or photographs “tend to diminish both the size and the salience of the central figure and emphasize the field”.  Such differences in perspective and thinking style should be considered, as the authors advise, in the aesthetic design of advertising materials and other communications as well as in retail sites.

Stronger relational processing has relevance to attributes, and moreover to a perceived relationship between price and physical product attributes used as intrinsic cues for quality. Lalwani and Shavitt (2013) provided ground support for the association between modes of self-construal — independent vs. interdependent — and reliance on a perceived price-quality relationship. The way people look upon their own self-concept vis-à-vis their relation to others radiates to their perceptions and processing of relations between price and quality attributes. Importantly, however, they show that the linkage is mediated by the distinction between analytic and holistic thinking styles. Interdependent (collectivist-oriented) consumers are more capable at processing price-quality relations, where holistic thinking in particular positively predicts greater reliance on such relationships [2].

In addition to visual processing and aesthetics, culture is known to affect perception, processing and preferences of smell and sound. Consumers may be biased to better recognise smells familiar to them in their culture or to better comprehend culturally familiar melodies. The bias occurs, as said by Kastanakis and Voyer, during recall and recognition before the information even enters the attitude formation, judgement, and decision making processes. Consider thereby the mixtures of styles and forms one would find in a country that absorbs immigrants originating from cultures different from each other or from the culture incumbent in the receiving country, for example in music and food. As people borrow from the traditions of communities of other cultural origins and adopt also from those typical locally, they get exposed to and experience mixtures of music melodies or food flavours. Yet, even with years passing certain things do not change — consumers may continue to feel more secure and comfortable with the familiar music genres and food styles they were raised on at home, associated with a given culture.

  • Kastankis and Voyer note a lack in cross-cultural research on taste perceptions; that is unfortunate because food is such a significant domain, but the smell of food may still have a cultural impact on consumers’ reactions.

Furthermore, the language one speaks can determine the perspective, individualist or collectivist, one applies. Immigrants, for instance, may change how they present themselves depending on the language they use: that of their origin or the one adopted in their current country of residence. The language carries the values and norms of a culture it is associated with, such as how people perceive themselves. For example, bi-cultural Chinese-born people refer to their own internal traits and attributes to describe themselves in English but describe themselves in relation to others when using Chinese. Kastanakis and Voyer argue that language is not emphasised enough as an aspect of culture: “language triggers a culture-bound representation of the self”.


Idiocentrism and Allocentrism are views held by people at the individual level in parallel to the individualist and collectivist cultural views of societies, respectively. This reference to individual-level culturally oriented views becomes particularly prominent when the personal view does not match the societal-level view dominant in one’s country of residence: for example, when people of Asian origin living in the United States, a country with an individualist culture, personally maintain an allocentric view.

Dutta-Bergman and Wells (2003) found some interesting differences in values held and lifestyles practised by idiocentrics and allocentrics living in the American individualist culture. For example, idiocentrics are likely to be more satisfied with their financial situation and optimistic than allocentrics; idiocentrics are also more disposed to be workaholic, yet are more innovative. Allocentrics are more likely to be health conscious; additionally, they are more inclined to invest in food preparation and other chores at home and to engage in group socialising than idiocentrics [3]. (Note: Idiocentrism and Allocentrism are approached as individual-level dispositions adopted by people; they are not necessarily contingent on any immigration status or country-of-origin.)


 

The differences between individualist and collectivist cultures may influence human cognition in several more ways explained by Kastanakis and Voyer. Key areas involve self- versus others-related cognitions, self-esteem, and information processing. Briefly mentioning some noteworthy implications: (1) People in Western cultures have a stronger tendency to make dispositional attributions for behaviour (e.g., to one’s personal traits or competencies) and discard situational factors, as opposed to Easterners; (2) Causal reasoning in Eastern cultures tends to give greater consideration to interactions between personal (dispositional) factors and situational or contextual factors than in Western cultures; (3) In Western cultures people will prefer to classify products based on typical functional or physical attributes of categories (i.e., rule-based classification) whereas in Eastern cultures people will rely more on family resemblance and relationships between products (i.e., relational classification); (4) In persuasion, Westerners (e.g., Americans) prefer to take side in conflicts while Easterners (e.g., Chinese) are persuaded more by compromise solutions and are more ready to deal with contradictions.

Readers are reminded additionally of the differences in processing of visual information already described earlier (i.e., between the Western object-focused analytic approach and the context-orientated holistic approach in the East). These differences may be well-connected with the approach consumers take in judging and classifying products visually displayed (e.g., physically in-store, virtually in print or screen images).

Three final comments to conclude: First, as always we have to be careful with generalisations made such as between ‘Western culture’ and ‘Eastern culture’. There are differences in elements of culture between countries associated more closely with either the individualist or collectivist streams of culture. There is furthermore variation among communities and sectors within countries, and some tendencies may also be considered as individual-level differences (e.g., holistic vs. analytic thinking). Second, there is need in the West to explore and deepen the understanding of other streams of culture (e.g., African, Middle Eastern, South American). Third, Kastankis and Voyer address changes in perspective and behaviour of people in Asian nations caused by their growing exposure to the Western individualist cultural orientation. However, a more salient phenomenon prevalent in recent decades seems to be the immigration of people originating from non-Western cultures coming to live in countries of the West. Especially in Europe, the extent of exchange in ideas, values and customs between people with Western-orientation (‘incumbents’) and non-Western cultural orientations (e.g., from Africa and the Middle East) should have great impact on the balance between cultures on the continent (as well as in the UK), and not least the kind of consumer culture that will prevail in future.

International marketers must keep fully aware of and account for the differences between Western individualist orientation and Eastern collectivist orientation, and more so their multiple facets of manifestation in perception and cognition. Particularly important is paying attention to the differing thinking styles (i.e., analytic vs. holistic thinking) for their possible implications in processing and responding, for example, to persuasive attempts in advertising in online and offline channels, store design and visual merchandising. Extending marketing plans or initiatives across seas and borders, without making consideration for these potential differences, may significantly diminish the effectiveness of the actions taken in new destination markets to the extent of proving utterly precarious.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

References:

[1] The Effect of Culture on Perception and Cognition: A Conceptual Framework; Minas N. Kastanakis and Benjamin G. Voyer, 2014; Journal of Business Research, 67 (4), pp. 425-433. (Accepted version is available at eprints.lse.ac.uk/50048/ on LSE Research Online website).

[2] You Get What You Pay For? Self-Construal Influences Price-Quality Judgments; Ashok K. Lalwani and Sharon Shavitt, 2013; Journal of Consumer Research, 40 (August), pp. 255-267 (DOI: 10.1086/670034).

[3] The Values and Lifestyles of Idiocentrics and Allocentrics in an Individualist Culture: A Descriptive Approach; Mohan J. Dutta-Bergman and William D. Wells, 2002; Journal of Consumer Psychology, 12 (3), pp. 231-242.

 

 

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Consumer purchases from Internet retailing websites continue to expand, and their share out of total retail sales increases. Yet there is no real reason to declare the demise of physical, bricks-and-mortar stores and shops any time soon. Online purchases from e-stores (including through apps) indeed pose a stressing challenge to many physical stores, but the latter still hold a solid and dominant majority share of retail sales. Nonetheless, owners of physical stores will have to make changes to their mission and approach to retailing in order to answer effectively and successfully to the challenges from electronic retailing (‘e-tailing’).

The share of sales revenues from online retailing varies across categories (e.g., from groceries to electronics) yet the share overall out of total retailing revenues still floats around 12%-15% on average; there is also important variation between countries. Tensions are high particularly because of the threat from overarching e-tailers such as Amazon and Alibaba who grew their businesses in the virtual online environment. However, retailers do not have to choose to be either in the physical domain or the virtual domain: Many large and even medium bricks-and-mortar retailers are already double-operating through their physical stores and the Internet and mobile channels. Moreover, the master of Western e-tailing Amazon is lurking into the physical world with the establishment of its Amazon Go food stores, its venture into physical bookstores in selected US locations, and notably the acquisition of the food retail chain Whole Foods — what better testimony of the recognition that physical stores are still in need. All these observations should tell us that: (1) The lines between physical and virtual (electronic) retailing are blurred and the domains are not exclusive of each other; (2) It is a matter of linking between the domains where one can operate as an extension of the other (and it does not depend on which is the domain of origin); and (3) The domains are linked primarily by importing technology powered with data into the physical store’s space.

Technology alone, however, is not enough to resolve the challenges facing physical stores. Focusing on technology is like harnessing the carriage before the horses. The true and crucial question is: What will consumers of the coming future be looking for in stores? This is important, because consumers, especially the younger generations born after 1980, still have interest in shopping in bricks-and-mortar stores but they could be looking for something different from past decades, moreover given the digital options available to them now. The answers will have to come through rethinking and modifying the mission and strategy set for physical stores. The direction that seems most compelling for the mission is to shift emphasis from the merchandise offered in a store to the kind of experience offered in the store. The strategy may involve reconsideration and new planning of: (a) the product variety and volume of merchandise made available in the store; (b) interior design and visual merchandising; (c) scope and quality of service; and (d) the technologies applied in the store, all tailored to the convenience and pleasure of the shoppers.

This article will focus primarily on aspects of design of stores, including  interior design and decoration, layout, and visual merchandising (i.e., visual display of products); together with additional sensory elements (e.g., lighting, music, texture, scent) they shape the atmosphere in the store or shop. Yet it should be noted that the four strategy components suggested above are tied and influence each other in creating the kind of experience a retailer desires the customers-shoppers to have while in-store.

Shopping experiences in a store rely essentially on the emotions the store invokes in the consumers-shoppers. Notwithstanding the sensorial and cognitive reactions of shoppers to the interior scene of the store, the positive and pleasant emotions the shoppers feel will most likely be those that motivate them to stay longer and choose more products to purchase (further desired behaviours may include recommendation to friends and posting photos from the store on social media). Prior and close enough to consumption itself, the personal shopping and purchasing experience may invoke a range of positive emotions such as joy, optimism, love (non-romantic), peacefulness, and surprise; of course there also are potential negative emotions that retailers would wish to reduce (e.g., anger, worry, sadness)[*].

The need for shift in emphasis in physical stores is well stated by Lara Marrero, a strategy director with Gensler, a British design firm: “It used to be a place where people bought stuff. Now it is a state where a person experiences a brand and its offerings”. Marrero, who is leading the area of global retail practice at the firm, predicts a future change in mentality of shoppers from ‘grab and go’ to ‘play and stay’ (“Retail 2018: Trends and Predictions”, Retail Focus, 15 December 2017). This predicted shift is still inconsistent with a current retail interpretation of linking the digital and physical domains through schemes of ‘click-and-collect’ online orders at a physical store. Additionally, consumers nowadays conduct more research online on products they are interested in before coming to a store: The question is if a retailer should satisfy with letting the consumer just ask for his or her preferred product at the store or encourage the consumer-shopper to engage and interact more in-store, whether with assistance from human staff or digital utilities, before making a purchase — the push may have to come first from the consumers. Marrero further notes the social function of stores: retail environments become a physical meeting point for consumers to share brand experiences. Retailers will have to allow sufficient space for this in the store.

In order to generate new forms of shopper experiences the setting of a store’s scene also has to change and adapt to the kind of experience one seeks to create. New styles and patterns of in-store design are revealed through photo images of retail design projects, and the stories the images accompany, on websites of design magazines (e.g., VMSD of the US, Retail Focus of the UK). They demonstrate changes in the designing approach to the interior environment of stores and shops.

A striking aspect in numerous design exemplars is the tendency to create more spacious store scenes. It does not necessarily mean that the area of stores is larger but that the store’s layout and furnishing are organised to make it feel more spacious,  for example by making it look lighter and allowing shoppers to move more easily around. Additionally, it implies ‘loading’ the store’s areas which are accessible to customers with less merchandise. First, merchandise would be displayed mostly on fixtures attached to walls around the perimeters of the store, but even then it should not look too crowded (i.e., in appreciation that oftentimes ‘less is more’ for consumers). Second, fewer desks and other display fixtures are positioned across the floor to leave enough room for shoppers to walk around conveniently (and possibly feel more ‘free’). In fashion stores, for instance, this would also apply to  ‘isles’ of demonstrated dressing displays. Third, desks should not be packed with merchandise, and furthermore, at least one desk should be left free from merchandise — leave enough surface for shoppers and sellers to present and look at merchandise and to converse about the options. In some cases, it may allow for the shoppers to socialise and consult among themselves around a desk at the store (e.g., inspired by Apple stores). Opportunities to socialise can be enhanced in larger stores  by allocating space for a coffee & wine bar, for instance, which may serve also sandwiches, patisseries and additional drinks. Stores would be designed to look and feel more pleasant and enjoyable for consumers-shoppers to hang around, contemplate their options and make purchase decisions.

  • Large stores that spread over multiple floors with facades turning outwards to the street may fix the facades with glass sheets, and in order not to block natural daylight from entering into the store they would place desks and mobile hangers or other low shelf fixtures along the windows.

Modissa Fashion Store set for Christmas

In the new-era store not all merchandise the store may offer to sell needs to be displayed in the ‘selling areas’ accessible to shoppers. Retailers may have to retreat from the decades long paradigm that everything on display is the inventory, and vice versa. It is worth considering: First, some merchandise can be displayed as video on screens, and thus also add to the ‘show’ in the store; Second, shoppers can use digital catalogues in the store to find items currently not on display — such items may still be available in stock on premises or they may be ordered within 24 hours. But furthermore, customers may be able to coordinate online or through an app with a store near them to see certain products at a set time; up-to-date analyses of page visits and sales on a retailer’s online store can tell what products are most popular, subsequently guaranteeing that the physical stores keep extra items of them in stock on premises.

Here are references to a few exemplars for illustration of actual store design projects published in design magazines’ websites:

Burberry, London — The flagship store of luxury fashion brand Burberry on Regent Street is highlighted for both the use of space in its design and the employment of digital technology in the store. A large open space atrium (of an older time theatre) occupies the centre of the store (four floors, 3000 sqm), impressive in how Burberry allowed to keep it. The digitally integrated store is commended for its fusion of a ‘digital world’ into its bricks-and-mortar environment: a large high-resolution screen plays video in the atrium, synchronised with a hundred digital screens around the store, some 160 iPads (e.g., for finding items on the catalogue that may not be on display), and RFID tags attached to garments (VMSD, 18 December 2012).

Hogan, Milano — The footwear ’boutique’ store (277 sqm in via Montenapoleone) is designed to reflect the brand, “luxury but accessible”. The store’s mission has been described as follows: “Hogan is a lifestyle brand, championing contemporary culture. The store therefore needed to be dynamic, working hard to adapt from retail space to live event or gallery space”. Characteristic of the store: tilted surfaces for display, lying on top of each other like fallen-down domino bricks; and an animated display of patterns by LED lighting behind frosted glass walls — they both reflect movement, the former just symbolically while the latter more dynamically, to “express the dynamism of the city”. The store of Hogan also fosters social activity around its host bar and customization bar (Retail Focus, 15 February 2018).

Black by Dixon’s, Birmingham (UK) — The technology retail concept aspires to make “the geeky more stylish and exciting”. Digital technology is “dressed” in fashionable design, aiming at the more sophisticated Apple-generation (distinctive in the images are the mannequins “sitting” on desks as props, and colour contrasts on a dark background). (VMSD, 24 May 2011.)

Stella McCartney, Old Bond Street, London — The re-established flagship store resides in an 18th century historic-listed building (four floors, 700 sqm). Products such as dresses and handbags are displayed (sampled) across the store in different halls. The design and lighting give a very loose feeling. Refreshingly, the ground floor features an exhibit of black limestones and “carefully selected rocks” from the family’s estate, a piece of nature in-store (Retail Focus, 14 June 2018).

Admittedly, some of the more distinctive and impressive design exemplars belong to up-scale and luxury stores, but they do give direction and ideas for creating different experiences in retail spaces, even if less lavishly. Furthermore, technology can enrich the store and add a dimension of activity in it. Yet it is part of the whole design plan, not necessarily its central pillar, if at all.

Installing digital technology in a store does not mean importing the Internet and e-store into the physical store. Features of digital technology can be employed in-store in a number of ways, and the use of an online catalogue is just one of them. There is no wisdom for the physical store in trying to mimic Internet websites or compete with them. It should find ways, instead, to implement digital technologies that best suit the store’s space and transform the experience of its visiting shoppers.

Moreover, the store owner should identify those aspects that are lacking in the virtual online store and leverage them in the bricks-and-mortar store (e.g., immediacy, non inter-mediated interaction with products, sensorial stimulations other than visual and audio, feeling fun or relaxed). Thereof, the store should borrow certain technological amenities that can help to link between the domains and make the experience in-store more familiar, convenient, interesting, entertaining or exciting. According to an opinion article in Retail Focus on “The Future of High Street” (Lyndsey Dennis, 25 April 2018): “To draw customers back to brick-and-mortar, [retailers] need to rethink how they use their physical space and store formats. The key is to give customers something they can’t get online, whether that’s information, entertainment, or service“. Advanced technologies such as Virtual reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are part of the repertoire that are increasingly introduced in high street stores [e.g., AR applied in the fitting rooms of Burberry’s store, triggered by the RFID tags].

Matt Alderton, writing in ArchDaily magazine of architecture and design (25 November 2015), details key technologies and how they are implemented in stores to create new possibilities and leverage shopper experiences. One group of technologies can provide vital data to retailers which in turn can be applied to interact with shoppers and return useful information to them (e.g., beacons, RFID tags, visual lighting communications). The second group includes display technologies that may be enriching with information and entertaining to shoppers: for example, VR and AR, touch screens, and media projected on a surface such as table-top which thus becomes a touch screen. Alderton clearly sees consumer need for physical stores, the question is how consumers would want them: “What the data says is that shoppers want to move forward by going back: Like their forebears who visited Harrods, they crave emporiums that are experiential, not transactional, in nature“. (See also images in this article as they portray new-fashioned designs in space and layout; notably these stores feel less crowded by merchandise, and some show in-store digital displays.)

These are challenging times for bricks-and-mortar stores. New possibilities are emerging for physical stores to grow and thrive, yet they will have to adapt to changed shopping and purchasing patterns of consumers and develop new kinds of experiences that appeal to them. It should be a combined effort, with contribution from interior design of stores and visual merchandising, utilities and amenities based on digital technologies implemented in the store, and the support and assistance by human personnel. The in-store design is especially important in setting the scene — in appearance, comfort and appeal — that will shape shoppers’ experiences. Retailing could evolve as far as into new forms of ‘experiential shopping’.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Reference: [*] Measuring Emotions in the Consumption Experience; Marsha L. Richins, 1997; Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 24 (September), pp. 127-149.

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Ordinarily, Great Britain is not the first country to come to mind when thinking of chocolate. The names of Switzerland and Belgium are more likely to come up first, and then perhaps some other European countries (e.g., France, Italy, Germany, Austria). However, the British upmarket chocolatier Hotel Chocolat may deeply change our perception of Britain in association with chocolate; that is, following of course consumers’ pleasurable associations with the brand Hotel Chocolat. The brand name identifies both the company and its products (i.e., it is a ‘branded house’ of chocolate). Moreover, the company is a manufacturer as well as a retailer, offline and online, of chocolate products of multiple sorts, all under an encompassing brand, Hotel Chocolat.

Britain has been known for chocolate from companies like Cadbury and Thornton. But their products did not really succeed in raising an equivalent alternative that challenges the quality of chocolate from the better known ‘chocolate nations’. Cadbury in particular is most probably the main source for perceptions of British chocolate generated by consumers; in some of its products Cadbury blurs the distinction between true chocolate and chocolate snacks or confectionary. In 2010 the American company Kraft Foods took over Cadbury in an unfriendly maneuver; yet Kraft had a problem in swallowing the business of the acquired British company and just a year later split all of its confectionary arm including Cadbury to a new spin-off company called Mondelez International. Thornton’s already set a standard of higher quality chocolate delicacies in forms like bars and pralines. It also developed a chain of chocolate delicacy and gift shops. However, the enterprise expansion eventually ran into trouble and in 2015 the brand was acquired by the Italian giant Ferrero (well-known for ‘Ferrero Rocher’, also owner of Nutella).

Hotel Chocolat seems to be different, not merely for its positioning as an upmarket brand but in virtue of the fine feel and taste of its chocolate products — one immediately knows it is different when tasting one of the brand’s chocolate products. Drinking their hot chocolate with cocoa-flavoured cream makes a fitting complement to the pleasure of eating the solid chocolate delicacies. The experience of visiting a boutique shop of Hotel Chocolat (e.g., in Covent Garden in London, in the basement) also is an important contributor to conquering committed chocolate lovers.

Appetising Selection of Chocolates at Hotel Chocolat

Tempting chocolates displayed in cave basement of Hotel Chocolat’s Covent Garden shop

 

Hotel Chocolat was co-founded by Angus Thirlwell, CEO of the company, and Peter Harris (Development Director). In an earlier stage of their chocolate business, the co-founders established a company named ‘Express Choc’ as an online retailer of chocolates in 1993 (no doubt an early venture in e-commerce). They opened their first physical shop in the north of London in 2004 after changing the business name — this event practically marks the initiation of the brand Hotel Chocolat.

Over the years the brand has evolved and broadened its concept and it actually extends beyond products, shops and online store (retailing) — it also includes a Tasting Club (pre-launched 1998), chocolate workshops  (School of Chocolate), café-bars, a restaurant in London, and a hotel with restaurant in the Caribbean Islands. The company is proud of being a grower of cocoa for its products, a unique status for either a chocolate manufacturer or a retailer. The co-founders acquired a cocoa plantation in the Caribbean island Saint Lucia (2006), an initiative that brought Thirlwell back to his childhood in that part of the world, an origin of cocoa. In the estate of the plantation they opened their hotel (‘Boucan’) and a restaurant (2011). Their restaurant in London, established a couple of years later (2013) to bring West Indian tastes to the UK combined with modern British cuisine (e.g., ‘Slow Cooked Cacao Glazed Lamb Shank’), bears the name of the plantation and the year it was created (‘Rabot 1745’).

In an interview to BBC News, Thirlwell explained the reasoning behind the name — at start there seemed to be no logical relation to hotels. As for the choice of ‘Hotel’, Thirlwell replied: “It was aspirational. I was trying to come up with something that expressed the power that chocolate has to lift you out of your current mood and take you to a better place“, like going on vacation where one would stay at a hotel. As said above, seven years later and Thirlwell materialised the symbolic idea of Hotel into physical reality. Regarding the French wording ‘Chocolat’, he said that “everybody agreed ‘chocolat’ sounded better than chocolate”, which is hard to argue with, and added that the sound of the word almost suggests the sound of how chocolate melts in the mouth (he used the Latin term ‘onomatopoeia’) (BBC News: Business, 27 October 2014).

As reflected from his interview to the BBC, Thirlwell is a devout chocolatier, completely enthusiastic about chocolate. This impression is also supported in a personal page about Angus Thirlwell on the website of Hotel Chocolat. He continues to taste products every day and approves every recipe the company produces. A guiding principle that appears highly important to him is using more cocoa in chocolate products and less sugar. It is said that people started to crave cocoa long before anyone added a grain of sugar. This principle was practised, for example, in a product called ‘Supermilk’ that contains 65% cocoa, emphasises the ‘smooth creaminess of milk’, and includes less sugar than a dark chocolate — a feel of milk chocolate that is nearly a dark chocolate. In ‘Our Story’ webpage, Hotel Chocolat laments the overemphasis on sweetness in British chocolate: “Today, sugar is 20 times cheaper than cocoa, and a typical bar of milk chocolate contains more than twice as much sugar as cocoa”. Conversely, the mantra of Hotel Chocolat is explicitly: ‘More Cocoa, Less Sugar’.

A notion of this motto is felt very present indeed in a number of chocolate products of Delicious Orange Tangs by Hotel ChocolatHotel Chocolat, and it is probably at the root of the magic of their chocolate, and their business success. Just for instance, take their chocolate shells filled with Salted Caramel Cream, or Orange Tangs (orange-filled chocolate sticks) that are truly special and delicious (based on the author’s experience). It is all about the pleasure of eating genuine and fine-flavoured chocolate.

Formally, according to the website of Hotel Chocolat, the company operates 93 shops as well as cafés and restaurants. The Telegraph (24 January 2018) tells us that in the weeks running to Christmas 2017 and New Year of 2018 Hotel Chocolat opened ten new shops, bringing their total number to 100 across the UK. The store locator on the website (provided with an interactive map) suggests, however, that the company may have an even larger number of establishments in the UK — 153 locations are designated as ’boutique’ (shops). There are specifically 26 locations of café-bars, and the restaurant in London. It should be noted that café-bars are mostly (or always) integrated with shops, and Rabot 1745 is a complex including the restaurant, shop and café-bar. The brand is also represented in concessions (51 in total). The conflicting numbers are confusing and make it hard to determine the true current number of outlets of the company (could be a result of duplication in the counts of location types in ‘Our Locations’, apparently mainly due to concessions counted as boutique shops). Hotel Chocolat also has two stores in Copenhagen, Denmark, and several outlets in Ireland (seem to function mostly as concessions).


  • The revenue of Hotel Chocolat Group in the financial year 07/2016-06/2017 amounted to £105.24 million, an increase of 15.5% year-on-year; the net income in that period was £8.76m, an impressive rise of 114.6% year-on-year.
  • Hotel Chocolat Group was incorporated in 2013 and is listed on the London Stock Exchange since 2014 (the founders exchanged a third of their holdings for cash, receiving each about £20m, while in total raising £55m).
  • In the past six months the share price shifted between 240p and 380p, standing in late January ’18 at 333p; market capitalization: £375.5m.
Source:  FT.com, (Market Data)
Sales received a lift of 15% during the 13 weeks to 31 December 2017, attributed mostly to a special package in advance of Christmas (a gin ‘advent calendar’ package), a 100% cocoa collection, and the introduction of no-sugar milky chocolate range. Hotel Chocolat makes 40% of its annual sales in the run-up to Christmas and New Year (The Telegraph, 24 Jan. ’18).

A clear, well-stated and meaningful vision must have helped Hotel Chocolat considerably in its evolution and expansion. It stands on three values people in the company believe in: (1) Originality — not playing by the rules, rather doing things differently, and being creative and innovative. (2) Authenticity — growing cocoa, making and retailing chocolate, being true to cocoa and using natural ingredients (not letting sugar dull the flavour of cocoa itself and not mask the nuances from other ingredients, in line with the mantra cited above), and developing their own recipes in-house at the factory in Cambridgeshire (award-winning). (3) Ethics — committing to a deep sense of fairness that extends to farmers, customers and future generations (i.e., not spoiling the environment with waste in all stages of production).

The description of these three values or principles seems elaborate and specific enough to offer very clear guidelines for all managers and employees in the company to go by. They are accompanied by two business or marketing goals set by Thirlwell: excite the senses with chocolate and making it widely available. The two goals help to add focus to the mission of the brand: the first seems to pertain primarily to the products, the second underlies the network of retailing through physical shops and an online store. Other activities of Hotel Chocolat (e.g., hotel,  restaurants and café-bars, Tasting Club, School of Chocolate) contribute in enhancing the brand: deliver its message across and strengthen closer relationships with customers.

The business revolves around the brand ‘Hotel Chocolat’ and its development as it is their face and voice to the world. That is how customers and other stakeholders recognize everything they do. The more prestigious image of the brand is expressed through their products and packaging, primarily with their premium collections (‘tables’ — e.g., 86 pieces £65, 179 pieces £100). Pricing is also part of supporting the image, though Hotel Chocolat tries not to be excessive (e.g., one can find small-medium packages and boxes for prices in a range of £5-25). The concept of Café bars is gaining weight in aim to come closer to consumers — creating a venue where they can relax and enjoy a good chocolate drink with something light to eat (e.g., brownies) from Hotel Chocolat. The company may tap on a desire of Britons for high-quality chocolate, having a better own experience with chocolates from countries like Switzerland and Belgium. The founders protect the brand from dilution by avoiding, for example, displaying their products on shelves in supermarkets for sale (but their products are sold through concession in departments stores of John Lewis which fits better their brand image). The brand is taken care of meticulously by the founders to maintain an image they worked hard to instill: “a necessity of life, albeit a luxurious one” (Kate Burgess, opinion column, FT.com, 13 March 2016).

The brand of Hotel Chocolat has built its strength in quality of products and the expanse of its brick-and-mortar shops in addition to online retailing, supported by further activities or services. But attention must be paid to challenges ahead. First, how to balance resources correctly between keeping the quality of products and the expansion of the retail network — not falling to the trap of sacrificing the pleasure from the chocolates to their increased availability in the retail chain. Second, how to manage wisely and responsibly reaching out to other countries. In the interview to the BBC News (2014), Thirlwell concluded: “If you are specialist you have got to be absolutely specialist. There is a lot of competition and we want to be in the driving seat.” Consumers who appreciate and love genuine chocolate would surely hope that Hotel Chocolat succeeds in its mission so they can continue to enjoy their delicacies, and be excited.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

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‘Where do I find umbrellas?’ ‘How do I get to the shoe department?’ Questions like this are likely familiar to many consumers when visiting large department stores. Walking long pathways on a floor and moving between floors in a quest to find a needed product can be time-consuming and annoying. Signposts often are too general and lack useful instructions for direction. Mobile mapping applications (‘apps’) of indoors environments, an evolving technological development of the last five years, can make the shopping experience in large stores more smooth, convenient and enjoyable for consumers. A mapping app can be useful not only in department stores but also within large supermarkets, fashion, toys or DIY stores, to give just a few examples. Moreover, navigating in complex structures like shopping malls, airports, hospitals etc. may be made much easier with a mapping app.

Over the years large physical floor maps have been installed in some department stores (e.g., hung on the wall near a lift) — the problem is that the shopper has to try to keep in memory the route to pass to a desired destination. Signage of product directories placed in front of escalators may help the shopper to find on what floor a particular type of product (or a brand) is placed, but one may be left again to stroll a widespread floor until locating the product requested. Signs hung above aisles (e.g., in supermarkets) may not be seen until one approaches the relevant aisle. Some retailers and operators of shopping centres provide printed maps on cards or leaflets to guide their customers on the premises; the map is usually accompanied with index lists and codes for reference, and regions on the map diagram may be printed in different colours to facilitate navigation. Holding a map in the shopper’s hands can be a great relief. Holding a dynamic and interactive map displayed on the shopper’s mobile phone seems as an even greater step forward.

Mapping applications of enclosed environments aim to provide people with spatial information and tools similar to those that facilitate their navigation on roads and in the streets of cities. One can search for an address, a business or an institute, and the mapping utility will show the user its location on the map. Additionally, when used on a mobile device, smartphone or tablet, the application can show the way and follow the user until he or she gets to the destination. In-store, the ‘address’ would typically be a product. An in-store mapping app may show the shopper the location of the product in the store, and perhaps give instructions step-by-step how to get there, yet it will not necessarily be able to follow the user to the destination — an additional layer of technology, a physical infrastructure, is required to locate the shopper on the map and automatically “advance” the map on display as he or she walks in the store.

  • A web-based mapping utility of Heathrow Airport (London), for example, allows a prospect traveller to look for a starting point and a destination in any of the five terminals and their facilities and the online service will provide instructions in text and over the map diagram how to get there.

The GPS technology that usually allows the positioning of users on a map of an outdoors space, and follows the user until he or she gets to a destination, stops working when one enters an enclosed environment of a building. It is additionally not accurate enough to pinpoint the location of a person in a relatively small area, and especially is impractical in distinguishing between floors in the building. Therefore, this technology cannot be applied in mapping applications either in shopping centres or in-store. Alternative technologies have been tested and utilised for indoors mapping: more notable is Bluetooth technology applied with beacons, but there are other options in the field, including Wi-Fi and LED light bulbs for signalling and transmitting location information. Effective positioning of shoppers is said to require a dense network of devices (transmitters) throughout the store, oftentimes an expensive enterprise. Therefore, retailers appear to be more interested in implementing select functions of in-store mapping applications (e.g., orientation, promotions) but are less in a hurry to adopt also the capability of positioning shoppers on a map of the store.

A retailer can deliver via a mobile app promotional offers (e.g., digital coupons) to shoppers as well as updates on new products, services and events. A retail app may  include a bundle of services such as tools for mapping and managing a shopping list for the benefit of the customers. Some retailers already use a location functionality in their stores, independent of mapping, to improve the timing when offers are sent to shoppers during their visit, specific to their location in the store. But this functionality usually utilises fewer devices (e.g., beacons) than would be necessary for a full positioning capability. The mapping tools can produce several advantages: (1) deliver a helpful service to shoppers (e.g., using a shopping list with a map); (2) enhance navigation by location of the shopper on a dynamic map; (3) give a better incentive to shoppers to authorise an app to track their location in the store; (4) mount ‘flags’ of promotional offers for various products on the map near the relevant aisles or display shelves, particularly as the shopper approaches nearby (as a benchmark for illustration, think of information [icons & text] mounted on maps of Google or in an app like Waze).

The map is meant to provide first of all spatial information. Should mapping applications also be visuospatial, that is, display a visual image of the store’s appearance? It would be like making a virtual simulated tour of the store. The experience could be more entertaining (e.g., like gaming) but would it be more informative and useful? If the shopper is already in the store, he or she should not really need the enhanced display — it could be more confusing (screen and reality may interfere with each other) and time-consuming to navigate with such a display. The enhanced imagery display may be useful for planning a visit before entering the store, or perhaps for online shopping in a virtual store. Yet, once a shopper is at the physical store, a visuospatial display should be made an option as a matter of discretion by the shopper while the main display better be a map diagram that matches the actual layout and organisation of the store.

  • Mobile marketing company aisle411, which specialises also in indoors mapping for retail stores, created in co-operation with Google’s Project Tango a 3D imaged environment (“3D mapping”) of a supermarket store with features of augmented reality (e.g., product information. rewards and coupons). [BusinessWire.com, 25 June 2014, see video demonstration — note that the application is operating on a tablet mounted on the shopping cart]

A study published last year (Ertekin, Pryor & Pelton, Spring 2017) sought to identify perceptions, attitudes or personality traits that could motivate consumers to use mobile in-store mapping applications (*). The study focused on consumers from generations X (born in 1961-1979) and Y (born in 1980-1999 — adults likely to be familiar with and orientated to using computer technology and its applications). Actually 80% of the respondents in the sample were of generation Y. All respondents (n=258) had a device that can connect to the Internet (57% had a mapping application downloaded to their smartphone). The researchers considered factors regarding the use of technology of in-store mapping applications and how it would affect the shopping experience (30% of respondents reported trying an in-store mapping application before).

The degree of ease-of-use of an in-store mapping app was found to have a positive effect on intention (or ‘propensity’) to use it while shopping. Perceived ease-of-use was defined as the “degree to which a person believes that using a particular system would be free of effort” (e.g., easy to use, clear and understandable, flexible to interact with). Usefulness of the app pertains specifically to the act of shopping, helping to enhance the ‘job performance’ (effectiveness) of shopping with the map. As expected, perceived usefulness also had a positive effect on the intention to use such an app.

In addition to those functional or utilitarian benefits of the application, the researchers addressed the app’s ability to make the shopping experience emotionally more entertaining (particularly inducing excitement associated with novelty of the technology). Entertainment benefits (e.g., enjoyable learning about stores, fun, or merely a good pass time when bored) also strengthen the intention to use an in-store mapping app.

The willingness to use a mobile in-store mapping app is diminished by greater concern of consumers about sacrificing their security when using a network computing application (i.e., emphasis on protection from malicious software or stealing personal information). Conspicuously, however, reference to data security is only hinted and the sensitive matter of privacy is not properly covered, particularly the reluctance of consumers to let their moves being tracked. If the mapping app provides the user more perceived benefits of the types cited above, they may be less resistant to allow the retailer to track them.

A result that would probably be of interest to retailers shows that consumers who exhibit a stronger deal proneness are more intent on using an in-store mapping app. In other words, consumers who are more leaning towards buying on discounts and deals are more likely to be attracted to the mapping app in hope of finding there promotional offers, easy to locate in the store. Yet retailers should be careful about this finding because if they are too focused on delivering promotional offers through their apps, then they will get shoppers more interested in deals and reward points more frequently than other shoppers. In order to encourage shoppers to extend their in-store visits longer and make more unplanned purchases, promotional offers should be put forward on the app more closely in accordance with the store sections or aisles the shoppers access, when they pass through; where feasible, generate offers in association with products on a shopping list the shopper fills-in on the app (i.e., help a shopper find more easily the products on his or her list while adding products that are more likely to be perceived as complements to them).  Promotions are only one of the ways to encourage consumers to shop more, and that is true also for the ‘package’ offered in a retail mapping app.

The model analysed in this study did not provide support for a positive effect of being pressed in time on intention to use an in-store mapping app  (i.e., apps are not associated enough with saving time or those pressed in time are interested in the mapping app no more than others with more free time). It does not seem to give ground to a concern of retailers that such an app might allow shoppers to shorten their shopping trips, but as suggested above, if needed there are ways to circumvent such behaviour. The model also did not support the hypothesis that consumers who like to gather more market information (e.g., products, prices, innovations) and share their knowledge with others, to advise or actually influence them, are more inclined to use an in-store mapping app to accomplish their goals.

The study makes early steps in investigating consumer behaviour pertaining to using retail mapping apps. It confirms that functional as well as emotional benefits are drivers of consumer use of a mapping app in-store. But the investigation has to proceed to validate and refine those findings and conclusions. While the study targeted young consumers of relevant generations Y and X, the sample consisted of university students (hence probably also the vast majority of millennials). It may be sufficient for establishing relations of the tested factors to the use of mapping apps, but further research should go beyond a student population to cover consumers of these generations to validate the relations or effects. Additional analyses and models (beyond the regression model applied in this study) will have to examine effects more thoroughly or with greater scrutiny (e.g., causality, mediators). Furthermore, consumer disposition towards the mapping apps has to be examined through actual experience and behaviour, for example by letting shoppers perform their shopping ‘naturally’ with an app or by giving them specific tasks to perform with a mapping app in their shopping trip. The study of Ertekin, Pryor and Pelton would serve as an instructive and helpful starting point.

Consumers may utilise a mental map of a store site that they hold in memory to guide them through locations in the  store as in an auto-pilot mode. Mental maps are possible to construct, however, for stores that shoppers visit frequently enough or regularly. Digital mapping apps may change how consumers construct and utilise their own mental maps, stored in their long-term memory. People tend to favour digital information sources and rely less on their own memory. A shopper may need no more than a graph as a spatial model to perform his or her shopping job, or perhaps a more detailed mental model of a drawing similar to a map. Yet the extent to which people also use picture-like mental imageries of the site depends on how useful is the visual information for performing their task, because visual imagery requires greater resources. So visual imagery may be re-constructed more selectively as needed — think of ‘photos’ of specific locations of importance or interest to the shopper (e.g., shelf displays of ‘target’ products) pinned to the mental drawing at the relevant places. A conception like this may be emulated in the digital in-store maps of mobile applications.

Mobile in-store mapping applications present a significant, promising development in re-shaping consumer shopping experiences. It could play an important role in the future of retailing, but there is still ambiguity about the extent to which large retailers would choose to implement mapping features and capabilities, particularly the real-time positioning of shoppers inside a physical store. Mapping applications for retail indoors sites may impact, for example, the balance in preference of consumers between shopping online and offline (i.e., in brick-and-mortar stores).

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

(*) An Empirical Study of Consumer Motivations to Use In-Store Mapping Application; Selcuk Ertekin, Susie Pryor, & Lou E. Pelton, 2017; Marketing Management Journal, 27 (1), pp. 63-74.

 

 

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For Shufersal, the leading food retailer operating supermarkets in Israel, it looks like the sky is the limit. This is a message strongly received from the CEO of Shufersal, Itzhak Aberkohen, in a recent interview given to Globes business newspaper (for its annual publication of consumer-based equity-ranking of brands, July 2017). Shufersal is already a major national retailer, but since the collapse and sell-off of the main competing food chain Mega last year the road ahead is clear more than ever for Shufersal to ride on to stardom. The plans presented by the retailer’s CEO are definitely leading in that direction on different fronts.

  • Note: Shufersal has also been known as ‘Supersol’ but it appears that the retailer is moving to suppress that name in favour of enhancing its Shufersal brand name. The original name chosen for the retailer almost sixty years ago was composed by joining two words: ‘Shufra’ from Aramaic meaning excellent and ‘Sal’ which means basket in Hebrew. The retailer founded the first modern American-style supermarket in Israel in Tel-Aviv in 1958. Israelis frequently name the retailer ‘Supersal’ or ‘Shufersal’. The official choice of ‘Shufersal‘ by the company should make the consumers happy while remaining as true as possible to the legacy name.

The retailing company Shufersal operates over 270 stores. They are divided into multiple sub-chains of different store formats, designed to target different consumer segments or accommodate distinct shopping situations or goals. Three main sub-chains are: “My Shufersal” (the core sub-chain of ‘classic’ supermarkets in neighbourhoods); “Shufersal Deal” (large discount stores); and “Shufersal Express” (small convenience stores in neighbourhoods). Like most food chains, the stores offer in fact not only food and drink products but a larger variety of grocery and housekeeping products, and may sell as well toiletry or personal care products. Shufersal operates in addition a channel for online or digital shopping. It also has its own brand of products carrying the retailer’s name. The CEO seeks to enhance the company’s capacities in these domains, and then extend further. An important aspect in his plan is the digital transformation of the company’s retail operations and services.

  • Note that supermarkets in various countries may selectively add in different times and locations other product ranges (e.g., books and magazines, electric home equipment, housewares).

Shufersal is now on the verge of making a strategic entry into the field of ‘pharma’ retailing with the acquisition of New-Pharm, the second-sized pharma chain in the country. The food retailer already sells toiletry products in its stores, as indicated above, but it has no access to cosmetics (e.g., perfumed lotions, make-up) and non-subscription medications (via pharmacy departments). Taking over New-Pharm would provide it with this capability through the pharma-dedicated and licensed stores. The dominant leader in pharma in Israel is Super-Pharm, which gets the respect of Mr. Aberkohen as a successful and highly professional retail competitor in that field. Shufersal should be able to get better terms for purchasing toiletry products for its supermarkets and other stores, but the addition of cosmetics and pharmaceuticals seems less fitting its current line of business. It makes sense if the retailer had department stores where one of the departments would sell cosmetics, but that is not the case of Shufersal; it would probably have to operate the pharma stores separately. Undertaking the responsibility of operating pharmacies could create even greater complications that may outweigh the benefit of margins from selling OTC medications, nutrition supplements and other devices.

The deal is still awaiting approval of the antitrust supervisor by the end of August 2017. The main obstacle comprises 6-8 flagship stores that the supervisor may not allow the food retailer to have. Aberkohen has said in the interview that the acquisition of the pharma retailer would not be worth it without those stores. There could be additional restrictions due to vicinity of “Deal” stores and “My” supermarkets to some New-Pharm stores.  Aberkohen believes that the increased variety and assortment of toiletry products the company will be able to sell together with the new categories will make an important contribution to its sales potential but will also create a more balanced competitive challenge against Super-Pharm (i.e., as two equivalent retail powers) that will benefit consumers in personal care and grooming. The suppliers are concerned, however, that the bargaining power of Shufersal will become significantly, perhaps exceedingly, stronger in toiletry, and that the retailer will link the trading terms for their presence in New-Pharm stores with presence of their products in the Shufersal stores (Globes [Hebrew], 15 August 2017).

Shufersal’s CEO seems to have little regard for its follower Mega under a new ownership. Most of the chain, neighbourhood supermarkets (“Mega City”, 127 stores), was bought from a holding company (“Alon Blue Square”) in a rather bad state by a medium-sized food retailer of discount warehouse-like stores (“Bitan”) in May 2016. Other discount stores were sold and distributed among some smaller discount retail chains. Since then a few more supermarkets of Mega were apparently sold or closed. Bitan has roughly more than doubled the total number of stores in its ownership since acquiring Mega (on a scale from 70-80 to 180-190). Aberkohen argues that Bitan seems to be taking hold of the operation of Mega City but there is still much work ahead to re-organise its whole retail business. Occasional signs in the stores imply that the new owner is still grappling in effort to manage the additional supermarket chain. There will also come a time to deal with the effort and redundancy of keeping two unconnected brands of the two sub-chains of discount stores and supermarkets (“Bitan Wines” and “Mega City”, respectively).

Mr. Aberkohen has no greater regard for the other discount food retailers (the more familiar and popular of them is “Rami Levy” with 44 stores, increasing by 10 stores in the past year). In his view, Shufersal does not consider itself as opposed to Rami Levy or the other players; it is engaged in its own plans and mission with a focus on innovation. A key to success in the long-term, in his opinion, is an emphasis on managing existing (‘same’) stores and innovation, not adding more and more floor area. He thus maintains that while the competitors, particularly Bitan/Mega, are so busy handling the additional space in new stores, Shufersal will have the time it needs, as a window of opportunity, to create innovation (e.g., Internet, robotics) and gain an advantage of 3-5 years ahead.

  • So far consumers have not gained in terms of cost of shopping from the deal of selling Mega. According to Israeli business newspaper “Calcalist” there are worrying signs to the contrary. Mega under its new ownership has not been pressuring prices downwards (attributed to financial obligations of its owner Nahum Bitan), and Shufersal that had identified this weakness, took the opportunity to raise prices in its stores while gaining in bargaining power vis-à-vis its suppliers. A rise in prices (i.e., index of barcoded products) and an increase in sales revenue in the food retail sector (including non-barcoded outlets) point to a change in trend from 2014-2015.

The CEO of Shufersal is looking forward to digital transformation of retailing and shopping experiences, involving innovation both in online self-service customer-facing platforms and in the preparation and delivery of online orders. He expects great advances in the operation of logistic centres where robots and humans will take part in collating products from shelves for online orders and packing them for dispatch and delivery to customers. Three centres are in development. Enthusiastically, he proclaims that the online apparatus will involve a lot of automation, digital (features) and robotics.

Shufersal is clearly adopting the new language of data-driven marketing, Big Data, and digital automation of interactions with its customers-shoppers. The company is said to pull together to that aim its information systems, supply chain, and data pools from its customer loyalty club and club of credit card holders. This will enable it in the future to customise offers and services much better to its customers. Aberkohen talks of providing services to suppliers based on their platform of big data but he may have to think more in terms of collaboration, especially with the stronger manufacturing suppliers (i.e., sharing data on shopping patterns in exchange for support and aid in resources for analysing the data using advanced tools and methods of data science). Aberkohen believes that in the future we will see fewer stores, and smaller ones, due to transition of shoppers to online ordering and direct delivery to their homes or offices (currently online orders account for 12% of sales at Shufersal).

Moreover, the CEO is expecting a considerable expansion in ranges of products the retailer will make available to its customers via online shopping. This will include also orders from overseas (e.g., through partners in the US). He refrains from likening Shufersal to Amazon but is surely getting inspiration from the international online master. It could relate to: (a) A wide variety of products that a retailer can offer on the Internet (besides, Amazon could be getting more deeply engaged in food retailing with the recent pending acquisition of Whole Foods); (b) Employing robotics and humans in logistic centres; and (c) Advanced and dynamic analytics to customise offers to shoppers.

  • The measure of consumer-based brand equity of Globes/Nielsen is based on three key metrics: willingness to recommend, intention to buy tomorrow, and favourability. The top brand of food chain stores is Rami Levi (discount stores). This position may be credited to the personal character and initiative of Mr. Levi and his high media profile (e.g., proclaiming to fight and act for the good of consumers). Shufersal is in the second-best position in the eyes of consumers. The original brand of Bitan is ranked 7th whereas Mega City has fallen down to the ungracious 11th place (one before last).

Shufersal’s own brand currently captures about 20% of total sales. The CEO aims to increase this share to a level of 40%-50% to be in par with similar retail chains overseas. The retailer will have to walk on a thin rope when cutting down purchases of branded products from national manufacturers without ruining relations with them. Shufersal already offers milk, cheese and meat (beef) under its private label (a precedent in Israel), yet the CEO admits they still value and need their relationship with the leading national producer of these food products (Tnuva). In the past Shuferal has also had a bitter battle with another producer of dairy and other food products (Strauss). Other categories in which the retailer markets under its name include baby diapers and milk formulae; the CEO has the full intention to add more product types to this list and expand the shelf space and volume assigned to Shufersal’s own brand. The proposition according to Aberkohen is to bring quality products at value-for-money. Shufersal has taken additional strategic steps in recent years to tighten their control over the display of products in their stores: assigning their own workers to place most products on shelves in-store instead of allowing representatives of suppliers to do so, and bringing-in most products to stores independently from their logistic centres.

The CEO of Shufersal is cognizant that many consumers do not strive to shop in large discount stores that are usually located at the outskirts of cities or in industrial areas. Often enough consumers prefer convenience to lower cost. People who work long hours, including young adults early in their career, and even students, cannot afford the time or pass over the option of shopping in those stores. It may be added that for older consumers (e.g., pensioners), discount stores may simply be out of reach, especially if one does not drive. Supermarkets in shopping malls (so-called ‘anchors’) are also considered by Aberkohen as obsolete. These consumers-shoppers prefer visiting (at least during the week) a supermarket or even a convenience store in their neighbourhood — they are too pressed in time with duties or other engagements to bother about the somewhat higher cost (Mr. Aberkohen brings his own daughter as an example). Nevertheless, if the neighbourhood stores do not work out as a practical option, they will probably order online.

To top the list of the plans of Shufersal’s CEO, he sees the retailer engaged in a variety of peripheral services consumers may like to have at easy reach such as non-banking financial services (e.g., loans), insurance, travel (including holidays abroad), and optometric (eye-glasses). Some of the services are likely to be made available only online (e.g., insurance, travel), next to additional shopping options Shufersal expects to generate. Although Aberkohen does not refer specifically to the mobile channel, it is reasonable that much of what he describes in relation to an online channel is necessarily applicable these days in a mobile channel.

Shufersal’s CEO has high aspirations for the retail company he leads. Aberkohen’s plans may change not only the consumption culture in the country, as he maintains, but also the nature and character of the company itself. Hence, Shufersal’s management will have to watch carefully what areas it is about to enter and how qualified the company is to make those extensions. They will have to consider, for example, how to integrate the business areas of New-Pharm into the portfolio of Shufersal. They should not underestimate the trouble that discount retailers can cause them. Moreover, as Shufersal makes more moves to fortify its retail business, its management must act with sense and sensibility amid tensions that such moves cause, and are likely to continue to cause, with suppliers as well as consumers. The expansion and addition of products and services for the benefit of consumers is a positive venture, but Shfuersal still has to convince them as such, every day.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

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A shopper may well know what types of products he or she is planning to buy in a store, but what products the shopper will come out with is much less sure. Frequently there will be some additional unplanned products in the shopper’s basket. This observation is more often demonstrated in the case of grocery shopping in supermarkets, but it is likely to hold true also in other types of stores, especially large ones like department stores, fashion stores, and DIY or home improvement stores.

There can be a number of reasons or triggers for shoppers to consider additional products to purchase during the shopping trip itself — products forgotten and reminded of by cues that arise while shopping, attractiveness of visual appearance of product display (‘visual lift’), promotions posted on tags at the product display (‘point-of-purchase’) or in hand-out flyers, and more. The phenomenon of unplanned purchases is very familiar, and the study of it is not new. However, the behaviour of shoppers during their store visit that leads to this outcome, especially the consideration of product categories in an unplanned manner, is not understood well enough. The relatively new methodology of video tracking with a head-mounted small camera shows promise in gaining better understanding of shopper behaviour during the shopping trip; a research article by Hui, Huang, Suher and Inman (2013) is paving the way with a valuable contribution, particularly in shedding light on the relations between planned and unplanned considerations in a supermarket, and the factors that may drive conversion of the latter into purchases (1).

Shopper marketing is an evolving specialisation which gains increasing attention in  marketing and retailing. It concerns activities of consumers performed in a ‘shopper mode’ and is strongly connected with or contained within consumer marketing. Innovations in this sub-field by retailers and manufacturers span digital activities, multichannel marketing, store atmospherics and design, in-store merchandising, shopper marketing metrics and organisation. However, carrying out more effective and successful shopper marketing programmes requires closer collaboration between manufacturers and retailers — more openness to each party’s perspective and priorities (e.g., in interpretation of shopper insights), sharing information and coordination (2).

In-Store Video Tracking allows researchers to observe the shopping trip as it proceeds from the viewpoint of the shopper, literally. The strength of this methodology is in capturing the dynamics of shopping (e.g., with regard to in-store drivers of unplanned purchases). Unlike other approaches (e.g., RFID, product scanners), the video tracking method enables tracking acts of consideration, whether followed or not by purchase (i.e., putting a product item in the shopping cart).

For video tracking, a shopper is asked to wear, with the help of an experimenter, a headset belt that contains the portable video equipment, including a small video camera, a view/record unit, and a battery pack. It is worn like a Bluetooth headset. In addition, the equipment used by Hui et al. included an RFID transmitter that allows to trace the location of the shopper throughout his or her shopping path in a supermarket.

Like any research methodology, video tracking has its strengths and advantages versus its weaknesses and limitations. With the camera it is possible to capture the shopper’s field of vision during a shopping trip; the resulting video is stored in the view/record unit. However, without an eye-tracking (infrared) device, the camera may not point accurately to the positions of products considered (by eye fixation) in the field of vision. Yet, the video supports at least approximate inferences when a product is touched or moved, or the head-body posture and gesture suggest from which display a shopper considers products (i.e., the ‘frame’ closes-in on a section of the display). It is further noted that difficulties in calibrating an eye-tracking device in motion may impair the accuracy of locating fixations. The video camera seems sufficient and effective for identifying product categories as targets of consideration and purchase.

Furthermore, contrary to video filmed from cameras hanging from the ceiling in a store, the head-mounted camera records the scene at eye-level and not from high above, enabling to better notice what the shopper is doing (e.g., in aisles), and it follows the shopper all the way, not just in selected sections of the store. Additionally, using a head-mounted camera is more ethical than relying on surrounding cameras (often CCTV security cameras). On the other hand, head-mounted devices (e.g., camera, eye-tracking), which are not the most natural to wear whilst shopping, raise concerns of sampling bias (self-selection) and possibly causing change in the behaviour of the shopper; proponents argue that shoppers quickly forget of the device (devices are now made lighter) as they engage in shopping, but the issue is still in debate.

Video tracking is advantageous to RFID  and product scanners for the study of unplanned purchase behaviour by capturing acts of consideration: the RFID method alone (3) enables to trace the path of the shopper but not what one does in front of the shelf or stand display, and a scanner method allows to record what products are purchased but not which are considered. The advantage of the combined video + RFID approach according to Hui and his colleagues is in providing them “not only the shopping path but also the changes in the shoppers’ visual field as he or she walks around the store” (p. 449).

The complete research design included two interviews conducted with each shopper-participant — before the shopping trip, as a shopper enters the store, and after, on the way out. In the initial interview, shoppers were asked in which product categories they were planning to buy (aided by a list to choose from), as well as other shopping aspects (e.g., total budget, whether they brought their own shopping list). At the exit the shoppers were asked about personal characteristics, and the experimenters collected a copy of the receipt from the retailer’s transaction log. The information collected was essential for two aspects in particular: (a) distinguishing between planned and unplanned considerations; and (b) estimating the amount of money remaining for the shopper to make unplanned purchases out of the total budget (‘in-store slack’ metric).

237 participants were included in analyses. Overall, shoppers-participants planned to purchase from approximately 5.5 categories; they considered on average 13 categories in total, of which fewer than 5 were planned considerations (median 5.6). 37% of the participants carried a list prepared in advance.

Characteristics influencing unplanned consideration:  The researchers sought first to identify personal and product characteristics that significantly influence the probability of making an unplanned consideration in each given product category (a latent utility likelihood model was constructed). Consequently, they could infer which characteristics contribute to considering more categories in an unplanned manner. The model showed, for instance, that shoppers older in age and female shoppers are likely to engage in unplanned consideration in a greater number of product categories. Inversely, shoppers who are more familiar with a store (layout and location of products) and those carrying a shopping list tend to consider fewer product categories in an unplanned manner.

At a product level, a higher hedonic score for a product category is positively associated with greater incidence of unplanned consideration of it. Products that are promoted in the weekly flyer of the store at the time of a shopper’s visit are also more likely to receive an unplanned consideration from the shopper. Hui et al. further revealed effects of complementarity relations: products that were not planned beforehand for purchase (B) but are closer complementary of products in a ‘planned basket’ of shoppers (A) gain a greater likelihood of being considered in an unplanned manner (‘A –> B lift’).  [The researchers present a two-dimensional map detailing what products are more proximate and thus more likely to get paired together, not dependent yet on purchase of them].

Differences in behaviour between planned and unplanned considerations: Unplanned considerations tend to be made more haphazardly — while standing farther from display shelves and involving fewer product touches; conversely, planned considerations entail greater ‘depth’. Unplanned considerations tend to occur a little later in the shopping trip (the gap in timing is not very convincing). An unplanned consideration is less likely to entail reference to a shopping list — the list serves in “keeping the shopper on task”, being less prone to divert to unplanned consideration. Shoppers during an unplanned consideration are also less likely to refer to discount coupons or to in-store flyers/circulars. However, interestingly, some of the patterns found in this analysis change as an unplanned consideration turns into a purchase.

Importantly, in the outcome unplanned considerations are less likely to conclude with a purchase (63%) than planned considerations (83%). This raises the question, what can make an unplanned consideration result in purchase conversion?

Drivers of purchase conversion of unplanned considerations: Firstly, unplanned considerations that result in a purchase take longer (40 seconds on average) than those that do not (24 seconds). Secondly, shoppers get closer to the shelves and touch more product items before concluding with a purchase; the greater ‘depth’ of the process towards unplanned purchase is characterised by viewing fewer product displays (‘facings’) within the category — the shopper is concentrating on fewer alternatives yet examines those selected more carefully (e.g., by picking them up for a closer read). Another conspicuous finding is that shoppers are more likely to refer to a shopping list during an unplanned consideration that is going to result in a purchase — a plausible explanation is that the shopping list may help the shopper to seek whether an unplanned product complements a product on the list.

The researchers employed another (latent utility) model to investigate more systemically the drivers likely to lead unplanned considerations to result in a purchase. The model supported, for example, that purchase conversion is more likely in categories of  higher hedonic products. It corroborated the notions about ‘depth’ of consideration as a driver to purchase and the role of a shopping list in realising complementary unplanned products as supplements to the ‘planned basket’. It is also shown that interacting with a service staff for assistance increases the likelihood of concluding with a purchase.

  • Location in the store matters: An aisle is relatively a more likely place for an unplanned consideration to occur, and subsequently has a better chance when it happens to result in a purchase. The authors recommend assigning service staff to be present near aisles.

Complementarity relations were analysed once again, this time in the context of unplanned purchases. The analysis, as visualised in a new map, indicates that proximity between planned and unplanned categories enhances the likelihood of an unplanned purchase: if a shopper plans to purchase in category A, then the closer category B is to A, the more likely is the shopper to purchase in category B given it is considered. Hui et al. note that distances in the maps for considerations and for purchase conversion of unplanned considerations are not correlated, implying hence that the unplanned consideration and a purchase decision are two different dimensions in the decision process. This is a salient result because it distinguishes between engaging in consideration and the decision itself. The researchers caution, however, that in some cases the distinction between consideration and a choice decision may be false and inappropriate because they may happen rapidly in a single step.

  • The latent distances in the maps are also uncorrelated with physical distances between products in the supermarket (i.e., the complementarity relations are mental).

The research shows that while promotion (coupons or in-store flyers) for an unplanned product has a significant effect in increasing the probability of its consideration, it does not contribute to probability of its purchase. This evidence furthermore points to a separation between consideration and a decision. The authors suggest that a promotion may attract shoppers to consider a product, but they are mostly uninterested to buy and hence it has no further effect on their point-of-purchase behaviour. The researchers suggest that retailers can apply their model of complementarity to proactively invoke consideration by triggering a real-time promotion on a mobile shopping app for products associated with those on a digital list of the shopper “so a small coupon can nudge this consideration into a purchase”.

But there are some reservations to be made about the findings regarding promotions. An available promotion can increase the probability of a product to be considered in an unplanned manner, yet shoppers are less likely to look at their coupons or flyers at the relevant moment. Inversely, the existence of a promotion does not contribute to purchase conversion of an unplanned consideration but shoppers are more likely to refer to their coupons or flyers during unplanned considerations that result in a purchase.  A plausible explanation to resolve this apparent inconsistency is that reference to a promotional coupon or flyer is more concrete from a shopper viewpoint than the mere availability of a promotion; shoppers may not be aware of some of the promotions the researchers account for. In the article, the researchers do not address directly promotional information that appears on tags at the product display — such promotions may affect shoppers differently from flyers or distributed coupons (paper or digital via mobile app), because tags are more readily visible at the point-of-purchase.

One of the dynamic factors examined by Hui et al. is the ‘in-store slack’, the mental budget reserved for unplanned purchases. Reserving a larger slack increases the likelihood of unplanned considerations. Furthermore, at the moment of truth, the larger is the in-store slack that remains at the time of an unplanned consideration, the more likely is the shopper to take a product from the display to purchase. However, computations used in the analyses of dynamic changes in each shopper’s in-store slack appear to assume that shoppers estimate how much they already spent on planned products in various moments of the trip and are aware of their budget, an assumption not very realistic. The approach in the research is very clever, and yet consumers may not be so sophisticated: they may exceed their in-store slack, possibly because they are not very good in keeping their budget (e.g., exacerbated by use of credit cards) or in making arithmetic computations fluently.

Finally, shoppers could be subject to a dynamic trade-off between their self-control and the in-store slack. As the shopping trip progresses and the remaining in-store slack is expected to shrink, the shopper becomes less likely to allow an unplanned purchase, but he or she may become more likely to be tempted to consider and buy in an unplanned manner, because the strength of one’s self-control is depleted following active decision-making. In addition, a shopper who avoided making a purchase on the last occasion of unplanned consideration is more likely to purchase a product in the next unplanned occasion — this negative “momentum” effect means that following an initial effort at self-control, subsequent attempts are more likely to fail as a result of depletion of the strength of self-control.

The research of Hui, Huang, Suher and Inman offers multiple insights for retailers as well as manufacturers to take notice of, and much more material for thought and additional study and planning. The video tracking approach reveals patterns and drivers of shopper behaviour in unplanned considerations and how they relate to planned considerations.  The methodology is not without limitations; viewing and coding the video clips is notably time-consuming. Nevertheless, this research is bringing us a step forward towards better understanding and knowledge to act upon.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

(1) Deconstructing the “First Moment of Truth”: Understanding Unplanned Consideration and Purchase Conversion Using In-Store Video Tracking; Sam K. Hui, Yanliu Huang, Jacob Suher, & J. Jeffrey Inman, 2013; Journal of Marketing Research, 50 (August), pp. 445-462.

(2) Innovations in Shopper Marketing: Current Insights and Future Research Issues; Venkatesh Shankar, J. Jeffrey Inman, Murali Mantrala, & Eileen Kelley, 2011; Journal of Retailing, 87S (1), pp. S29-S42.

(3) See other research on path data modelling and analysis in marketing and retailing by Hui with Peter Fader and Eric Bradlow (2009).

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The digital transformation of customer service in retail banking is changing the depth and form of relationships of banks with their customers. The increasing shift to direct digital self-service channels re-shapes how consumers interact with retail banks. As explained in the first part of this article, the effects of this transformation can be seen and felt at physical bank branches and away from the branches through remote online channels (including web-based service platforms and mobile apps). Furthermore, ‘customer service’ practically entails the customers’ operations of regular account maintenance but also their acquisition of various banking services and financial products (e.g., deposits, loans, equity and bonds). Hence the digital transformation is affecting broadly and simultaneously retail banking service as well as marketing to customers.

The focus of the first part of the article was a review of the ways in which the five main banks in Israel approach the digital transformation in the domain of retail banking, and especially how the banks choose to balance between the digital and human modes of interaction and service in their relations with customers. It considered the observed forms and methods of implementing their approaches and discussed their implications regarding the digital-human balance. Particular attention was awarded nonetheless to the effects that digital channels of interaction may have on the premises of retail bank branches — their organisation, interior design, and functions.

The approach taken by Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot may be seen as surprising to digital advocates because it is ‘going against the stream’, yet it is tapping on some sensitive nerves of  consumers. The advertising campaign of the bank — carrying the title “On the things really important, there is no substitute to humanity” — commits not to sacrifice contact with human bank representatives in the sake of digital self-service. This is a promise of reassurance for many bank customers who still do not feel comfortable and confident with over reliance on supposedly self-sufficient digital channels. But a question remains to address: Does the campaign stand on a solid strategic ground? One would want to know if there is substantive managerial commitment behind the campaign and a plan to execute it.

A declaration of the bank on its latest strategic plan offers an affirmative answer. According to a press release published by Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot in November 2016, the strategic plan for the years  2017-2021 stands on three legs: (a) intensifying the focus on business sectors and expanding activities directed to them; (b) sustaining and solidifying the bank’s stature as a leader in the retail domain; and (c) being a central operator of financial assets in banking (22 Nov. ’16, origin in Hebrew). Regarding the second goal on retail that is of our interest here, the bank specifically qualifies its goal as “providing personal and human service supported by innovative technology”. In this statement the bank emphasises the order of priority between ‘personal and human service’ and technology, whereof the role of the latter is to facilitate and enhance customer service. As explained by Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot, the strategy is on the one hand service-driven and on the other hand aimed at reducing prices by applying a unique and advanced technological platform (i.e., the platform’s purpose is increasing efficiency in operating and delivering customer service).

The strategic statement clarifies that the bank is not about to put its technologies ahead of its customers, how it treats and serves them. It maintains that the role of the digital technologies is to increase efficiencies (e.g., saving time, facilitating processes) and not to replace human service. Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot is not shy on utilising customer-facing digital tools and facilities for interface and information processing, but it does so as a supplement to human service. Already six years ago the bank initiated a ‘hybrid banking’ programme designed to smooth communication between a customer and his or her ‘personal banker’ at the branch via phone, e-mail or SMS services (they called it ‘an ideal combination between personal and digital’). Lately the bank has recognized a need to highlight the connection between ‘personal’ and ‘human’ as contra to the increasing reliance on digital service channels in other banks. The intention declared by the bank to increase its number of branches also asserts that it does not intend to make itself more distant from customers and less physically accessible to them. It is perhaps not a ground-breaking attitude yet it offers stability, credibility, and confidence in bankers to be there in person for the customers.

However, there are still certain aspects the bank can further develop: For instance, applying digital technology is not just about efficiencies and prices, especially when utilised in direct customer-facing services; how customers experience the digital service is highly important (e.g., it should be visually fluent, easy-to-use, effective). Digital self-service should not claim to improve customer service overall by replacing human service, but it can contribute to improved customer service as a whole. The strategy statement is not clear about the experience of customers when applying digital technologies. Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot should also clarify how web-based and mobile app elements of its platform are integrated in its overall view of personal-human and digital customer service (e.g., enabling chats with human bank assistants and not with virtual assistants [chatbots]). Additionally, as suggested in Part 1, the bank can develop its own service model for combining digital self-service stations with human assistance and guidance within a branch.

Let us now take a brief look at the strategy in other Israeli banks:

Bank HaPoalim is seeking to reflect flexibility in its balance between human and digital banking. The bank’s Head of Retail Division said in October 2016: “we are not requiring the customers to choose between human and technological, instead providing them with a right combination between the two” (press release, 26 Oct. ’16, origin in Hebrew). The declared strategy of the bank is offering human, personal and technological banking. However, other expressions used by the bank suggest that the balance is weighed more heavily to the side of technology. For example, the bank uses  ambiguous terminology such as “more advanced and human technology“; its real priority or emphasis is revealed in the impressive expression “digital empowerment of the customers”. The new services the bank is taking special pride in, as presented in the press release, are a ‘virtual branch’ in a mobile app and human guidance in its new ‘Poalim Digital’ branches on how to use an iPad for banking services.

The senior bank executive is not insensitive to consumer concerns about the use of advanced technologies — he recognises that some customers perceive them as threatening, creating an emotional distance, and lacking in personal touch. Yet the bank appears to be pushing too hard to impose technologies that many customers may not be ready for yet, and implicitly pushes its human bankers to the sideline. Bank HaPoalim is trying to strike a difficult balance between the technological (digital) and human factors by attempting to be ‘human as well as personal as well as technological’ altogether.

In Bank Leumi digital banking (‘Leumi Digital’) is put at the centre, as manifest in its website-based platform, information ‘kiosks’ in physical branches, and its mobile app. More recently the bank added its ‘virtual assistant’ chat utility for customers to seek assistance in using the online and mobile account applications. In its strategy statement, Bank Leumi refers to “organizational and technological capabilities, efficient and innovative” (origin in Hebrew). It also commits to upgrading its service model and value propositions as part of a customer-centered culture. However. the bank does not make specific reference to integration between ‘technological’ and ‘human’ in its relations with (domestic) customers. As commented in Part 1, the mix between digital and human modes of service seems to be incomplete, as if working in separate compartments (‘silos’) of service.

The vision of Bank Leumi is accordingly to “lead initiating and innovative banking for the customer”. Overall, the key words most salient in the vision and strategy statements of the bank are technology, efficiency and innovation. There is no specific mentioning of the human factor. Bank Leumi must be credited for its consistent and prolonged support for providing banking services through direct channels that free customers from arriving to the branches. In the late 1990s this bank was a pioneer in Israel in establishing a ‘direct bank’ based on its telephony call centre. Later on a website was added. Whereas the initial entity was cancelled, the foundation was laid out, tried and proven for further development and assimilation in the main service operations of the bank. Advanced digital technologies, as they are better known these days, could come only natural to this bank. The next challenge of Bank Leumi would be to streamline its connections between human and digital modes of interaction and service to customers both in physical and virtual/remote domains. Admittedly, the suggestion made here may be contrary to the leading view at the bank; however, customer service should feel seamless and unified, not  like living in two different worlds of ‘digital banking’ and ‘human banking’.

Bank Discount is actually delivering a very clear message about the place it reserves for ‘humanity’ in its approach to customer service. Its actions on transition to digital banking seem to be more mild compared with the two leading banks. The strategic plan of the bank for 2015-2019 states: “We at Bank Discount have set before our eyes the experience of personal, human and professional service for all our customers. We believe that we should integrate humanity with professionalism, and to that aim we direct our actions every day” (launched in 2014, origin in Hebrew). The words are very positive: the bank is truly seeing the customer at the centre, not the technology, and the way to serve customers better is to do it professionally (possibly the bank’s sought competitive advantage).

Bank Discount is doing whatever is necessary to utilise up-to-date technologies in banking but not as proactively and forcefully as in Bank HaPoalim or Bank Leumi. Its direct banking operations include the TeleBank call centre, a web-based platform and a mobile app for account management; it also offers a personalised information app My Finance (providing market data etc.) and has recently introduced a ‘virtual assistant’ utility. Bank Discount may still be required to be more explicit about its view on the digital front, but foremost it can further clarify its approach to integrating digital and human modes of service and balancing between them.

Bank Benleumi is going along, combining traditional and digital banking facilities and utilities. Unfortunately, however, the bank does not disclose much information about its strategic plans, views or priorities. Hence it is difficult to tell where the bank is heading in implementing digital banking services nor how they would be balanced vis-à-vis human banking modes of interaction and service.

In its profile (Hebrew) Bank Benleumi states that it is “acting to increase its hold in the retail sector” with reference to its acquisitions of two smaller banks (and their branch networks) aimed at particular segments, and completing the merger of an upscale private banking business as a division within the bank. It also lists the general types of banking services and advanced digital channels that are seen as vital to strengthening its hold in the retail sector. As other banks it delivers direct digital banking services through a web-based platform and a mobile app, information ‘kiosks’ and a SMS update service; Bank Benleumi was early to launch a ‘virtual assistant’ utility (named ‘Fibi’ after the ‘mother’ holding company). Yet the bank remains vague about the nature of customer experience one can expect in future at the bank in its branches and in virtual digital domains, and specifically what place a digital-human balance will take in customer relationships.

Banks need to plan and configure carefully how to tie together the different advisory and operational (transactional) services they provide to their customers in human and digital modes of interaction, especially so when performed in the premises of a physical branch. These modes should not be just combined but integrated and complementary. It should be done both cleverly and sensitively.

A digital-reliant branch should prove what advantages it avails customers to patron such a branch as opposed to conducting their operations on the website or a mobile app: for example, it could be more convenient to work on devices and screens at the digital branch, offer value-added functionalities, be easier to find information or to complete successfully the required banking tasks. Nevertheless, a mixed human-digital branch can provide an important additional advantage: a customer who has just finished to search independently for product information on a work-station or watch an instructional video at the branch, can right away turn to one of the professional (human) advisors to clarify remaining issues and perform relevant actions with the help of the banker-advisor. That is an essential implication of a ‘digical’ (digital + physical) approach to retail banking (Baxter and Rigby, 2014).

It is not suggested in any way that branches of the future in every bank should look and function all alike. However, each retail bank can use a core model of a ‘mixed’ digital-and-human branch and adjust its design in every aspect according to a degree of balance its management sees fit and desirable between the digital and human modes of interaction and service, assigning more weight to the digital factor or the human factor. Moreover, a bank may choose its preferred balance in a typical branch, balance the human and digital factors across a few branch formats, and not least co-ordinate between services provided in a branch and away from the branch. Banks will undoubtedly find they have a lot of flexibility and room for creativity in setting the appropriate and differentiated strategy for each of them.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

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