Suncorp, Flight Centre customer chiefs debate the value of the retail shopfront

Virtual reality, more immersive experiences using digital technology, speedy digital marketing and external partnerships are just some of the ways both brands are looking to improve customer experiences

From left: Wavemaker's James Hier, Suncorp's Mark Reinke and Flight Centre's Darren Wright
From left: Wavemaker's James Hier, Suncorp's Mark Reinke and Flight Centre's Darren Wright

Virtual reality and concept stores that offer immersive, multi-brand experiences are just some of the ways Flight Centre and Suncorp are looking to unite the physical retail experience with their wider customer engagement ambitions.

Speaking in the latest AANA Marketing Dividends episode on Sky Business TV, Flight centre GM of product advertising, customer experiences and sales, Darren Wright, said the travel retailer views its store network as its real competitive advantage.

“We leverage the significant capacity of these retail stores to bring consumers back to the brand and also to position who we are,” he said. “We use that bricks-and-mortar store to work in that ‘dreaming’ phase, to surprise, delight and educate and get our customers excited and obviously then celebrate once they travel. It gives you that tactical element in a customer experience model that you don’t really get when you’re transacting online.”

This does requires technology, and Wright said Flight Centre has introduced virtual reality into retail stores as a way of further making them a destination to showcase products.

 “We’re aiming to empower our consultants to allow us to make deeper connections with our customers so that they stay with us,” he said. “Customer service is still king.”

In addition, being able to constantly refresh offers in-store to compete with pure-play online competitors is another priority, and Wright said the business has a speed-to-market strategy that sees new products and offers advertised onsite in two hours.

“If a new offer or fare becomes available, Flight Centre wants to ensure it is advertisers across our store network and communicated to our customers as quickly as our online-only competitors can,” he said. “We can communicate that in our storefront with our digital screens within two hours.”

Read more: How Flight Centre is mapping out a new kind of customer journey

Read more: How Flight Centre leveraged data to boost customer experience

Suncorp, meanwhile, has launched two concept stores in the last six months in Parramatta and the Brisbane suburb of Carindale, and also has a branch footprint. It will also launch its first ‘discovery’ store in Sydney’s Pitt Street Mall, a large-format store aimed at bringing a new level of experience to customers not experience before in financial services.

“The ability to create immersive experiences… is a great way to bring our brand to life,” said Suncorp chief customer experience officer, Mark Reinke, who added that we’re now living in an experience economy. “Those stores are us experimenting around the right recipe to really engage people by creating a set of services around buying an owning a home, or a car.”

For example, store staff can help consumers find homes and value them, find the nearest schools or access services such as builders or financers. The stores take advantage of digital technology to engage people, Reinke said.

The store approach is being driven by Suncorp’s wider ambitions to bring all of its brand together into a form of marketplace, where consumers choose services from across the network based on their needs and outcomes.  

“Stores are a physical manifestation of a platform and an ability to match supply and demand. You’ll see all 12 of our brands in the stores, plus other brands,” Reinke said. “Our job is then to curate those brands and bring them together in ways people think about, such as buying a home or car, or retiring. It’s about consumer-centric ways of thinking.”

What’s become clear is customers no longer benchmark experiences by category, but by their best experiences ever, Reinke said. This requires organisations to have a constant eye on transformation and innovation of offering. To do that, Suncorp takes a multi-layered approach, actively seeking to build a portfolio of global partnerships as well as with innovation labs.

“A lab enables us to create new ways of working, engage with partners and create velocity to shorten the time it takes to get products to market,” Reinke said.

For Reinke, businesses have “three horizons” to work to: Improving the performance of existing business; looking at adjacencies to the current business; and disrupting the business they already have.

“We are trying to get that balance right,” he said. “It’s not ‘set and forget’.”

There are also those within the marketing sphere, such as Mark Ritson and Byron Sharp, who are challenging long-held assumptions and helping marketing teams rethink the way they so things.

“It is incredibly useful to have a third party objectively stand back and help companies like ours through the learnings of many,” Reinke added.

Flight Centre also runs a business, called ‘little argos’, a seeding business where it looks for and feeds in travel-related startups. A key criteria is those that can scale fast, Wright said.

“We also look within the JV pillar and vertical integration,” he said, pointing out Flight Centre now owns ground handlers and hotel businesses in Asia.

“Smaller companies that can plug in in an almost modular way to the flight Centre beast. And they allow us to stay in touch with the customer all the way through their experience,” he said.  

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