5 steps Cue clothing took to adapt to the new normal of COVID-19 retail

Fashion brand's IT leader talks through the omnichannel ambitions, digital and data smarts driving its COVID-19 response

There’s no doubt COVID-19 has accelerated the shift to digital channels and transactions for Australian retailers. And it’s having the foundations of data, automation and frictionless customer experience that have helped the best brands respond accordingly.

Here, Cue Clothing’s CIO, Shane Lenton, shares how the iconic Australian fashion brand adapted to the new normal of retail presented by the pandemic, the virtual and digital offerings it’s rapidly created, and the longer-term innovations they’re helping inform.

First step: Digital stock accessibility

When the pandemic hit in late March, Cue made the decision to close its retail doors. Having recognised it needed to shift everything to online, the multi-channel retailer faced a couple of immediate priorities: Providing access to its largely trend-based and seasonal inventory via digital channels given the bulk of stock sat in its store network.

“We had endless aisle fulfilment in place before COVID, but last thing we wanted to do was have staff go to pick and pack 1-2 items in store – it wasn’t practical for them or the business,” Lenton explained. “With the data and insights we had in place, we were able to concentrate on stores with that inventory open, depending on the offer.

“We also did things we haven’t done before, such as a warehouse sale online. The next week, we might focus on full price editorial and open up that inventory at specific locations, rather than have every store open for online access. It was a very data-driven approach.”  

As a result, there were several weeks where Cue hit over 50 per cent of total business targets pre-pandemic online through ecommerce.

Step two: Bring personalised interaction to online

Having realised the COVID-19 situation wasn’t going to change overnight, the next question was how to bridge gaps between online and the personal interaction and touch-and-feel experience customers were missing in stores.

More than 80 per cent of Cue customers identify themselves in stores thanks to its loyalty program, and all users must sign into its website in order to transact online. These factors have helped Cue build out a single view of its customers.

“That comes back to having a good loyalty, nurturing, monitoring and automation platform in place,” Lenton said.

A new offering launched during COVID is a video-based styling platform offering styling sessions with Cue staff via Zoom. This free service was initially offered to VIPs, then all customers. As they make a booking, customers are asked questions around what sorts of clothing they were looking for, from occasion to patterns, style of clothing and colour. Stylists are also equipped with the customer’s purchase history, information a customer has chosen to provide, plus AI recommendations from Cue’s Emarsys back-end platform.

“This was being worked on pre-COVID, as we saw blending of online and offline retail was coming together. The pandemic accelerated that and acceptance of consumer behaviour lent itself to us executing these video sessions,” Lenton said.  The service has now been extended to in-store.

“When we could open stores, it was important to offer these sessions so customers could come in and feel like they’re getting one-to-one service comfortably,” he said.   

Cue had already started providing in-store staff with tools to upsell click and collect transactions in stores last year. Lenton said this is one of the many ways Cue is bringing digital capability into the physical environment.

“We did the same with the virtual styling. This meant staff are in a good position to service and have a rack ready with clothes,” he continued. “The ability to have an endless aisle and unified commerce meant customers could transact in the moment and within the session, with order orchestration pushed to the store closest to the customer with available inventory we had turned on or was available.

“COVID accelerated that [innovation] and allowed us to deliver amazing CX while automating the process, from communications to reminders, data insights and more. The customisation was all there and it made the experience frictionless.”  

More than 60 per cent of virtual styling session bookings have resulted in a purchase, and the average transaction value is five times that of a normal customer. Cue also took a similar approach to its recent seasonal campaign launch, giving top-tier customers premium access to stylists and products before official release.  

Step 3: Build transactional capability into every touchpoint

Building transactional capability into the virtual style experience is just one of the ways Cue is working to ensure customers can transact at every moment and touchpoint. Another channel Lenton saw gaining popularity is connected social commerce.

“Even with our shipping platform, we are injecting recommendations into it, so we’re looking to give the opportunity to interact on these touchpoints and ideally transact,” he said. “It needs to be at every touchpoint. We’re also working on pioneering payments to happen with an email, rather than have to click through and go through a traditional checkout.”

Step 4: Remove friction in every experience

Throughout the crisis, Cue has worked to remove friction in other ways. One early step was doubling the returns period and taking away returns costs.

“Using our data, we also looked at customers who had not shopped with us online or recently, and put credit on their accounts to say thanks,” Lenton said.

It’s this mindset that’s driving Cue to bring even more digital and data capability to the physical realm.

“If someone looks at a product online, we can follow them around the Internet, send them emails to flag the things like may or have liked, give them an incentive, or if they add it to cart, even better. But what’s traditionally been lacking is that automation in a digital engagement sense being available to physical engagement,” Lenton said. “In the next eight weeks, we will make an announcement on bringing something to market that’s next level around that.

“Why shouldn’t we be able to provide that next level of customer experience and automation, such as letting customers know when an item is low stock, or on sale, with a direct connection from the person they engage with in-store? It’s imperative we engage with customers in a holistic sense rather than look at them as online or offline customers – that’s a thing of the past.”  

While stores are now open, Lenton said Cue recognised customers are making a conscious effort to visit. Again, that’s another motivator for bringing online and offline even closer together.

“That intent is different to pre-pandemic,” he said. “We’re not seeing the traditional browsers in retail. If customers come to the store, it’s about providing technology that will help facilitate those customer experiences and needs. Post-pandemic, the key ultimately is frictionless retail and CX.”

Step 5: Have real-time insight into what customers want

What’s also been key is listening to what customers want, and in real time. For example, Lenton said Cue used social media to ask customers what they wanted from the brand - from frequency of communication to occasion and new arrivals. Those insights also helped inform product production. Cue has a four-week design to shop floor turnaround.

“Using that, and understanding what product we had at the time and what was coming through, we significantly adjusted products quickly,” Lenton said. “We toned down some of the ‘glitter’ and event wear… and we had some great editorial on what to wear in Zoom meetings.

“Having those levers with 500,000 customers as part of the loyalty program, we could target them with right product at right time and use levers based on inventory and the trends through the pandemic to stay relevant and engaged.”

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