6 Lessons in Customer Experience from One of London’s Oldest Department Stores

I was recently watching a show that gave a behind the scenes look at one of London’s most iconic and oldest department stores, Liberty. Traditionally known as an emporium of exotic, global, one-of-a-kind wonders, the show gave an insight into the journey the store was undertaking in its transformation to becoming a modern day retail experience. This included trying to extend its appeal to younger generations, as well as digitization, while remaining true to the company’s founding values and identity. I often find looking across industries can provide great observations in Experience Design and this show reminded me of some great points that any organization focusing on customer experience should remember.

All Functions Impact the Customer Experience

While your customer service representatives are, of course, a directly visible impact on the customer experience, “behind-the-scenes” processes and/or functions also have an impact on the customer experience, even if you do not see the direct link immediately. In one of the episodes, Liberty was redesigning the store to create more selling space. This was a core, necessary, business strategy, but to achieve it, they had to take space from the “Good’s-In” department where all the stock to be sold was received.

The resulting “Goods-In” space was not optimal and it did not appear that the employees that worked in that department had been asked for any input when the plans were made. While the employees, who were clearly supportive of Liberty, understood what was happening and why, it serves us to remember the impact to all functions when implementing a new strategy. 

Here, things to consider could include the impact to efficiency, such as how quickly goods can be brought in and processed, as the longer shelves are left empty, the more potential profit they are losing. Also, it is important to ask impacted employees for feedback on ideas early on, as your people on the ground will know things that you may not.

Sometimes it can be helpful, if possible, to have a representative group from which to receive feedback. This is quick to do and can sometimes bring forward considerations that you may well not have thought of that will lead to a better, more optimal design. You may not be able to implement all feedback, but they will feel heard and you will have the opportunity to explain the business reasons behind any changes.

Strength of Culture

It was clear that the employees at Liberty loved their company and all that it stood for. They felt the brand and were connected to the company culture. This is a key component in delivering a great customer experience as each individual is motivated to deliver their best for the company and will also represent the company’s brand to the consumers. Employees representing the culture so authentically is a strong marketing campaign in itself.

Also, Liberty evidently embraced individual diversity. At their core, they were about the people - the employees and the customers. They embraced each person’s uniqueness and this led to a very connected workforce. Embracing diversity paves the way for the creative environments that can be fostered through different people coming together and having conversations.

Liberty was having to adapt to changes in the retail landscape, including how to attract a new generation of buyer. Watching the show reminded you that ‘not everything old is bad’. Sometimes, when companies are forced to adapt or they take on new leadership, we see them suddenly go too far to one extreme and say they have to completely start again. It is key to know when something can be improved, and when you actually need to go back to to the drawing board and start your process of thought again to innovate. Having this understanding enabled Liberty to maintain the uniqueness that is at the very heart of who they are and what their consumers look for in their brand across their sales and service experience, while adapting to the changes necessary for business growth.

The Power of Storytelling and Passion

Liberty are well known for their patterns. To reach new markets they were going into home furnishings. For this, they were working on new patterns to sell to the buyers. 
When coming up with the new pattern, the designers focused it around the popular, well-known book, The Secret Garden. Everything, from the design to the way the fabric made you feel, was connected to the story. In the pitch meeting, the actual fabric designer was the person telling the story, and it was clear that the buyers could feel their passion and felt connected to the design as a result.

Two great reminders - people connect on an emotional level through storytelling, and including the people who have created something as a component in such moments can provide an edge, as true passion cannot be scripted.

Customer Relationships Are More Than a Point in Sale

Throughout the series it was clear that the customer was at the core of all business and design decisions. In one episode, they made a great point that loyalty is not just how much the customer spends in one year - it’s the strength of the relationship. While the “super loyal” comprise of people that do demonstrate this loyalty through their spend, Liberty also paid attention to patterns in customer behavior, and designed initiatives and campaigns to directly appeal to and foster relationships with those that would come back and spend.

Liberty illustrated many of the initiatives they had implemented to make customers feel cared for and special - from service levels, amenities and sales enablement. Sales staff were encouraged to provide a personal touch and to form relationships with their clients - for example, knowing what customers were looking for and letting them know when certain stock was in, or informing them of something they might be interested in. 

Achieving such customer experience aims requires purposeful design, as the processes, tools and policies need to be in place to enable it. For example, here, Liberty wanted to create a personal touch to the retail experience. This type of effort could require tools and systems to store customer profiles, process in sales training, policy changes etc. Through this initiative, they demonstrated the great benefits of understanding your various types of customer and how to best interact with them across the plethora of touch points that exist.

Running alongside customer attraction is differentiation. A focal point for Liberty was ensuring they could provide customers with items that they couldn’t get elsewhere - “retail gold,” as it was called. Every brand needs to find its differentiator in the mind of the customer; what is it that makes the customer only think of you? Once you find this, use it to guide strategy, design and process.

Employee Experience is Core to Providing Customer Experience

A quick search will bring you back much research and content around the fact that employee experience is key to enabling customer experience. Employees have to be motivated, engaged and knowledgeable.

In the show we see one of the long serving employees trying to make some improvements to the staff break room. She comments that it is the small things that make them feel worth something. This is such an important point: employees, quite simply, need to feel like the company gives a s#!% about them. Sometimes small changes or efforts can have a massive payoff in employee morale and sentiment. The key is not to spend loads, but to spend wisely. Listen to your employees, understand their needs, and then figure out what investments will actually be valuable to improving their day.

Employee inclusion in business planning can also be a driver for motivation and engagement. Examples could be a competition to feature them in some media, or employee reviews of products etc. In the show we see one of the sales personnel get the opportunity to have his design for a cape in the store. It was simply a magical moment between employee and brand. These types of efforts can have huge impacts in employee motivation, as they feel like a part of the brand themselves.

Innovating Outside the Box

In a world where competition is vast and consumer expectations are growing, it is key to think outside the box when innovating. The program showed Liberty holding an open call for British designers to pitch their products. They saw over 800 pitches. Not only did this speak volumes about local support and culture, it allowed Liberty to see ideas that they wouldn’t otherwise see or have access to. It also gave local designers the chance to pitch and get placed in an iconic store; this type of activity can play heavy on the consumer’s heart share for a brand - a win all round.

In Summary

Thank you Liberty, Ed Burstell, and the whole Liberty team for opening your doors to us and providing us so many great lessons throughout the season as you focused on your growth and development for a rapidly changing retail experience ecosystem. For me, there were four powerful reminders from the show:

1. Employee experience enables the achievement of the customer experience promise. Your employees must be motivated, feel engaged and have the knowledge required to serve your customers.

2. Change is necessary for survival, but it is important to remember that sometimes you need to redefine who you are while remaining true to the core values that your consumers expect of you.

3. Customer relationships are more than a point in sale. Customers need to feel a connection to your brand.

4. When looking for innovation, expand your reach to discover those little nuggets that will differentiate you and your brand.


Because Experience is not a buzzword, or just a title on a slide....

At EffectUX our approach focuses on moments of emotional impact that will affect the holistic experience your customer has. We enable organizations to mature their experience design culture as a business strategy, in actionable, scalable and objectively measurable ways.

You can see how we may be able to help you with Employee Engagement, measuring your retail experience or other services here!