How NOT to survive in a disrupted world – the case study of UK retailer, FatFace

The word ‘disruption’ is one of the most commonly used with reference to business and commerce around the world today. It des not matter which industry your organisation is a part of, every traditional business is being challenged in ways they could never have imagined when they were founded – whether it be as long as one hundred years ago, or as recently as ten years ago.

In April 2018 I wrote an article for my column in customerthink – it was called ‘Transform or Die! Business transformation is no longer optional’. In the article, I specifically cited the example of the retail industry and the sad demise of Toys R Us,  – as an industry that is perhaps being disrupted more than any other. I wrote the following:

Retail, in general, is an industry that contains companies completely failing to continually reassess their ‘why’, as marketing guru Simon Sinek would say. If the leadership of Toys R Us had asked themselves five years ago, ‘what is our purpose?’; and ‘how are we going to continue to make our purpose a reality?’; they would have realised that things needed to change. In the UK, retailers have been struggling with this concept since the demise of 100-year-old Woolworths in 2009. Nine years later, as Toys R Us have demonstrated, those who benefitted from the space ‘Woollies’ created have repeated the same old mistakes.

Exactly why businesses are struggling to transform themselves is an interesting question. Is it fear of change? Is it arrogance? Is it poor leadership? Or is it simply the case that businesses that were created for a specific purpose at some point in the past, will always get to a point where they are just no longer needed anymore?

Every big news story of transformative failure creates shock waves – the media are a very effective catalyst for creating a ‘sense of urgency’ – especially among those who are surviving. It is therefore no surprise that the more we hear about failure, the more we see and hear companies amplifying the rhetoric around their desire to do more for their customers. Whilst this sounds so positive, time and time again we, the consumer, are faced with organisations failing to live up to their promises. Sticking with the retail industry, it gives me no pleasure to bring this to life with a case study – an example of exactly why organisations are failing to transform and ultimately survive in an increasingly disrupted world.

Founded in 1988, FatFace is a brand that has been a firm feature on the UK high street since 1992, with over 230 stores and an online presence – they describe themselves as a multichannel retailer (as many do). I and my family have been ‘customers’ of FatFace for several years. Their products have always been of high quality and reasonably priced. In reviewing their corporate website, I was also delighted to read how focused on customer experience they are. In fact, they claim that they ‘stand for’ the following:

At FatFace, passion for our customers is truly at the heart of everything we do. We believe it’s not simply enough to satisfy our customers, we want to delight them and give them a fantastic experience, whenever and wherever they engage with us. From inspiring them with our product, embracing the outdoors and trying new things, to going the extra mile to deliver exceptional service in stores and through our website, we don’t just talk the talk, we make it happen.
We also understand the importance of engaged employees who really live and breathe these values, actively encouraging a culture that promotes teamwork, involvement and empowerment at all levels of the company.

Additionally, part of their corporate vision contains these words:

Whether customers shop in a small holiday town, high street or on our website, we want them to love everything, from the products designed in-house, to the experience they have in store or from our UK contact centre. Simply put, we want our customers to know we are passionate about them and understand their needs.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? However, what I am about to describe serves as the perfect example of how words mean absolutely NOTHING, if they are not followed up with sincere, authentic action. Less than a month ago, my wife, Naomi, bought some items from FatFace in their summer sale. Naomi rarely tries clothes on in store – time typically being too precious. On getting the items home, one in particular did not fit the bill – it would need to be returned. However, returning an item to a store is not always that simple – depending on your life style. With three children and a hectic summer holiday schedule, ‘popping’ back to a high street store is not as simple as it seems. For others, the challenge of working – often nowhere near a high street – can make it just as difficult. An additional challenge is that retailers seem to be at odds as to what an appropriate length of time should be to warrant a customer the opportunity to return an item. Whilst the majority will afford us 28 days, others are not quite so generous – as we were to find out.

Yesterday, we were able to make a visit to the centre of Chester, our home city, to return the unwanted item. Naomi could not recall what the ‘returns policy’ was, but knew she was within 28 days – she was ‘hopeful’. I must make it clear, that Naomi was not expecting to get her money back. In anticipation of being able to ‘exchange’ the item for something else, she selected a lovely pair of shorts for our son, Jack. Additionally, I too wanted to buy a pair of shorts – I selected a suitable pair priced at £40.

When we explained the situation to the assistant at the check out, we were dismayed at her response. ‘Our returns policy for sales items is 15 days’, we were told. Explaining that we did not know that, Naomi stated her intention to exchange the item and to buy more on top. ‘Nothing I can do’, was the response. Nothing. As we digested this information, the assistant then offered to ‘go and ask my manager’. As we waited at the checkout, both Naomi and I agreed that if they would not accept the sale item back, we would NOT be buying anything else from FatFace.

A couple of minutes later, the assistant returned. ‘My manager said no’, she said. As simple as that. We promptly returned the two pairs of shorts to their racks and left the store. I want to bring you back to some key elements of the publicly available FatFace vision and values:

  • “At FatFace, passion for our customers is truly at the heart of everything we do” – really?
  • “We believe it’s not simply enough to satisfy our customers, we want to delight them and give them a fantastic experience, whenever and wherever they engage with us” – really?
  • “… to going the extra mile to deliver exceptional service in stores and through our website, we don’t just talk the talk, we make it happen” – really?
  • “… actively encouraging a culture that promotes teamwork, involvement and empowerment at all levels of the company” – really?
  • “Simply put, we want our customers to know we are passionate about them and understand their needs” – really?

I am sorry FatFace – but none of these statements are true – based on the experience we received yesterday. Yes, you may well have a ‘policy’, but for whose benefit was the returns policy created? Was it really created understanding the reality of the lives your customers live and in line with their needs? What astonished me more than anything else was that the ‘manager’ did not even have the courtesy to tell us themselves – he or she left it to an ‘unempowered’ employee to deliver the bad news.

The thing is, this lack of genuine customer centricity (or putting customers truly at the heart of everything they do), FatFace have provided the perfect case study as to why legacy businesses are failing – in their droves. It makes absolutely NO business sense to turn away a customer who wanted to spend MORE money, simply to stick to a bureaucratic policy that is not in the interests of customers in the first place. What makes even less business sense is knowing that the disruptors – Amazon being the masters of disruption – would not even think twice about accepting the return. All the assistant needed to have done (without even needing to speak to a manager), is offer us an exchange – or a gift card to the value of the item – anything in fact – to retain our custom. All she and the manager ended up doing was pushing us away – at a time when every company needs the loyalty of its customers more than ever.

I mean FatFace no harm – I merely want to use our experience as a lesson to them and others. The way business has been conducted in the past, is no longer suitable for the disrupted, challenging world of today. If you want to survive, in the long term, and you have the desire to put the customer truly at the heart of everything you do, then it is essential to ensure you understand their journey – and adapt to their ever changing needs and wants accordingly.

 

2 Comments

  1. Paul Thomas August 3, 2018 at 4:03 pm - Reply

    As much as ethically I want to not use Amazon so often, they do indeed make life so much easier for me as a customer. See also Wetherspoons, McDonalds, Moonpig. They offer consistent service and are quibble free when it comes to customer service issues.

  2. Liz September 14, 2018 at 8:17 pm - Reply

    Brilliant point made! Until an organization has the customer first ethos running through the veins of the lowliest employee, they should be hesitant to tout same as a corporate value or ethos.

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