Beth Thompson
03/07/20

A conversation with Charles Clinkard: COVID-19 and the Future of eCommerce

This week, we were honoured to sit down (virtually, obviously) and chat with Rachel Clinkard, eCommerce Director at Charles Clinkard (and granddaughter of founder, Charles) about their experiences over the last few months, their first week back in-store, their recent Which? win, and the future of eCommerce.

Charles Clinkard is a third-generation family-owned business, with 34 retail locations spanning across the UK. Their values have always remained a part of the brand’s heritage since 1924: to provide high-quality shoes and first-rate customer experience for the whole family.

Hi Rachel, thank you for taking the time out of your day to chat with us! Before we get into the questions, do you mind telling us a little more about the Charles Clinkard business for those that don’t know?

Of course! Our footwear collections cater to women, men and children. We’re a family-owned business, who cater for the entire family too. We want to grow with our customers through all walks of life.

A large part of our customer base is made up of a female demographic, but it’s also wide-ranging, with the younger end of the population purchasing for their children. At the other end of the scale, we tend to get people returning to Charles Clinkard to purchase for themselves once their children are grown up.

We have a true passion for providing high-quality shoes and outstanding customer service. This is made possible by our wonderful team who work meticulously to provide the best footwear for the entire family.

Thank you! Now, obviously things have had to be a little different since lockdown was enforced, could you please take us through Charles Clinkard’s experience of COVID-19 so far?

Sure, it’s definitely changed a lot. We’re in a fortunate position to be able to say we’re seeing continued growth on the website throughout lockdown, but initially, we did see sales temporarily drop off a cliff.

For a start, we had to shut our stores - something that’s never been done since we first opened back in 1924. This meant that, regardless of trade on the web, we have had surplus stock that needed to be moved - we needed to ensure that we had the room to take in stock for the next season where the stores are open. So, we had to change things up a little bit to overcome these obstacles that we wouldn’t typically have experienced.

We strongly believe in the impeccable quality of our products, so we’re not typically discount-driven. Lockdown has led us to become a bit more price competitive, to ensure that we have the room for next season’s stock.

We also appreciate that the pandemic has affected customers differently, with many people in the UK having been furloughed and therefore being in a position where they are risk-averse in terms of spending, so we’ve also increased our online promotions, having taken this into consideration.

Did your marketing message change, if so how?

Other than more frequent discounting and extending our offers to a wider customer base, our marketing message hasn’t changed.

Obviously, we introduced new messaging around COVID-19. We thought that it was really important to keep our customers informed on how the pandemic was affecting our own operations, particularly if their orders may be delayed. We’ve felt that customers have really appreciated that and have engaged with communications, so in that sense, we’ve had the opportunity to be a little more conversational in terms of our messaging, and that’s been really well received.

We’ve been keeping a close eye on shifts in trends over the last few months, with shifts in consumer behaviour facilitating changes in buying habits as shoppers are seeking more comfort throughout an uncertain time. Have you found that this has been echoed by the Charles Clinkard consumer?

Yes, definitely. What we’ve been selling in lockdown has been vastly different to the ‘norm’. We’d usually be dominated by higher-priced ladies’ products at this time of year, but this has shifted to kids and comfort.

At the beginning of lockdown, we saw an incredible uplift in a lot of canvas shoes, which is probably due to children growing out of their shoes, and parents seeking an inexpensive pair for the children to play in the garden, as they weren’t needing school shoes at that point... Similarly, Crocs and sandals have flown as well, particularly with the nice weather we’ve been having. We think that particularly with other places on the high street closing and not making products available online, our eCommerce website provided us with that opportunity to cater to these needs.

More recently, we’ve seen a significant uplift in trainers and we’re actually seeing even in sale that three of the top 10 are full-price kids trainers. Now that lockdown has been eased a little and we’ve got more opportunity to go out-and-about, consumers are searching for more durable and higher quality trainers - both for comfort and practicality!

We’ve also seen Padders slippers fly off the shelves, particularly with people spending most of their time at home.

We’ve noticed that while our footwear clients are up year on year in terms of orders and revenue through the Visualsoft platform, we’ve seen a decrease in average order value. Have you experienced the same trend?

Yes, we’d also seen a notable decline in AOV. This, of course, is likely to be due to the decision to be more discount-driven for our consumers throughout this time period. On top of this, we’ve seen an increase in the sales of children’s shoes throughout lockdown, which are typically lower value products anyway.

We’re really lucky that overall, we’ve continued to grow throughout the pandemic, but we’ve had to sell a heck of a lot more shoes to achieve that.

A lot of retailers are seeing new customers visiting their sites. What advice would you give to retailers to retain these customers for the future?

Retailers definitely need to make the most of the opportunity. I think it's really important to review the experience you are providing to your customers, which is achieved through understanding their needs better. We’re wanting to gather better insight into new customers through the type of information we collect and analyse the types of products they’ve been purchasing so that we can send them more relevant emails and communicate with them appropriately when they return.

The Coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown has certainly presented obstacles for the retail industry that we’ve seen our clients deftly respond and adapt to which has been particularly incredible to watch. What opportunities do you think the last few months have presented to retailers and the footwear industry in particular?

Well, without being too negative about it, the IMRG figures, in general, say it’s not been ‘great’ online for footwear retailers. However, we’ve been really lucky that with the exception of the very initial period, we’ve still seen growth throughout lockdown.

I think it’s potentially opened up new markets to us! We’ve welcomed customers from a slightly older demographic, particularly those who have been purchasing the Padders slippers, who we assume weren’t shopping online before. We’re hoping that they’re enjoying the onsite experience and they’re finding it easier and more convenient, and that they’ll return to repurchase as it’s more familiar.

We’ve also definitely gained new children’s customers. We’re a bit more cautious of ‘chasing’ these as it can be harder to offer the same level of service online as we do in-store, particularly when it comes to measuring children’s feet. However, through focusing on steady retention strategies, and as mentioned before through gathering the right information on the customer and their preferences these new customers will return as lifetime customers, potentially purchasing for the entire family.

So, yes! I do think that while there are challenges all retailers will face, there are plenty of opportunities. We know we’ve got a huge chance to engage with these new types of customers that we didn’t have before.

What do you think Q4 will be like this year and how are you planning to prepare? Are your plans different from last year?

I expect Q3 and Q4 this year will definitely be more challenging than they were last year. We expect that coming out of the pandemic, we’ll have to do a little more discounting as we find out the true impact on the economy and how consumers will react to this down the line.

In terms of preparations for Q4, as we’re not ‘seasonal’ in the traditional sense, particularly with Black Friday, it's never quite as big of a deal for us as it is for everyone else. Many companies, I’m sure, will be drastically re-considering strategies for Q4, but we’ll manage it as any other quarter whilst being mindful of shifts in consumer mindset, and how we will have to keep evolving to align with the changes in customer needs and priorities.

As more stores reopen and the world goes back to a certain degree of normal, one of our main priorities will be to try and encourage parents to start thinking about school shoes ahead of time. This will enable customers to avoid the big rush, and allow our stores to manage and reduce wait times.

We’re encouraging customers to book appointments with us to limit the amount of queueing necessary, which also allows staff to provide a heightened in-store one-to-one experience.

We recently heard the fantastic news that you have been recognised as Best High Street Shoe Shop in a recent Which? survey, which also coincided with the re-opening of stores. Huge congratulations! How have your first couple of weeks been since stores have been reopened? Have you had a good level of footfall?

Overall, I would say it’s been no worse than we expected! We noticed that shopping centres have been challenging, which we’re attributing to the strict measures that are in place, and also the fact that not all stores within shopping centres are open. We’ve seen more footfall in the North East which is definitely interesting! It’s been great to be able to reopen the stores, but I think that would also be a fair assessment.

It’s an uncertain time for everyone, and staff were understandably apprehensive about stores re-opening, but they adapted to the new safety procedures really quickly and reported that they are actually much more relaxed now and more comfortable being in store. Customers that we have seen in the store have reported that they are grateful with the measures we’ve put in place and they’re genuinely really happy that we are open and they can take a trip to the store.

As I mentioned before, to keep things as safe as possible we’re encouraging customers to book an appointment to visit the store and we’ve found that we’ve had really good engagement with that, for example, we’ve already had over 400 appointments booked for one store between now and back to school.

On the whole, Branch Ops have been really pleased with the way the first couple of weeks have gone, obviously, there are certain challenges and, of course, to remain compliant with guidelines it will take staff longer to complete certain tasks, but it’s been a good couple of weeks all things considered!

And finally, it’s a big question, but what does the future of eCommerce look like for yourself and the footwear sector?

We expect there to be fewer retailer outlets on the high street for sure, we predict that there will be a number of retailers who simply don’t survive, but also, we expect that the retailers who do remain will reduce their number of stores - we’ve already seen a couple of retailers doing this, meaning there’s less competition on the high street.

I think that the pandemic has forced businesses to make decisions; it has highlighted the things that were no longer working efficiently and where companies can evolve, so has almost forced their hand in that.

At the moment, many retailers consider it to be significantly more profitable to sell online, which could be down to it being a more efficient model. We expect many retailers will be reviewing their operational spends and we believe that those who are in a position to be able to invest in marketing through this uncertain time period, with the right tone of voice, will come out the other side of the pandemic with significant growth.

I also think that there’s just something about the physical shopping experience that customers will always look for - and we’ve seen first-hand consumers’ eagerness to return to the store, so I think that while the physical retail space may transform, there will always be a firm place for both.

A huge thank you to Rachel, eCommerce Director at Charles Clinkard, for making the time to chat with us on how they’ve been getting on, and the future of eCommerce.

You can find out more about Charles Clinkard at www.charlesclinkard.co.uk

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