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The lowdown on Retail Week Live 14th-18th March 2016

If anyone is anyone in retail, the annual coming together of industry bosses at Retail Week Live is a big date in your calendar. The popular news website www.retail-week.com puts together this conference to allow a fantastic networking opportunity for retail professionals who are in its readership. As the most trusted source of retail industry intelligence, it is the perfect opportunity for insiders to get a sneak peek of their rivals and colleagues across the retail spectrum and find ways in which they could potentially collaborate and make use of the new technologies that are drastically impacting the retail industry.

This year, Retail Week was full of surprises and drama, particularly with the quitting of UK Amazon executive Chris North and the deadline for the takeover of Argos looming - Sainsbury's putting in a £1.4bn bid just an hour after furniture manufacturer Steinhoff International pulled out.

But the highlight of the week aside from the networking and speeches was the Retail Week Live Awards. Well known as the 'Oscars' of retail, these awards congratulate the excellence of leading retail companies and their talented staff. Sponsored by digital software developer Oracle, the glittering event took place in the Ballroom of the Grovesnor House Hotel on Park Lane as the champagne flowed and live bands headlined.

So let's take a look at some of the winners and see why they won in their categories....

  • ao.com - The Salesforce Customer Experience Initiative of the Year – This up and coming applicance 'etailer' uses several techniques in order to hone it's message of value price promise, 7 days a week delivery and recycling options.  Having a banner on it's webpage that remains static throughout with the same key messages and by using copy that directly speaks to the consumer, ao.com creates a real customer centric experience. This continues through the various pathways in order to search and navigate through the website, for example 'premium best buys', 'in demand' products, fly out pictures for further visual recognition and extensive filtering options for advanced search as well as a quick search. These cater to the questions that would be asked in store if ao.com had 'brick and mortar' facilities. Social proof for it's popularity is provided with facebook connectivity and the 9.7/10 TrustPilot stars. It is an exceptionally well thought out experience for the online customer and in the coming years, the websites of other retailers will probably try to catch up with the adjustments ao.com have made.
  • Shop Direct - The OC&C Strategy Consultants Pure-Play Etailer of the Year, The Zensar Retail Technology Initiative of the Year and The AlixPartners Growth Retailer of the Year – With three wins in this years awards, Shop Direct was clearly the retailer with the most clout amongst its rivals. It retained the 'Etailer of the Year' crown from last year but also picked up two other awards showing they are certainly doing something right. The Liverpool based company which operates Very.co.uk, VeryExclusive.co.uk and Littlewoods.com has had some tough years with the coming of the digital age making it's paper catalogue based business model very outdated. But the last three years have seen consecutive profit growth with over a million visits to the websites every day and a record 2015 festive season as CEO Alex Baldock continues the company's upward transformation to a world class 'etailer'. The new £50million partnership with IBM also promises to create new waves by allowing the tailoring of customer's financial services during the buying process. The 'Retail Technology Initiative of the Year' award related specifically to the personalised product sort order that Sport Direct have optimised, using the browsing and purchasing patterns of the customer to make suggestions of other products that might be of interest, giving a more tailored individualised online shopping experience – a trend that is only increasing as digital sales increase across all channels.
  • Screwfix - The Hewlett Packard Enterprise Multichannel Retailer of the Year – Part of Kingfisher plc that also owns B&Q, Screwfix has been the UK's biggest multichannel retailer of tools and hardware for some time and with the growth of the 'multichannel consumer' such a business model is proving successful. The business has been in operation since 1979 as a catalogue order and delivery service and did not open it's first store until 2005. However, in the last five years a new store has opened every week!  The company hopes to increase it's number of stores from 457 to 600 and expand into Germany within the coming months as a result of it's continued success. Not only are paper catalogues and flyers still distributed four times a year, the catalogue has also been successfully integrated into it's online and mobile platforms. CEO Andrew Livingstone says this is extremely important as tradespeople often want to keep the catalogues in their van to use on site – an astute observation of the business sector the company works in. Continuous innovations of new initiatives such as a 24/7 contact centre and a 5 minute click and collect service provided evidence of a well deserved award.
  • graze.com - The Tata Consultancy Services International Growth Retailer of the Year – The healthy snack online retailer has managed to successfully branch out not only into 'bricks and mortar' retail with products now being placed in 850 Sainsbury's stores, but has managed to successfully make the leap across the Atlantic to sell internationally to the US since 2013. This deserves great recognition and is in part driven by it's extensive range of over 1000 products as well as the preferential customer data they have accrued which has enabled them to select the most successful products for the 'good to go' range in retail outlets.
  • Holland & Barrett - The Island Pacific Speciality Retailer of the Year – In the ever increasing market of health food, Holland & Barrett has not been left behind but is continuing to grow and even expand overseas. In the UK it is the true stalwart on the high street and its name has a tradition in health foods here before it became a trend. They make good use of their loyalty system to keep footfall coming in and the judges were impressed with their continued adaptations such as new in-store initiatives including 'Shake a Whey' concession stands.
  • River Island - The Realys Store Design of the Year – Last year River Island opened a new flagship store in the Bullring in Birmingham that started turning heads with it's premise as an 'event space'. The 23,000 foot space includes canvasses and displays to have the feel of an upmarket art gallery whilst the visitor is greeted by an army of mannequins upon entering the store. Fixtures and fittings are placed at an angle with unusual light displays in order to let customers see the clothing in different ways. There is also a 'Style Studio' where store clerks can give advice on products that would suit a customer. CEO Ben Lewis commented that the store plays to the 'stylish, fun and confident attitude' of the brand. This is a true example of how 'brick and mortar' stores are having to innovate in order to become experiences within themselves to encourage footfall as the efficiency of digital sales and deliveries increases.
  • Net-a-Porter - The Blue Yonder Customer Technology Innovation of the Year – Online clothing retailer Net-a-Porter won this category based on their 'Net Set' app. As an 'etailer', 40% of their sales already go through mobile and this app aims to create a social shopping community to play to this trend. Customers can create profiles and comment and 'love' items whilst also having the facility to buy them. By launching it exclusively by invitation at first, high profile fashion influencers have already got their claws into it which helps to encourage the social growth of the app. Not only this but real-time data allows for updated popularity trends to be shown and image recognition technology enables users to upload photos of clothing items they covet which the Net-a-Porter range might sell similarly. Cleverly, this also gives Net-a-Porter the ability to see what styles their customers want for future designs. Users also seem to already be visiting frequently which means the app has the potential to explode over the coming months.
  • Argos - The Connolly Supply Chain Initiative of the Year – Argos won this category based on the development of their 'fast track' same day delivery service. This is a great win for Argos to compete with the likes of internet giant Amazon who have offered Prime next day delivery for several years and is particularly impressive considering Argos sells some considerably large objects.
  • Amazon - The Heidrick & Struggles International Retailer of the Year – Despite the news that top Amazon UK executive Chris North is quitting for US photo 'etailer' Shutterfly, Amazon is still leading the way globally in the 'etail' market and set to continue doing so as the world's biggest online retailer. By having very small margins but allowing for almost anything to be searched for, as well as an excellent and reliable delivery service, it is hard for businesses to compete with and remains the company that other retailers look at as a threat.
  • Dixons Carphone - The Gowling WLG Retailer of the Year – With a 3% increase in sales over the 10 week Black Friday and festive period and profits estimated at £450 million, Dixons Carphone is doing well since the electrical chain and mobile phone retailers merged in 2014. Despite the announcement that 134 stores will close this year, the judges were impressed with the idea of the '3-in1' store idea inserting outlets into PC World and Currys and shares are at a record high of 500p since the turn of the year, proving critics wrong and exceeding expectations. 

The purpose of these awards is that they give recognition to the retailers that are at the top of their game in the last 12 months. Consultants should be aware of retail trends as it is a commercial area that is always in need of advice on how to expand, grow and innovate, particularly as more and more brands try to take the international leap and make the most of their online presence.

When on a retail brief, keep up to date with the latest insights on www.retail-week.com.  Being part of Retail Week in either print or in person, you can hear from the people that set the agenda in retailing globally with members of the board of all 100 top UK retail companies as regular contributors. It's a fast moving business so it is essential to check in regularly – read the daily 'breakfast briefings' and sign up to the weekly newsletter to your inbox in digest form. This way you can develop the best strategies and analyse both the short and long term performance of rivals, understand new emerging consumer trends and consider the motivations that are shaping the industry and its future.