• American inspiration
  • Staying on the button


    by Neil Whitehead

    The fast-evolving world of technology means retail designers need to diversify within a constantly changing marketplace, according to Neil Whitehead.

    The age of technology has been unfolding for some time, but it is really upon us now and is affecting the retail design business from all angles – consultancy methods, client and consumer behaviour, mindsets in general. With technology spreading information, we’re all more informed and the market moves faster, so it’s critical to ensure you keep up with and respond to changes.

    Clients have become experienced and smart buyers. They are aware of how ‘time cost’ consultancies are, so they ring-fence specific areas for work rather than give a sum and allow you to define the areas.  In response, the clients require their consultancy to have a high level of business insight that can be applied to their company.

    We’ve found clients are responding to our ability to comprehend the intricacies of where they make their money, heir financial weaknesses, their customer base and so on. Beyond consumer research, we have to show we can unlock all the knowledge and information that is held within their business.

    This involves knowing how and where to look, particularly as there can often be a disparity between the realities and the perceptions of managers. There is plenty of room for the theoretical knowledge that comes from directors and reading Mintel reports, but this needs to be balanced with the staggering amount of information that is available from the shop floor. It is from the people interfacing with customers on a daily basis that you find real understanding of both competitors and of the mindsets, attitudes and buying habits of customers. It is essential hat design is focused and responds tot these fast-moving trends.

    The relationship is changing and clients want more. They demand the consultancies challenge their business and business strategy – not knowing better, but asking the right (sometimes seemingly naïve) questions to help make the business more efficient. They want to buy experience. As such we are selling not only the value of being immersed continuously in the market, of working across a diverse variety of sectors and constantly tracking and predicting consumer trends.

    Clients judge designs on whether they help to make a better business. Our solutions need to be astute, creating and tailoring all areas – environmental graphics, circulation, merchandising – to help customers buy products and buy into the vision of the company they are buying from. Consumers are purchasing in more complex ways. Mobile telephone communications and Bluetooth wireless technology will be revolutionary. Already, a huge amount of ‘dead time’ has become ‘live time’. People in airport lounges and on trains are armed with the technology to use this time constructively, affecting everyone.

    The one trick pony is redundant; it is all about bespoke solutions. Consultancies need to offer a multi-channel approach that creates variety and choice. Retailers mustn’t ignore Web transactions or the number of new platforms that are opening. The desire to go to a store has not dissolved; we still have a human need to see, touch or feel certain purchases, but a multimedia balance is vital. The biggest problem for design groups here is that having multi-channelled skills incur huge running costs.

    Consultancies also need to be expert in all things. The model of the future is community groups formed of small, highly motivated ownership companies. Asheley Carter Whitehead has formed the Stuff group to work with industry partners in a cohesive way. We retain an independent business while capitalising on different networks that provide different skills-sets and shared recourses such as management account data, marketing and PR.
    It’s not just a type of freelancing, but about finding partners who share a common goal, common beliefs and a common vision of the future, which are all focused on bringing the best results to the client. Compared to the big consultancies of the 1980s and 1990s, modern, small groups offer massive value and the right mentality, as they’re all highly efficient, independent outfits. While working well within their own infrastructure, these groups can build a collective critical mass that can pitch for the bigger jobs.

    Traditionally, big brands used big consultancies as the safe option. But it is a different marketplace now, with the FTSE 100 list far less static. There is a new culture of entrepreneurs who negotiate deals with small, flexible modern groups that have the experience and the value in addition to a personal service.

    by Neil Whitehead, then director of Ashley Carter Whitehead

    10 March 2005