Dixons Retail CEO Sebastian James admits the chain ‘wasn’t very good’ a few years ago, with the ‘boy’s bedroom’ feel of its stores unappealing to many shoppers. But now the retailer is back on track, with rising sales and Currys/PC World shops receiving a fashion-focused female-friendly makeover.
We speak to James at the Bluewater store to ask how he plans to ‘use tech to sell tech’…
What was the strategy behind the new ‘store of the future’ design?
You have to make the shop match the people that are doing the shopping. What we’ve historically done is more of a ‘boy’s bedroom’ – grey with flat lighting and lots of high-tech products. Our new store design instead makes it a nice place to be, even if you’re not interested in the products.
We found some of our stores were being used as a ‘men’s creche’ – women would go shopping and leave their partner in our store to keep them quiet for a while. We wanted to get both sides of a couple in to make choices.
Personally, what’s your favourite aspect of the new design?
The way it looks from outside: the art windows, the rear fashion area. The lighting comes alive. It looks like a fashion shop, but it’s a tech shop.
“We spent the last three or four years getting better and getting our service and stores right. It’s been hard work, because we weren’t very good.”
Sebastian James, Dixons Retail
How do you balance targeting the enthusiast and the leisurely browser?
You have to tempt people to buy stuff. People don’t come out thinking “I must buy a speaker.” They come in, you demonstrate, you have a conversation and they say: “I have to own that, now.” We do that; that’s our job done.
How are you aiming to appeal more to women and younger people?
[By adding] more design, warmth, wooden floors and much more colour.
We’re not trying to create a shop for women: we had a shop for men, we’re neutralising that and trying to create a shop that anyone would walk into and feel comfortable. The shopping mix has changed – it’s now in line with Bluewater’s 60/40 mix of women and men – so I think we’ve been successful.
How do you convince consumers to shop in-store, rather than online?
It’s all about demonstration. We want to have a conversation with the customer that means that they walk out with the right product and the bits they need, set up and working. If I put a product in your hand, it’s working, you know how to use it and you’ve got everything you need, you can go and show it off and it will make you happy – that’s our goal.
You’ve got to do two things if you’re going to beat online – you’ve got to be at the same price and you’ve got to give people a reason to get up and come shop with you. That means making the environment fun above all.
Amazon US has introduced a tech trade-in scheme. How do you see the second-hand market developing?
There’s always been eBay, and we ourselves sell pre-owned items. There’ll always be a market for second-hand goods and that’s great – I’m thrilled it’s being used and not being chucked in a dump. That said, there will always be people that want the latest stuff.
Clive Coombes is trying to bring back Comet [now called Lewison’s]. You took 30 per cent of Comet’s business when it closed last year...
Yes, and a dozen stores, no more than that. Clive wants to start a new retail sector in which he sells electricals and gives away free drinks. And there we go – we’ll see how it goes. The best of British luck to him. I’m not trembling in my boots.
Did you have a lot of job applications from Comet staff?
Yes, we took 1,000 staff full-time, and we took more at Christmas. It was good for us because we got well-trained people, and good for them because obviously they avoided losing their jobs.
Speaking of competitors, why do you think Best Buy failed to make it in the UK? And what did you learn from that situation?
When they decided to come we were weak and if they’d been quicker, they might’ve been successful – but they gave us two years’ notice. Whenever they opened a store, we opened a bigger, better store next door. It meant they never got any traction, and their sales were always about half of what they expected. It was aggressive competition.
But we owe them a lot because they forced us to say: “If these things are so bad that they could just come and enter this market, we need to improve.” So we spent the last three or four years getting better and getting our service and stores right. It’s been hard work, because we weren’t very good.
There’s a decline in traditional PC sales at the moment, and your store reflects that. Have there been any other changes made to the stores in line with shifts in the market?
Technology has always come and gone. Lots have converged onto smartphones. It means most things are now polarising – you use your smartphone to take snaps at a party but you’re more likely to use a DSLR on a family holiday. That’s why I think people are buying both.
What’s next for Dixons Retail?
We’ll take the best of this and roll it out to other stores.
We want our stores to get better and better all the time, and any retailer that doesn’t do that is dead. Customers are more discerning and less inclined to leave the comfort of their own homes to go shopping unless you’ve got something to show them, and I think we’ve done that here.