Michael Bleby for The Australian Financial Review.
Telstra consumer boss Karsten Wildberger knows a lot about retail. But a discussion with designers Geyer about the telco’s planned Melbourne store made him see it differently. “They compared the shop floor – and it was quite different from what you would normally think – to a dance floor,” Wildberger says. “It was the arrangement of the furniture, how they moved. When you talk about retail as a dance floor, what would it mean for the arrangement and furniture? That was a very interesting conversation.”
That conversation led to a change in design for the 101 square metre store Telstra opened a year ago. The look was more open. Gone were the big counters separating staff from customers. Device-toting employees were free to walk around with their customers, talking and showing them things.
Allowing staff and customers to dance their natural dance worked.
Telstra doesn’t disclose sales but says they rose immediately. Its national Net Promoter Score, a measure of customers’ willingness to recommend the store, was among Telstra’s highest.
The results echo those of Bank of Queensland, which found overall sales doubled at two branches it redesigned to promote interaction between staff and customers. These are lessons Telstra has taken to heart ahead of Monday’s opening of 400 George Street, the flagship store in its largest metropolitan market. The country’s largest telco, like traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers the world over, is learning that to survive in a digital age, retail has to offer an experience that nothing else can replicate.
Far from a matter of simple aesthetics, design – in the way it can encourage or prevent that experience – is playing a greater role in that than ever before.
“Great design impacts the way people use space and experience space and experience other people within those spaces,” says Robyn Lindsey, a partner at Geyer who consulted on the Melbourne and Sydney stores. “The biggest lesson is allowing the team member, employee and customer to be highly mobile, to be free and mobile, which doesn’t happen in a lot of product stores.”
A range of poses.
With the traditional counter gone, smaller tables and other spaces came in, to permit discussions in a range of poses. A customer in a hurry to pay a bill might be keen to stand, for example, while one wanting to discuss new handsets would likely sit. Then again, if a customer paying a bill happened to ask about handsets, the employee could immediately walk them over to where kit was displayed to discuss them.
There were costs, of course. It requires more training of staff and in some stores, more staff, Wildberger says. “We invest more in people and in the quality of people and our training, for sure. In some locations because we have a very high demand. We invest based on wait times and providing that experience – and that’s well invested.” And the innovations didn’t always work. After taking out the big counter, Telstra had to put back something for customers who were lost without a central reference point.
“Customers would come into Melbourne Central and be not quite sure where to go to,” Lindsey says. “So eventually . . . we brought back a go-to point, which started to make them comfortable.”
It wasn’t the full-sized counter, but a smaller “pod”, that provides customers who are unsure with somewhere to go. That, too, will be phased out eventually.
“Over the passage of time there’ll be no need for a go-to point,” she says.
With 462 square metres of space, Telstra’s new Sydney store, on George Street opposite the Apple store, is four times larger than Melbourne Central’s, but it will also have more front-of-house space than an equivalent traditional retailer.
Product storage has been brought front-of-house. It means customers don’t break their interaction with a staff member who disappears out the back, Lindsey says. “What could be three minutes could seem like it’s five minutes and the customer would get impatient,” she says. “By bringing it all front-of-house, it meant that the staff member never lost sight of the customer and vice versa.”
In Sydney, the design won’t completely mimic Melbourne – the Victorian store has too much wood in its decor, for one thing – but better engagement of staff with customers is just as important.
As Wildberger says, “The idea of being a bit more playful, taking the customer on a journey around the dance floor will be the same.”