Zara Westfield: Pushing the boundaries, or putting up barriers?

Zara Westfield: Pushing the boundaries, or putting up barriers?

Technology is being increasingly used in wonderful ways by retail giants, yet despite Zara’s admirable efforts to raise the bar, we found there to be a difference between promise and execution.

On paper, Zara’s new store at Westfield Stratford City looks better than any other retail experience that the shopping centre has to offer.

Following a five-month period of testing in a nearby pop-up store, Zara took the best elements of its staging environment and dropped them straight into its 50,000 sq ft, two-storey flagship, opening its doors in May 2018.

Some sections of the press breathlessly spoke of its new approach, describing it as the “store of tomorrow” and applauding its “super-duper high tech” fixtures. Rightly so, too – at the time, it seemed to be one of the few retailers that championed true omnichannel commerce with such a visible physical store, prioritising both online and offline customers. A sky-high bar was set.

But when you set a high bar, it’s harder to clear it every time you’re asked to. During SHIFT Magazine’s visit in late September 2018, great expectations weren’t quite met – while Zara undoubtedly took great strides forward to satisfy customer demand, a lack of finesse meant that some of its great ideas were poor in execution.

Promises, promises

First things first: we were blown away by Zara’s concept store from earlier in the year. It was small but perfectly formed, featuring a wide array of clever features. While a couple came across as slightly gimmicky, it still built towards a newer, more exciting experience and offered:

  • A click-and-collect-centric outlook, with a new area dedicated to online order collection.
  • A facility to buy items online while in store, alongside support for returns and exchanges.
  • Shop assistants with mobile devices to customise orders, allowing customers to choose whether they want same-day or next-day delivery to suit their needs.
  • A smart mirror-based “product recommendation system”, where customers can scan RFID-tagged clothing to see an image of a model wearing the item, which makes recommendations of other items that work well with the chosen goods.

So far, so good – it followed the precedent set by incredible peers such as Nordstrom Local and it worked, too. When Zara finally opened the doors of its indoor megastore in May, it seemed to be a case of more of the same – and then some. As Retail Focus outlined:

  • It is the first full Zara store in the world with an area dedicated to online orders, alongside menswear, womenswear and children’s lines.
  • The new section has two automated online order collection points, with a carefully constructed concealed area that can handle 2,400 orders simultaneously.
  • This system uses a QR and PIN-based scanning system to recognise orders that customers get after placing them, and the pick-up points command a robotic arm to collect orders, package them optimally, and deliver them in seconds.
  • There is a self-checkout area that automatically identifies clothing being bought, and customers can pay on it with cards or mobile phones.

So far, so fantastic. But how did it work in practice?

The new click-and-collect-based zone at Zara Westfield Stratford City.

Brand new ideas, same brand feel

On our approach to the store, the new Zara looked comfortingly familiar. With its big glass windows, understated displays and neutral colour palette, it was clear the new, tech-led direction wouldn’t infringe on the brand’s visual values. But having been sucked in by the mid-year PR push, we struggled to see how it was visibly different, to such a degree that after five minutes, we found ourselves pulling out our phones to get visual cues in order to better spot the high-profile, hi-tech promises of the flagship store that were seemingly nowhere to be seen.

It turned out that everything we wanted was on the second floor – paralleling the odd decision by Decathlon to put the more engaging, unique and interactive experiences out of immediate sight. The only thing that set Zara’s lower floor apart from other branches was a static video wall behind the counters – though it was so inactive that that it took us a few seconds to realise it wasn’t a backlit printed board.

Up the escalators we went, and a minute or two later we identified our target area, excited at the prospect of trying things out for ourselves.

Not the fairest of them all

Reflective surfaces were plentiful in Zara, but we couldn’t find the magic mirror we’d heard so much about. After doing the very British thing of watching customers near mirrors with the hope that one would explode into life, we gave up and asked a friendly staff member, who pointed us in its direction.

At first, it didn’t seem to be interactive at all. After very close examination, we saw the faint phrase “MAY I SEE HOW THIS OUTFIT LOOKS ON?” under the glass. We were more than happy to find out, so picked up a piece of clothing off the rack. The tech didn’t respond. We waited patiently for the mirror to identify it.

A literal mirror image from Zara Westfield Stratford City.

The Zara employee returned with a wry smile on his face, told us there was a trick to it and, taking our tester sweater, tried it out for himself – practically wiping the mirror with it – but still nothing. “It’s a bit touch and go,” he added, a little red-faced but nonetheless dedicated to the demo. After swapping it for something else, the mirror chugged into life, in around the same amount of time it’d have taken to put a jumper on ourselves.

It threw up an image of a model, wearing a different-coloured version of the item he was holding, in a pose that didn’t reflect a typical mirror pose, and at a size and height that didn’t reflect our own stance. It effectively acted as an advertisement; a window directly into the website, which we could’ve accessed there and then from our own phones.

We didn’t understand what this added – what benefit does a typically shaped model offer us, when we could just try it on and look in a mirror ourselves? What benefit does it offer the customer, who may have seen this exact image before going to the store to check the product out?

What’s more, it didn’t offer complementary recommendations to us, but this wasn’t exactly surprising. It was a mirror; you can’t exactly touch it to learn more about products, unless you’re willing to hire a person on permanent cleaning duty.

On paper, the mirror is a clever, unique idea – using one fixture for two potentially helpful purposes – but there’s nothing it can offer that a touchscreen, similar to those at McDonald’s, could not do quicker, easier and cheaper. These more popular types of screens are optimised for product showcases, very quick to respond, and in a dormant state can be better primed by Zara to showcase lookbooks, enticing its customers to easily order clothing in store.

Swerving self-serving

Another double-whammy case of science friction came with the single self-service till in the building. Pushed into the corner and barely promoted, it was nonetheless an exciting prospect – we’d heard a lot about how it automatically detected your basket contents. Ours had one jumper in it; the till immediately told us we had four. Could we cancel the erroneous trio? Not without staff intervention.

A problem with RFID at Zara Westfield Stratford City saw one sweater scanning four times.

We abandoned our cart and got a couple of different T-shirts to try out instead. The second time, it worked a treat – until we tried to pay for them. As with any in-store product, each one was tagged for security, and we were told that it was time to remove the tags ourselves. We weren’t exactly comfortable with the process in itself – after all, a ham-handed customer could potentially damage their clothing if they must yank the tag out themselves.

But this minor matter aside, the instructions on how to remove them weren’t particularly clear, giving a very small window (following a countdown) to pull the tag off. It didn’t work for us on either attempt – we’re still not sure why – and it forced us to go and see someone to remove them, entirely defeating the purpose of a process that’s meant to be quick and easy. It was particularly frustrating to see that we on the nearby standard checkouts, each one had individually processed two or three purchases each by the time we failed to walk away with ours.

Not quite the ambassador’s reception

It became clear that our cynicism wasn’t limited to just us, as we found out after walking to the front of the store to have a member of staff remove our pair of security tags. “It happens all the time – not just today,” said the very helpful, but somewhat deflated, employee. “It doesn’t quite work, and quite a few people have asked us to do this,” she said, adding that the wrong RFID tags were often on the clothing – another reason for employees to intervene at the self-checkout.

One of the more jarring elements of our visit was the frustration with which Zara’s in-store staff spoke of, and interacted with, the new technology. While the click-and-collect technology was clearly popular, as evidenced by the number of people in this all-new zone (even if we couldn’t see its incredible abilities at work), the additional features seemed forced and only gave the hard-working staff more work to do.

Zara should be proud of its team members, as they were nothing short of excellent with us – but if it doesn’t regularly consult with staff about concerns with features in store, it could become a job dissatisfaction issue, and the technology may continue to create unimpressive experiences like ours.

Another look at Zara's click-and-collect zone in Westfield Stratford City.

PR gimmicks, or KSPs in waiting?

More can be done to make people realise that Zara is a real market leader. Facilities like the fundamentally forward-thinking self-checkout till will be overlooked or avoided by customers until the security and RFID kinks are ironed out, especially given the company’s great staff on traditional checkouts, as well as the store’s click-and-collect zone. Zara certainly doesn’t need a temperamental magic mirror when simple touchscreens can and will do a much better job.

More should be done to highlight its more effective in-store innovations. One thing that was truly surprising was how the incredible system of packing and processing wasn’t publicly visible – who doesn’t like a behind-the-scenes look at how something that clever works? While we didn’t use the C&C facility ourselves, the service, and the area that surrounded it, was understandably popular.

There may be a few reasons that its inner workings aren’t laid out for all to see: it could negatively impact on Zara’s shop aesthetic; the packing line may be too infrequently used for it to be a visual draw; it may be an assembly line that’s far from attractive to look at; it could simply be too difficult to make it visible; maybe it’s far from the store itself. Yet the mirror was installed as a talking point. Why not stick a window in to give a glimpse of the robots doing the hard work on your behalf?

Still equipped for the future

The Zara store in Westfield did a lot of things very well, marrying the traditional experience of its many stores with a fresh, clever outlook. Its future-proofing business approach continues to offer a hell of a lot, at a time when a lack of adaptability or uniqueness has claimed scalps as large as House of Fraser, Toys R Us, Maplin and Poundworld.

Our own research found as much: in SHIFT’s Retail Experience Score – 2018 Fashion Analysis, Zara placed in a credible joint 13th (tied with New Look and Wallis). Its focus on C&C and ease of returns should only see it catapult up the table in the coming months, presuming this strategy will be rolled out on a wider scale.

But one fact remains: while it’s brave to push new ideas, these must work properly before they’re rolled out. It’s a more respectable move to pull unrefined tech from stores until they are perfected, and offer tangible benefits to consumers that avoid creating some of the issues we experienced in store.

While Zara’s approach at Westfield Stratford City was clearly responding to demand – and avoiding the problems that are actively hurting competitors on the high street – it needs to listen to staff and customer feedback then respond in kind, or it could make a name for itself as a company creating new and creative ways to frustrate customers. But luckily, this is Zara, and we don’t expect anything less than constant, positive innovation.

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