January 14, 2021

Let’s Talk Local #05: Online-to-offline customer experience with Katie Nugen

In episode 5 of Let's Talk Local, Lush's Katie Nugent joined us to talk about:

  • How the in-store customer experience has changed since COVID.
  • Why to think of online profiles as an extension of your shop’s storefront.
  • How brands can encourage & respond to customers sharing their experiences.

Listen & follow on Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform.

Conversation transcript

Text has been lightly edited for clarity.

Hi, I'm Evan, and this is Let's Talk Local. Today, we'll be talking about customer experience with Katie Nugent from LUSH. Katie, welcome. Thank you for being here. Can you tell our audience a little bit about yourself?

Hello, Evan. Thanks very much for having me today. So I am based here in the U.K. in a town called Poole, which is actually the home of the brand, where we started 25 years ago. And this will be my 13th Christmas with Lush. I've worked in the retail part of the business, starting as a Christmas temp on the shop floor, then becoming the store manager. And now I work as part of the global retail team. My focus is customer experience. So I'm really excited to be talking with you about my favorite topic today.

We're really happy to have you here sharing your experience. And I have to start off with a confession. I've never actually been to a Lush store. I'm sorry. I hear the bath bombs are incredible, but I haven't managed to go there yet. But I was hoping you could kind of start off by telling me what I'm missing out on. What’s the in-store experience at Lush like?

All right, so if I get nothing else out of the time spent with you, I want you to be excited to go and visit your local Lush shop at the end of this conversation.

So I'm sure a lot of people listening will have heard of Lush. As I said, we're a British brand. We come from the U.K., and probably one of the things that people think of when they first get an image of Lush is the smell of the shop. You can often smell a Lush shop before you even see it. Something that a lot of people don't necessarily know is that the reason the shops smell so strongly is because we don't use packaging for a lot of our ranges. So you talked about the bath bombs for example – they're not wrapped in plastic. They're literally out there on the shelves, packaging-free. You can come along, pick that up without needing to contribute to any waste.

We're really proud of that. We call them our "naked" products. So we have naked options for all of your cosmetic needs, top to toe. When you come into a Lush shop, it’s a very multisensory experience. You smell all of those essential oils and fresh ingredients. You have a lot of bright colors. We have our shops choose what music they want to play in the stores, so you'll have really upbeat music, and you'll have conversation. There is something that you really do experience. And we put a lot of energy into that retail experience and the theatre of going into your local shop as well.

Pre-2020, Lush was a place that you would come in and you would get to experience a lot of hands-on demos. It wouldn't be unusual to come in, and maybe you're looking for a gift to buy for a loved one, and you'd be sat down over the shop’s “kitchen table” and you'd have a chat with some assistants who are very highly trained. They'd be able to give you a full consultation and find the right products for you. More often than not, they'll be grabbing the products off the shelves, giving you a hands and arm massage while you're talking to them. It's a very tactile, hands on experience. Obviously, 2020 has changed that element of it.

Yeah, I imagine hand massages are out now.

Hand massages are out, unfortunately. But we've had to think about different ways for customers to get their hands on the product, because especially with cosmetics, it's really important when you're shopping for cosmetics, that you can try the product before you buy them, and that you can get a sense of whether it's the right product for you. So we've been looking at how we can do this in a way that is really safe, hygienic, socially distanced, but also doesn't lose that enjoyment of being able to come in and test products and see how they work.

I'm part of the retail team, but we work really closely with our in-house tech team to come up with digital solutions for some of these kinds of retail customer experience challenges. And one of the solutions that we're most proud of is an app that you can download called Lush Labs, which has a feature on that which we call Lush Lens, which lets you scan your bath bomb, for example, and the app recognizes it. A video will pop up to show you exactly how that bathroom looks in the water. So you can see what kind of colors, has it got glitter in it, has it got bath art. It also pops up with the ingredients that are inside, for example, if you're looking for something that includes lavender oil, you can scan the products on your way around the shop, and shop that way. You can add that straight to your basket if you wanted to shop digitally, or obviously if you're in the shop, you can pop it in your basket as well.

Lush Lens is something that we developed pre-pandemic. We've had it for a couple of years now, and it was launched as we were looking at the customer experience and one of our stores in Japan, in Harajuku, and how we could infuse the human and the tech element to make a customer experience that's really fit for Tokyo. And then that's now been rolled out. So this is something that has been in development for a long time but has really come into its own in 2020 and has saved our customers who want to see those products in action before they buy. That's one way that we've been tackling that challenge of not being able to get hands-on with products in the same way as we did before.

Another signature thing that you can expect from going into a Lush shop, like I talked about, is that consultation element: sitting down at the table, talking through your skincare & haircare routine. What we've seen, in terms of trends of customer behavior in 2020, is that time in the stores has decreased significantly. So people, when they come and shop, they've done a lot more research beforehand, they don't necessarily want to come in and take their time and browse in the same way we’ve seen in years past. So we've had to adapt to that as well, and make sure that we're offering different ways of giving our expert advice to customers and helping them with those purchasing decisions. So there are different ways that we've done that.

For example, earlier this year in the U.K., we rolled out a new feature on our Lush Labs app called Personal Shopper. So you can, for example, be at home, and maybe you want a little bit of help finding the right shampoo. And you can download the app, you can pop in where you're located, and that will actually match you to sales assistants in your local Lush store. And they'll be able to talk to you in real time and instant messaging. So for people who don't necessarily want to have a face to face conversation, it also really plays into that preference too. You can instant message, have a chat, they can send you the link, and again, you can buy it online and wait for it to be delivered, or you can say, "OK, I'll be there in two hours to come pick it up," and they'll set it aside for you. We can offer a customer service in that way as well.

Everything but the hand massage.

Everything but the hand massage. Exactly. And we can even show you how to do that, as well. We've been doing things like online events and using the shops’ Instagrams to pass on those skills to customers. So, you know, tutorials for how you can give yourself a nice massage, or give the person that you're isolating with a nice massage, using the product and teaching those skills alongside it as well. We're finding different ways to kind of communicate that experience and expertise, but in a way that you can do it matching your current lifestyle needs.

One other thing on this topic is that I notice that you're talking about your own channels, like the Lush Labs app, for example. But how do you still convey this Lush experience when you have to fit the brand into some kind of profile or template, like a Facebook page or a Google My Business listing where it's somebody else's product or service that you're having to fit Lush into?

Yeah, good question. I can definitely speak to the retail side of that because we have a really decentralized approach to how we manage our online presence at Lush. Our shop managers, we really do see them as running their own businesses, and they take great pride in every aspect of that business being really seamless as well.

So, for instance, keeping your Google My Business page up to date is seen with the same level of importance as keeping your window display up to date. That customer experience should mirror. Because more and more, again, we're seeing customers search for us online and make decisions about when they're going to come and visit. You know, they might ask questions. They might be looking at our customer engagement, how we're responding to reviews, before they make the decision to come into the store. So from a shop level, the shop manager is responsible for keeping all of that information up to date, because they're the experts, they're the ones who know what kinds of conversations their community wants to have at the moment. So the shop managers run their own Instagram pages, Facebook, and Google My Business, which has become increasingly important this year. One of my colleagues is doing an amazing job of championing that and providing lots of training and resources for shops so that they feel confident being their own marketeers, and see that they are brand ambassadors in everything that they do.

So I think the human touch that you can bring to those digital platforms is still so important, and that is so much of what the Lush brand is about. And when the person who's greeting you when you come and visit the store is the same person who's replying to the reviews on Google, you're going to get that tone of voice. It's going to have that connection. We spend a lot of time and energy recruiting the best people. Our managers are the best managers on the high street. We train them really well and then we trust them to get on with it, and then give them the tools, and support, and insights, and information that they need to run their business as well.

So from a brand level, obviously there's a brand tone of voice, there are aspects that are provided which will give that same look and feel as much as you can when it's not your own platform. But it's that kind of customer experience and that human side which I think that gives it that real connection, that real tone of voice. Which, especially in 2020 when people haven't been able to get out to the shops as much, people have definitely craved. And we've seen our community wanting to talk to us, wanting to talk to each other more than ever this year. And we've had to respond to that too.

I've noticed that in my own life, now that I’m not I’m not seeing as many people in my day-to-day. When I get automated text messages, for example, I’m really tempted to write back and say, "Thank you. So how are you doing? What's new?" People are lacking any personal connections. So if you're able to give that to them online, the same thing they might have had a Lush store, I get that people would really want that.

I love that idea. And absolutely, why not? That is how people want to communicate. And I think as brands you have to keep your eye on how people are communicating, and how people want to communicate. That instant message back and forth is so convenient. For me as a customer, that's the level of customer experience I expect. So as a brand we have to adapt to that. How can we go one step further? How can we make sure that we're anticipating those changing behaviors, and then that we’re keeping one step ahead?

From a brand level, we know we've got amazing staff in our stores. Obviously, we've seen footfall decline this year, as has everybody on the high street. So we've also been looking at how we use that expertise and meet that demand for more conversations happening online. This year we've had our shop staff actually step up, and they are the ones who are responsible for the community management on, for example, the Lush Instagram page. So, again, when you're writing to somebody, it's the one who would be serving you in a shop the next day who's replying. So if you're asking for advice on buying a gift of buying something for yourself, they're the ones with the knowledge and expertise. And we just have to make sure that we're using every available platform to connect customers with staff in that way.

Obviously, we're using a lot of social media because that's where our customers are. And a lot of people want to have conversations and interact with brands there. But as you said at the beginning, we've got our own platforms where we know we can provide an amazing brand experience, and we know that we're not having to fight algorithms, and our customers can get the information that they're looking for when they come online. So when we're using social media, it's always with a view to share our own platforms and give customers more reason to go there too.

This is something that just popped into my head and I don't know if you have the answer to it, but I was just realizing that anecdotally I feel like in the last couple years I've been tending more toward direct messaging in situations where where I would in the past have called a business, or commented on their Facebook or something. And that could just be me. Or is that something that you've noticed as well, either with yourself or with the interactions you're handling at Lush?

Oh, absolutely. I think, again, for this current generation, picking up the phone and talking to somebody is just like less and less of a desirable way to communicate with someone you don't know. So we want to make it really comfortable for customers to get in touch with us. We want to make sure that we're there and listening. Customers sliding into the DMs on Instagram has absolutely boomed over lock down. And again, it's adapting, when you're running a shop and you've got your customers coming into your shop and you're serving them, it's also just been about getting that balance right. So you're also kind of keeping your eye on your online presence and keeping an eye on what's coming into your DMs and how quickly you can reply. All of that is something we pride ourselves on. It's all part of the same customer experience and we want that same standard to be felt throughout.

I can tell you, and Lush, have put a lot of energy and thought into making sure that customers are having these great experiences. So I'm wondering, after you give a customer a really good experience, if they want to share it how should you encourage that? And how should you be ready to respond when people are going to you and saying, "Hey, this is great, the hand massage and the bath bomb were really fantastic"?

Lush has built the business on word of mouth. The products are really good, and often people, when they come into the shops, are like, "Oh, my friend told me about Sleepy Lotion, which got her kids off to sleep, and I want to try it for myself." It's that word of mouth that has got us to where we are as a global brand. And the Internet and social media have obviously like massively accelerated that over the last ten years.

I think, first of all, it's like inviting feedback and meaning it when you do – both the good and the bad. It’s that culture of being open to feedback, listening to customers, and often it's our customers who will tell us first when we get things wrong, so we have to be ready to hear that and then to respond to it as well. If people come at you with praise, of course, being there to receive it, thanking them. Customers are taking time out of their busy days just to drop you a message. That's amazing.

And we know that customers buy from other customers, too. So if those examples of feedback are on a public platform like Google, for example, or on our website, amazing, that means that other customers can stumble upon that. Again, we've still got a part to play in making sure that we're replying to all of those reviews. When we're talking about Google My Business as a store, if you're receiving a piece of feedback from a customer who's come in, we treat that in exactly the same way as when you're on the shop floor and someone comes up to you and says "I've just had an amazing consultation from Sophia." As a manager, you're going to say "Thank you so much." You’re going to take the time to do that. And in exactly the same way, if you get that review on your social media, on Google, you should be aiming to reply quickly to that review. Saying "Thank you so much for taking the time," signing off with your name, making sure that you keep that conversation going as well. And our shops will use that Google My Business rating and then we'll post about it on our Instagram page. "We're a 4.8 star shop, according to all of you who've reviewed this on Google. Here's where you can find the reviews."

So it's making it really easy for customers to access that, and then to use that to make up their own minds about whether they're going to come to your store or which products they're going to invest in. And even on the website, we took a decision to actually just move our own product copy down the page, and put the customer reviews right on top. Because, speaking personally, when I'm shopping for cosmetics or something else online, I want to read what other people are saying about it. So rather than trying to insert the brand voice there, just hand the mic over to the customer, let them do the talking, especially when they're praising the products. Like how lovely is that? We've definitely seen over the last few years that the products that have really gone viral, like the Sleepy range, Dream Cream – when they've gone absolutely viral it’s had had nothing to do with us. You can plan a campaign around the products and be really strategic about it, but often it's the ones that our customers love that gain the most traction. And that can be because of a tweet, a review that just suddenly kind of gets shares and blows up.

So I think it’s investing in the community, making sure that people feel heard when they're leaving you feedback, and that we're taking that feedback on board and using it internally, and letting customers sell to other customers, which is the best way to do it. It's such a joy to see.

I want to note something that has come up a few times, which I think is a helpful way for our listeners to think about it: you've talked about handling the online experience in the same way that you would handle the in-store experience. Like when you were talking about the importance of keeping your profiles on Google My Business updated, you compared it to a store window. Or when you were talking about handling a review online in the same way you would handle it if the customer was talking to you face to face. I think that's a really helpful way of putting the importance of doing this into context.

At PinMeTo, I'm on the marketing team, and a lot of my job is trying to explain to store managers why it's just as important to fill your online profiles with proper information, completely filled out, as it is to have the hours that are posted in your storefront window be accurate. I think when you put it into these terms, when you say your Google My Business profile is your online front door, it's much easier for store managers to think, "Of course, I want to have my front door looking good."

The shorthand I'm taking away from it is that, when it comes to your online presence, you can think of it as an extension of your physical presence.

Absolutely. The customer journey prior to 2020, in a retail mindset, was from the moment someone comes into your shop to the moment they leave. That's all just exploded. And as retailers now, we need to think about the customer journey starting way before then. It starts when somebody is either physically walking past a shop and might notice it because of what you've got in the window, or they're browsing online and they might notice your shop or your brand in that way. That's where it starts. And you need to make sure that you are there and giving the strongest brand impression, and all of the information that a customer might need, and you've got that consistency going all the way through to the store visit, leaving, then the after-care and that relationship building that comes after that initial visit as well, because we know that if we've gotten all of those touchpoints right, it's much more coherent for our customer, and it's much more likely to lead to that long-term customer base who are excited to use products, who tell their friends and family. That's why Lush has grown in the way that it has. It's the reason for our success. And now we are using the digital tools that we have to our advantage, to help the physical retail side of the business to thrive.

Absolutely, and at PinMeTo we’ve seen more interest in these online-to-offline customer journeys since the pandemic started. In one of these Let’s Talk Local interviews I did a couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a local SEO expert, Greg Gifford, and he was making the point that, yes, the pandemic has changed things in this way, but – he says – it's not going to go back to the way it was before. This new normal is here to stay. So in his opinion, at least, this extended online customer journey is around to stay, and it's marking a shift in the way that brands are communicating and customers are expecting to be communicated to.

Oh yeah, I totally agree. I think when we look at retail, you have to adapt and you have to keep one foot in the future and anticipate how customers are going to want to shop and interact with you as a brand. And I think, although 2020 has been an awful year in many regards, it's also given us an opportunity to pull back and look at what we want retailing to look like in the future, and how we’re going to make sure that we're at the forefront of that. So I couldn't agree more. I think we can embrace all of the things that have come out of 2020 and use it to shape the future.

Well, that is a nice, optimistic tone to end on. Let's learn from this crazy year as we move forward into 2021. We're recording this interview in 2020, but by the time people are hearing it it will be 2021, so 2020 will be firmly behind us.

Thank you, Katie, for these wonderful tips and shared experiences, to help us change going forward.

Thank you. And I look forward to hearing from you after you've visited your local shop.


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