FOCUS: CONSUMER PR - Turning bricks to clicks. The festive season is finally upon us, so how can the big high street retailers make the most of their brands online? Richard Carpenter goes e-shopping

Go on, make a cup of tea. Put your feet up. Forget about the crowds and buy your presents from home this Christmas.

Go on, make a cup of tea. Put your feet up. Forget about the crowds and buy your presents from home this Christmas.

Online shopping is all the rage this Yuletide with many of the big high street stores attempting to persuade consumers to double-click on their presents this winter rather than venture out into the cold.

The online push for the Christmas rush is merely the culmination of a year when Britain's high street has finally got its online act together.

And harried executives up and down the country want to make sure that the time and investment has all been worthwhile.

But how easy is it to translate a well-established, high street brand onto the internet? The idea of simply building another channel through which your established customer base can buy products and services seems extremely attractive.

The reality, however, is somewhat different. Even large brands that bided their time, learned from the mistakes of others and waited until this year to launch their online offering have found that the going can be extremely tough.

Huge investments in site development, administrative and fulfilment back-up have more than often resulted in online revenues that are a miniscule fraction of the real thing - in this case, the revenues from mostly successful high street shops.

Some saw it coming and toned down the messages they were sending out to key audiences about the prospects for their online businesses. Others remain extremely upbeat. Many companies still prefer to bury their online sales within their wider figures but the City is piling on the pressure for a more detailed breakdown.

Whatever the transparency level, January will be an interesting month as the Christmas trading statements start to fly thick and fast, and questions will be asked about whether an online 'branch' is a blessing or a curse.



Danger mouse

Transferring a traditional, established high street brand onto the web poses a range of PR questions in its own right. Will the customer base be the same as in the high street stores? Is there any danger of damaging the traditional brand by extending it onto the web? How difficult is it to successfully transfer the brand values of a store to the virtual high street? We looked at eight major high street brands and assessed how successful they have been in achieving this last aim.

Sara Tye, Grant Butler Coomber head of consumer technology, says companies that have already gone through the time and expense of establishing an offline brand are understandably tempted to try and take it online. She suggests that keeping a brand at the top of consumers' minds can cost up to pounds 30m a year - an often crippling amount of spend when you are trying to establish an online business.

On the other hand you could seriously damage or weaken an established brand with an online offering. Imagine going to a website to buy your presents in early December and then having to wait until mid-January for delivery. That is the sort of down side that could lead unhappy customers away from the high street stores, too.

As Alex Batchelor, Interbrand managing director, points out: 'If your local supermarket was out of stock 20 per cent of the time, you'd think it was pretty lousy.'

Unfortunately, those sort of experiences are commonplace on the web as companies struggle to adjust to customer demand and perfect their fulfilment - often to an international rather than local audience. Ever been dumbstruck by the inward-looking focus of an American site that refuses to take a UK address and postcode for registration or delivery purposes? Just try ordering something from a British site next time you are in New York.

These are the challenges that PR and branding experts have to come to terms with. Use your established name on your web site and journalists won't give two hoots about distinguishing from the wider company when trouble comes calling. 'There are no hiding places anymore,' Batchelor points out, adding that the chances are you will also be dealing with a whole new set of competitors too.

Take WHSmith Online. It is not just up against Booksetc a few doors away - it faces the might of Amazon just a click away. Pricing policy has to reflect that reality and it is up to the PR team to deal with the flak.

WHSmith Online joint managing director Kate Kennedy says the strategy of differential pricing is a risky one but it is a risk that they have to take. 'We haven't actually had many complaints over that and it's worth pointing out that buying over the internet can sometimes be more expensive than the high street stores.' Postage and packing are usually to blame.

Kennedy is permanently aware of the potential for PR and branding damage to the main high street operation if the web side gets things badly wrong.

The WHSmith approach has been to extend the existing brand while delivering it through a separate business. 'Obviously the risk is that the whole thing could go pear-shaped,' she says, quickly adding that there are also major rewards to selling online.

Rapidly changing what is available in the online store without having to reprint marketing brochures or take stock off shelves is just one of the advantages. Granting customers access to a wider range of stock regardless of their location is another big winner. And then there is the hope that it will bring in a whole new customer base.



Caught in the net

That expanded audience is key to many of the high street stores' online aspirations. Yet that can mean traditional customers feel left out as they become more web aware. Marks & Spencer is a classic example. Its website looks as though it is targeted at hip and trendy young things working in urban offices (see panel), but what happens in the future as its wider customer base gets internet friendly?

M&S spokesman Louis Hill denies that the web site is targeting a different customer base. 'We don't want a disparity between our online approach and our offering through stores and catalogues. We're trying to create a seamless existence. We have to maintain our brand identity between the stores and the web.'

Regardless of the official line, it is hardly surprising that stores are targeting their online offerings at a niche set of customers. Existing in the wired worlds of PR and journalism it is all too easy to forget that the majority of the population still do not have regular access to the internet. It is fairly obvious that there have to be some differences between web stores and the high street. In PR and branding terms, the challenge lies in fudging that disparity over a period of time.

Simi Belo, Text 100 associate director, goes even further: 'Translating a high street brand onto the internet is not about trying to replicate the same shopping experience, but about offering consumers another route to shop that uses technology to provide even more convenience and choice.' She argues that the marketing and PR should follow suit, promoting all the benefits of the new online brand in its own right.

Customers can check out handbag.com from Boots, for example, if they want a completely differentiated online experience to the high street chemist. Then point their browser towards boots.co.uk if they want to feel safer in the hands of somebody they know. PR-wise, handbag.com allowed Boots to dip its toe in the online water without the danger of a serious impact on its established brand.



Taking the plunge

Or you could completely flip the whole established brand approach on its head and pop down to Iceland. Sorry, that's Iceland.co.uk. Hilary Berg, Iceland Foods head of PR, says the decision to rebrand the high street stores in line with the internet site was not taken lightly.

At the same time there was confidence that customers would not be driven away from the shops simply by adding .co.uk onto the sign above the doors. 'We were never really concerned that it might dent our traditional business,' she says, pointing out that the store rebranding has been a fantastic advertisement for the website.

'The real challenge for us has been translating the brand values onto the web in the knowledge that we may be facing a different, more professional audience.' However, she stresses that those brand values are just as valid.

It is, she adds, food you can trust whether you buy it online or via the stores.

The advantage for established high street operations over new online brands is that they may already have had the fulfilment capabilities up and running before the web came along. Iceland along with many other supermarkets had home delivery operations before it went online.

Having such operations that pre-date the web implies myriad advantages over newer businesses setting it all up from scratch. Many of the PR lessons have already been learned and many of the potential nightmares of slow or poor delivery have already been ironed out. You also have expensive PR expertise on tap.

Despite the current cripplingly low revenues from massive website operations, most high street stores expect them to become profitable operations in the not too distant future. By which time they hope to have ironed out the initial branding and PR hiccups.

In a couple of years, though, a whole new set of customers are likely to be firing up their browsers in search of Christmas goodies. That is just the point at which to expect new PR challenges to start rearing their ugly heads.



BOOTS

www.boots.co.uk

On initial viewing, the branding doesn't seem to completely gel with the high street stores and there is only a limited product range available to buy. But it is more about lifestyle than shopping and complements the high street brand.

The two online shopping departments - Mother & Baby, Health & Beauty - give an idea of Boots' targeting of its online offering. It's all about feeling and looking good, and a 'how do you feel today?' bar has a range of options such as 'I want to give my partner a massage'. The site backs up Boot's assertion that it is a caring store.

A magazine section and advice forum help to spice up the site. 'Where can I get sparkly mascara?' asks one section. But don't be put off, the non-shopping areas of the site are full of handy hints and tips.

Those that have bought from the site report generally good things. However, there have been some recent problems registering for the joint Boots-Egg Advantage Card.



MARKS & SPENCER

www.marksandspencer.com

M&S has obviously geared its site towards younger, female customers.

That may be a good target audience for an online offering or, indeed, a conscious change of direction for the future, but it offers little to appeal to its traditional, diverse customer base.

A limited range of clothing and goods are on offer compared to the larger high street stores. And any male customers who get beyond the home page will have done well. The 'Men' section opens with a 'What to buy him for Christmas' headline.

On the plus side, navigation is relatively good and purchases are fairly easy to make once you have registered. The design of the site is OK and it all works well with the new brand look beginning to establish itself on the high street.

At the end of the day, this does not feel like an M&S store online. It's more French Connection than everyday undies or cosy knits - but perhaps that's not a bad thing.



DEBENHAMS

www.debenhams.com

Scroll-down menus make for easy browsing, and Debenhams has done them well. This is one of the easiest to navigate sites from the high street, although the final product pages end up much like the M&S offering.

The department store doesn't stock all its high street products online but it gives quite a good selection. Certainly it is enough to get a good idea of the sort of shop it is in the real world. Branding remains a little confused with a range of colour backgrounds and page lay-outs throughout the site. It can also be rather slow to load.

One of the best functions is the ability to enter a Debenhams catalogue number and jump straight to the product you want. On the other hand, the search facility can be a bit jumpy and cumbersome.

Overall, not a bad site - great on ease of navigation but lacking in the real substance you might expect from a large department store.



NEXT

www.next.co.uk

Smart, sleek and stylish, this is just the sort of site you would expect from Next. Top marks for the clothing and homeware store's branding - it is a direct extension of the high street stores and Next Directory catalogues.

It has also gone for white space in a big way on the pages that open each main section. It is a refreshing design in a world that is too often tempted to cram as much as possible onto each page.

The product set online is fairly consistent with the level available in the larger stores. The homeware section in particular could be a real bonus for those who don't normally have access to such Next products on the high street.

The main problem is the small text on some of the labels. While that helps create the stylish look essential for the overall site design, it can easily lead to a misplaced click. It's a bit like going shopping on the high street - you can end up in departments you never intended visiting.



DIXONS

www.dixons.co.uk

Want to get a good look at products online? Dixons has the answers. The nifty spin, zoom and information utilities allow users to really check out their products before clicking their orders through.

The electrical store has done a fairly good job of taking its high street shops onto the web. New customers would not have any problems getting to grips with what Dixons is about and old hands have easily recognisable departments to jump to when looking for goods.

The major downside is the number of click-throughs needed to access some of the products. It's a fine balance though - sometimes it can be even more annoying if you are forced to scroll through a large number of products on one page.

Dixons goes for the click option which works well until you access from a home modem - something many of its customers are undoubtedly having to do.



TESCO

www.tesco.com

Easily the best branded and most user-friendly site out of all those on test. If you didn't know Tesco before encountering this site, you would quickly get an idea of what it does and what it has to offer.

The grocery selection is dependent on what is in stock in your local store but there is a much wider range of products available in other sections - particularly electrical and entertainment.

Branding is good - right down to the little strawberry that automatically appears next to the URL in your browser. The whole site is designed to complement and extend what is available on the high street and customers can input their Clubcard number to receive the same loyalty bonus from online purchases.

The 'quick tour' button on the home page makes understanding and navigation of the site very easy. Purchasing online is also relatively simple once you have registered. But there can be too much happening on a few of the pages.



HOMEBASE

www.homebase.co.uk

A simple looking but practical site that mirrors the high street branding of Homebase. The product range is more restricted than that available on the high street but not to the extent of putting consumers off from using the site to satisfy their home, garden and DIY needs.

The site has been designed to inspire customers with ideas to change or improve their home - and then allow them to purchase the relevant items online. The printable project guides are simple to follow and easy to use. The tips and techniques section is slightly more random but also helps persuade customers down the 'click to purchase' route.

Navigation around the site is fairly easy thanks to scroll menus listing the various departments - it also makes it feel more like the high street store. The young, dynamic brand of the high street transfers well into the online environment.



WHSMITH

www.whsmith.co.uk

The functionality and depth of the WHSmith site hits you as soon as it pops up on your screen. The various departments - from books to music to magazines to stationery - are lined across the top of the page like folder dividers. Simply click to view.

Everything you would find in the high street store plus a whole lot more is on offer. And if you can't locate what you are looking for manually there is a powerful on-site search engine to give you a hand.

Branding is good and works well as an extension of the familiar feel of high street stores. Of course, WHSmith has the advantage that many of its traditional products appeal to a younger audience, making it easier to translate its offering onto the web.

The main gripe could be that each page is a bit too busy. However, most of the site is done extremely well with great touches such as book and CD reviews to help tempt you into purchasing. This is what the web was meant to be about.



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