Andrew Birmingham

Which-50’s “Secret Shopper” Suggests a World of Retail Dislocation

Andrew Birmingham leads a study tour of North American digital retailers and found some pretty disjointed outcomes.


In late 2015, Which-50 was deeply immersed in the world of omnichannel retail. As part of a study tour of North American digital retail progress, we ran a “Secret Shopper” program in Toronto and San Francisco. What we found was a disjointed customer experience belying the myriad problems retail incumbents face building unified customer experiences.

But first, the good news. When companies get it right—it really shows. Our story about Alton Lane, the New York-based Men’s clothing retailer, reminds us that the technology which enables digital is an important but derivative component of any strategy. The first order of business is to understand what problem you are trying to solve.

For Alton Lane co-founder Colin Hunter, “The mission was to completely reimagine how to provide an inspirational shopping experience for men. Contrary to the group-think that infects many of the current approaches in men’s retail that can’t start and end with pain minimization and the idea that men will never enjoy shopping,” he told Which-50.

Our visit to eyewear retailer Warby Parker provided a different insight. Unlike the Alton Lane story, our experience at Warby Parker was a blind visit. Here is a business which started as an online retailer in 2010 (and was once described early as “the Netflix of eyewear”) and which then moved into the physical world of bricks and mortar.

Even though you are in a store, it feels like the online world made real. The opening line of its corporate story sets it apart from the start:

“Warby Parker was founded with a rebellious spirit and a lofty objective: to offer designer eyewear at a revolutionary price, while leading the way for socially conscious businesses.”

It is a genuine pleasure to shop in-store. And from a brand perspective there is no dislocation between the online and offline experience.

Of course both Alton Lane and Warby Parker benefit from scale—or rather their lack of it. Of the larger retailers we visited, only Japanese-based Uniqlo came close to offering an integrated online and offline experience. That included sending us a message about where we could find our favorite pair of trousers the moment we walked into the San Francisco store.

Alas, another side to the coin—

Our experiences with some of the more traditional big-box retailers was quite different.

In Toronto, we tested the online and offline customer experience at retailer Hudson Bay. We deliberately chose as our shopper someone from outside of the tech sector and retail sector so they wouldn’t filter their experiences through an industry prism. And obviously we picked a Millennial so she would know her way around a smartphone.

Armed with $500, our Secret Shopper signed on to the website and iPhone app a month before we arrived, registered for the marketing emails, researched products on the website, loaded up the online shopping cart, and then abandoned the cart as per our instructions. We tracked texts, emails, and retargeted advertising (actually, we assume it was retargeting rather than coincidence) over the following weeks.

First, the good news. On a mission to restock her cosmetics cupboard, our Secret Shopper regarded the information on the website and on the app as easy to find, easy to consume, and useful. Indeed, it wasn’t long before she was distracted (or perhaps easily-led) into the fashion section of the site.

Being a digital native, our crash-test bunny rated the customer reviews on the site highly.

The email marketing also found favor (and ultimately also drove some of the purchasing behavior down the track), “As a customer, I found the kind of information and the amount of information to be about right and I don’t think they overdid it compared to other places I shop. And I liked that they gave me the option to choose the kind of information I wanted and let me segment it by product types such as men’s and women’s clothes. And it worked. I bought some Clinique cosmetics as a result of the promotions. It was basically a gift set they were promoting.”

So, in terms of entry level online services, Hudson Bay was ticking all the right boxes.

The problems however started when our shopper tried to engage with the e-commerce channels both on the web and in the iPhone app.

“Sign up was confusing and hard and I felt like I must have done something wrong. I couldn’t get into the shopping cart on the website, or even see it at all at one point. And the app experience wasn’t much better. There was a problem where it wouldn’t work with PayPal because it kept saying it wasn’t a valid Canadian address … even though it accepted PayPal on the website.”

Eventually, it was difficult enough that our shopper had to abandon ship and sign up on the app a second time using a different email address, which hardly lends itself to a fully integrated experience down the track if emails are being used as the key identifier.

On the advertising front, here seemed to be some level of retargeting employed. She noticed Hudson Bay advertising on her Facebook feed and Clinique advertising on other news sites.

Store staff to the rescue—

Hudson Bay however redeemed itself somewhat in the shopper’s eyes by the in-store experience, where knowledgeable and helpful staff were able to provide the outcome she wanted but couldn’t achieve online.

Without an in-depth knowledge of Hudson Bay’s systems, we can’t draw definitive conclusions about why the experiences were as they were, but if we were betting on the answer it would look like this—disparate silos of information, different reporting lines for online and mobile, and a disconnect between store management and online management.

As we stress, since we haven’t spoken to Hudson Bay, that’s our assumption—mostly because that’s what we saw pretty much everywhere else we visit.

Note: Which-50’s study tour of the US was made possible by the support of Adobe, a Which-50 Digital Intelligence Unit member. Opinions expressed here are those of Which-50 exclusively and was published originally on Which-50 and is reprinted with permission.