From little things big things grow: what independent retailers can learn from the big guys.

The big brands have started a love affair with Australian shoppers – both online and instore. Over the past few years global brands such as Zara, Topshop and Costco, to name a few, have opened flagship Australian outlets. Plus we’re addicted to international online shopping, regularly turning to the World Wide Web to purchase music, perfume, books and clothes.

Rather than be intimidated by the growing presence of global retailers on our shores and online, independent retailers can learn from many of the initiatives being rolled out by the big brands and tweak them for their own purposes. Here, we look at the particular strengths of four of the top global brands and unpack some of the lessons they have for smaller retailers.

Harrods: the king of visual merchandising

When it comes to visual merchandising, high end department store Harrods is the business to which other retailers aspire. Famed for its fantastic Christmas windows, Harrods has long understood the importance of providing a thrilling experience for every shopper who steps through its doors.

Carol Bagaric, a director of visual merchandising specialists AusVM, says all independent retailers should take note of how Harrods approaches presentation, not just in its windows, but right throughout the store.

“It’s all about really working the space you have – you need to get the most out of every square inch of the window and even take the store out onto the pavement,” she says.

For instance, Harrods will often have brightly coloured decals on windows, which is also echoed on the pavement. Smaller retailers can also use this simple idea to take the window display further into the shopping environment.

“Independent retailers often undervalue their shopfront,” says Bagaric. “What I find is many don’t know how to make the most of this space or don’t go the whole way,” she explains. Her advice to smaller retailers is to ensure they regularly paint the shopfront and replace signage so it always looks new and fresh.

“A shop like Harrods has dedication and commitment to its shopfront and smaller retailers need to take a similar approach.”

“It’s all too easy to become complacent or relaxed about your window. But if you look at Harrods there is constant rotation, which means shoppers are always watching its windows to see what’s going on. Both locals and tourists specifically go into London to see what’s in Harrods windows – and not just at Christmas time,” she says.

Bagaric says for a smaller retailer, changing its windows every four to six weeks is too long. “You need to do something to your window at least once a fortnight and entirely change the look and feel of the space at least once a month.”

She says there is plenty of opportunities in the retail calendar to change windows and the focus should be on big, bright window displays.

Tesco: leading the way with its mobile application

UK grocer Tesco’s mobile app is a revelation for shoppers. Looking for an item when you’re shopping in Tescos? No problem, just go to the app and enter the item you’re looking for and it will tell you exactly where it is – aisle 4 on the left side, 14 units along, forth shelf up from the floor. It will also find your closest Tesco, tell you the price of every item it’s selling and let you create a shopping list of everything you need before you leave home.

Nigel Burke, founder and internet strategist with web developers AVS Networks, says there’s lots to learn from an app like Tesco’s, even if you don’t have Tesco’s budget.

“If you have an online store already look at options to create a mobile app attached to the web site. Our software will enable a mobile version when we build an online store,” he explains.

Burke says people are increasingly browsing web sites with an iPad or iPhone or android device and a retailer’s mobile site must be friendly to the various interfaces. “There are tools available you can use to test your site across different interfaces, so you don’t actually have to own all the different devices to be able to test your mobile app properly, he says. [Nigel can you give me one of these tools?]

One of the features of Tesco’s app is constantly changing banners that draw consumers’ attention to sales and specials. It’s easy to incorporate this feature in most mobile apps.

“This means there’s always fresh content so shoppers know the information on the site is up-to-date. It’s an idea to upload daily specials to encourage consumers to come back to the app,” he advises.

Finally, Burke says Tesco’s feature that gives shoppers directions to their nearest Tesco store can also be easily built into most mobile apps and is a great way to make it easy for shoppers to find your store.

Topshop’s top model

When most people think of Top Shop, they think of Kate Moss. The super model is synonymous with the UK fashion retailer, having both designed and modelled for it.

Katharina Kuehn, director of the consumer insights & strategic branding business RDG Insights, says increased credibility is a key benefit of having a celebrity associated with your brand.

“Celebrity endorsement is an important component of contemporary brand management. It utilises the power of ‘social proof’ – people tend to believe what others believe, especially when it comes to opinion leaders and experts in the respective fields,” says Kuehn. What this means is that if consumers see a celebrity they admire wearing or endorsing a brand, they are more likely to admire that brand as well.

“Today brands provide an important social function as people search for meaning and identity in life as well as in consumption. We no longer have a set of unified values as we might have had in the past. So people look for orientation in brands or people they can identify with and transfer the celebrity’s perceived personality to the brand,” she adds.

So how can smaller retailers use the same approach? The first step, says, Kuehn, is to “choose someone credible who is local to the business and who is an opinion leader.”

To encourage the individual to become involved, it’s an idea to link their involvement with a social cause. For instance, if you own a local men’s wear shop you might ask a local sports personality to appear as a model in a fashion show, and offer to donate the proceeds from the event to the personality’s favourite charity to encourage their involvement.

Kuehn says: “Local celebrities are easier to approach. For instance, one of our clients, the tyre retailer Tyreright, used the Australian comedian Vince Sorrenti, to give them a human, humorous, competitive edge in the tyre retail landscape. Although Vince holds no particular authority as an expert of tyres, he represents one of us, as a consumer, seeking a hassle free tyre purchase experience.”

“For retailers, it’s important to use the testimonial and its message consistently across the brand. Tyreright used Vince for their road show, radio, website clips, regional TV, press, speaking at internal conferences and in their corporate guidelines,” she says.

Zappos: the first word in excellent customer service

Online shoe retailer Zappos is famed for its great returns policy. It offers free returns within 365 days, the first online footwear retailer to offer this. It uses its return policy and service reputation in its PR efforts, for instance offering a four-year return policy for purchases made on 29 February during a leap year.

Matt Burchard, Zappos’ senior director of marketing says customer service has always been a focus. “When we were getting started back in 1999 the most common piece of feedback we received was people need to try shoes on before buying them. Before we even committed to being a service-based retailer, we knew we had to overcome this barrier to encourage purchases online. So it was during Zappos’ infancy we decided a great return policy was not only beneficial to the business, but essential,” he says.

Burchard says the cost associated with free returns is substantial and was at first hard to justify as a fledgling business. But he says even as a smaller retailer, it’s worth investing in exceptional customer service.

“Our commitment to customer service now defines our brand, allowing us to grow and capture market share at a super fast rate.”



Harrods was founded in 1849 in London and was originally a grocery and tea retailer. Today, the name Harrods is synonymous with luxury and shoppers around the world know it as the world’s top luxury department store. Although that’s not all it does – the Harrods group has branched into a number of unusual areas and now includes Air Harrods, which provides VIP helicopter charters and management, Harrods Estate, which buys, sells and rents high-end residential properties, and Harrods Bank, a full service financial institution.


A former member of the Royal Flying Corps Jack Cohan founded grocery giant Tesco in 1919 at the end of World War I. He who used the money he received on demobilisation to buy the first day’s stock, which was sold form a market stall in London’s Covent Garden. Today the business operates in 14 countries – although not Australia – and serves tens of millions of customers each week.


Fashion retailer Topshop started life in the swinging 60s. Founded in 1964 in Sheffield in England, it was first called Peter Robinson’s Top Shop and was located inside the now defunct Peter Robinson’s department store. It now has more than 440 shops across 33 countries, including Australia.


This Nevada-based online shoe and now clothing retailer was established at the end of the dot com boom in 1999. Founder Nick Swinmurn went looking for a pair of shoes in his local mall and couldn’t find anything he wanted. So he left his job to start Zappos, originally an online shoe retailer. The business was acquired in 2009 by Amazon for US$1.2 billion.

Orginially Printed in Giftrap Magazine

Author: Alexandra Cain