Shop Direct’s Gareth Jones Aims To Delight ‘Miss Very’

The deputy CEO of one of the largest U.K. online retailers is making sure both the business and its brand create quality customer journeys through digital technologies.

Shop Direct’s Gareth Jones Aims To Delight ‘Miss Very’

From a history in mail order, the privately owned Shop Direct has come a long way, turning itself into one of the U.K.’s largest online retailers, with more than £1.8 billion in annual sales. The bulk of sales are made through its fast-growing brand, and close to two-thirds of purchases are made on mobile.

Gareth Jones joined the company as brand director for the launch of in 2009. Since then he has served as retail director across all group brands before taking up his current role as deputy CEO, responsible for ecommerce, trading, data, and marketing. caught up with him to find out more about the company’s digital transformation. We began by asking where the business is on that journey.

Jones: We laid down the strategy three-and-a-half years ago to transform the business into a world-class digital retailer. Our focus for that is the customer promise we’ve been making for over 80 years, to “make good things easily accessible to more people.” The “good things” are the wide variety of brands we sell, we make them “easily accessible” through personalisation and investing in our user journey, and “more people” can access these through ways to spread the cost. It’s what we orient our entire transformation around, so as not to lose sight of what makes us special.

In terms of where we are on the journey, we’re absolutely a work in progress. We don’t see world-class as any time-bound destination. It’s more of a journey than a destination and we’re more and more focused on what we can do to make life easier for our bullseye customer, Miss Very, and making sure we’re delighting her and continuing to serve up personalised experiences for her.

The more we do that, the more she rewards us by coming back to shop, and the higher our NPS goes. If that keeps going, we’ll continue to see the sort of growth we’ve been seeing for the last few years. How is Miss Very changing, and how do you respond to that?

Jones: Our customer is behaving in a different way and consuming media in a different way, mainly around her mobile phone.

Four years ago she was spending just 27 minutes on her phone each day. Today she’s spending 4.5 hours. That’s massive. For 80% of that time she’s checking her social media or messaging apps. So the question for us is how do we start talking to her in a completely different way she’s comfortable with, so it feels seamless and not intrusive?

We’re focusing a huge amount of effort on how we’re personalising our content and our advertising platforms. We’re also exploring ways we can build in conversational UIs to talk to her in the way she wants to be talked to. The days of just TV advertising have gone. She probably has three screens when she’s watching TV, so it’s how do you deal with that complexity.

We’re facing into that with our partners and from a technology perspective. Whilst it’s unknown territory and is extremely fast, it’s extremely exciting. What has this meant for your agency relationships?

Jones: We now have a smaller number of big strategic relationships rather than the multiple agencies we had when I first joined the business. So other than the stuff we brought in-house, we’re working with a few huge partners that are aligned to our values and our strategic direction.

One of our closest partners in the business is Dentsu Aegis, who are facing into this on our behalf and allowing us the platforms to go out there with a programmatic and personalised approach to that changing media consumption. It’s giving us massive wins where we can spend tens of millions of pounds more at good ROIs compared to TV ads, for example. There will always be a place for TV ads in an integrated campaign, but things have changed, and continue to change rapidly.

Having a big strategic partner that is investing with you and behaving in a way you would behave internally is absolutely crucial. The whole idea of being locked into something for three to five years has gone. You’ve got to be more flexible than that and have partners who see it before you see it—they’re our eyes on the ground and it requires a completely different way of working. You’re seen as leaders within the retail space in forging new customer journeys through new technologies. How have you managed not to be hindered by your legacy?

Jones: We come from a business that released a 1,500-page catalogue every 26 weeks—that’s a slow level of pace. To go into the shark-infested waters of ecommerce we needed a totally different mentality to change the pace and the way we think about customers.

We’ve worked really hard on embedding that in our values and the whole end-to-end talent attraction, reward, and retention agenda. Most importantly, within the business we talk about “fast failure.” We’re not afraid of breaking things, of things going wrong. Problems have solutions and opportunities nearby. So we’re passionate about our experimentation programme online and our hackathons, where we challenge our people to come up with new solutions which aren’t just a bit better, but totally different. You’re currently recruiting for a new chief customer officer? What does that role entail?

Jones: The CCO role is very focused on data, insight, and customer outcomes, rather than “owning” the customer. We’re hiring a director to unite all customer activity in one place and our search has been all over the world. It’s a massively important role for us. What’s been the biggest technology investment you’ve made?

Jones: Our infrastructure investment into analytics and a single customer view. Putting the data in the hands of our decision makers and showing them how to make the best decisions for Miss Very has been utterly transformational, from the smallest team doing warranties in financial services to the largest trading function. When we give insight—not just data—and intelligence on our customers that allow our people to make better calls, that’s a win. What work have you done on your brand identity? And how well do you think your customers understand the brand?

Jones: I think we’re starting to nail this. That doesn’t mean every customer knows what we stand for, but those we’re communicating to in a consistent way around what makes us special do. We know that “making good things easily accessible to more people” translates into “get more out of every day” with And that’s a promise of inspiration and access, and therefore everything you see from us is around inspiration, whether it’s great products, hints and tips, ways to wear things, and so on.

We made our first financial services advertising campaign earlier this year, offering three months interest free every time you shop. This has dramatically transformed our new customer sign-ups as a result.

In the last 18 months we’ve become more consistent, too, with our new marketing director Kenyatte Nelson doing a fabulous job. That approach to marketing coupled with digital is starting to create some exciting growth for us. How else is your marketing function and structure changing?

Jones: Our aim is to use our rich customer data asset to provide the insight and understanding needed to win at each customer moment of truth.

All the changes are within the digital team and how it’s integrated into the wider customer journey. It’s about understanding what the customer is doing and how she’s consuming things differently. And how we take solutions out to her in a way that’s logical for her.

So you still need your traditional marketing teams looking at integrated campaigns and above-the-line campaigns, and working with agencies, but you also need some digital natives who understand the digital marketing side. There’s a huge opportunity there and a huge gap. Is the talent available to make those changes?

Jones: There is talent out there, but those people can sometimes be incorrectly badged as technical experts in one particular field. The most crucial thing for us is the focus on the customer. As disciplines like SEO and PPC are becoming more mature, our people are becoming more integrated, and you can see those overlapping multi-disciplined skills are starting to make an impact. That’s when the real power comes.

ROI in channel, like PPC/SEO, is very important, but the golden goose is linking channels and ROIs together at a single customer view. We are working with our partners on this. What do you see as your future marketing challenges?

Jones: There are two we face everywhere in the business: the pace of change and the talent we need. Universally, when we find the right person who can work at the right pace in this environment, we’re winning.

It’s a continued arms race for this new digital, more data-led and, most importantly, customer-centric talent that can look at a customer holistically. That talent is expensive and in short supply, but it’s incredibly good when we get it right.

We look all over the world. We’ve had quite a few hires out of the U.S. recently, and our new search for a customer director has been all over the world. We go to Israel three times a year to search for data and technology talent and to Silicon Valley looking at technology plays and startups. You have to look way beyond retail to find the best.