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FEATURE28 February 2013

Defying the retail gloom

Times are tough on the high street but retail specialist ABA – one of our Best Agency winners – had a storming 2012. MD Alison Bainbridge explains how the firm bucked the trend.

The retail sector has been one of the biggest casualties of the recession and figures from the British Retail Consortium/Springboard footfall monitor show that in 2012 the high street suffered a 3.3% drop in shopper numbers. Yet even in tough times the sector still relies on shopper insights to influence product design, track satisfaction and win consumer loyalty. ABA Market Research, winners of the MRS Award for Best Agency with a turnover under £20m, have specialised in this sector for 18 years.

“We tell all our employees that we should be seen as a firm that speaks to the heart of business goals. We must strike the perfect balance between compelling evidence and revealing insight”

Headed by managing director Alison Bainbridge, a former Arcadia researcher, the agency has over 80 employees based in their St Albans head office. They work with two of the four big supermarket chains as well as Marks & Spencer, John Lewis, Clarks and Argos.

“We’ve grown very rapidly from when I launched the agency back in 1994,” says Bainbridge. On leaving Arcadia, she continued to work freelance for some of her past bosses, including then-Arcadia chief executive Stuart Rose. But as work demands increased, she found herself having to hire a team of colleagues to share the load.

Positioning themselves as retail experts, ABA has amassed a network of high-street brand contacts who regularly use the agency to gather customer feedback both online and offline. Jo Di Stasi, director of global brand marketing communications at clothing chain Gap, says: “Their style of approach and ability to understand the competitive context and retail landscape is what sets them apart.”

The company’s remit is broad – from opinion-gathering to feedback services and in-store observations. It has also invested £250,000 in creating bespoke survey software, QGen. “We have a clear company ethos – to give clients what they really want,” says Bainbridge. “This requires us to immerse ourselves in our client’s cultures so as to really speak their language. QGen was our commitment to providing purpose-built research that fits the client’s exact needs and shows we have a genuine feel for the brand and its customers.”

As well as the QGen investment, the agency has also strengthened its in-house resources to accommodate web developers and data analysts to mine the reams of data coming in through online portals or in-store electronic devices collecting responses on the move.

Boardroom engagement
More recently, ABA has broadened its client scope to work with travel retail brands including Thomas Cook, Virgin Holidays and Virgin Atlantic. Paul Ward, research manager at Virgin Atlantic, praised the agency’s “analytical rigour” for providing it with “robust, commercially astute findings…that are reported at board level.”

The awards judging panel echoed these sentiments, commending the agency for its emphasis on the boardroom application of research and client understanding.

“It’s gratifying to hear that the judges thought that, because that really is at the core of our business,” says Bainbridge. “We tell all our employees that we should be seen as a firm that speaks to the heart of business goals. Hence, our reports must strike the perfect balance between compelling evidence and revealing insight – mixing robust analysis with intuitive thinking.”

Another retailer who praises the agency for achieving this mix is Halfords. Deborah Bates, a former research manager for the chain, says its tracking study with the agency “has truly achieved the goal of getting research into the boardroom”.

For ABA, having this capability involves more than just hiring senior talent with the necessary skills. The agency recruits a number of graduates each year and trains them from scratch on the importance of offering clients outputs that can be translated into tangible commercial advantages. The company runs a mentor scheme where senior directors work with incoming graduates to teach them the business from the ground up, as well as how to ensure that research methods are fit for clients’ purposes. But the learning goes both ways. Graduates “constantly refresh our thinking,” says Bainbridge.

“We want to prove to clients that we are flexible and willing to talk to them about the new approaches out there, as well as the more traditional ones, and graduates are great at helping us to provide this across all the different types of research.”

ABA staff receive professional training in the McKinsey Pyramid approach to report writing to make sure that clients get intelligence delivered succinctly and in the most concise and compelling way possible.

“For me, the onus is on us to consistently achieve our promise to clients. In 2011 we charged the research team with creating a five-year strategy to deliver the business vision we work to. With our graduate intake, the idea is to teach them this and to have them replicating our DNA. This will help us to achieve our expansion goals in the long term, such as expanding our data operations and establishing more international work,” Bainbridge says.

Aside from the more formal training, employees are also tasked with putting their own retail knowledge into practice by working in ABA’s charity shop, Raindrops on Roses, located close to the agency’s headquarters. Opened 48 days before Christmas, the shop had raised £75,000 by Christmas Eve for Herts Against Cancer.

Bainbridge says: “For us, this shop reflects our mission to be the retail experts. We’ve sought as many locally sourced products as possible to sell in support of the cause, and it’s been a real learning curve for us. Not only does it test our own retail advice ethos, it also teaches us all the various constraints and customer mindsets that the high street is experiencing right now. It’s a real education for all our staff – junior and senior.”

How research could help rescue the high street

Woolworths. Comet. Jessops. HMV. Blockbusters. Game. The list of high street failures and near-collapses speaks of an industry shaken by economic uncertainty and rocked by technological revolution.

But Alison Bainbridge believes research has a role to play in steering retailers out of choppy waters.

In particular, she warns of the perils of neglecting data streams. Bainbridge explains: “One of the big things that happens with stores that compete on the high street is they rely on traditional feedback methodologies and are too slow to respond to changing customer demands to have any meaningful impact. We’ve focused on embedding ourselves into businesses and making sure that they don’t just stick to one methodology to gather data but use as many sources as possible.”

ABA’s work with Marks & Spencer offers an example. Until 2010 the retailer used to rely on regular mystery shopping exercises, but ABA convinced them that an online customer survey – Your M&S Views – and a monthly
consumer barometer would be a better fit for tracking trends and planning ahead.

“Although we make less from this than the mystery shopping, the client trusts us to provide them with in-depth insight into how consumers are thinking and what influences their decisions. It’s no good just trying to compensate for a fall in sales without actionable insights.

“Retailers have to stay ahead of the game and have an effective online and offline strategy in place if they are to survive,” says Bainbridge. “Our small structure means clients get dedicated teams focusing all their attention on them without distraction.”

ABA’s 2011/2012 revenue was just short of £7m. It currently sits in 78th position in the MRS League Tables. Its entry for Best Agency comes after organisers split the category into two separate pools based on size of turnover, in order to better reflect and reward the breadth of work being offered by research suppliers both large and small.

“We were very grateful to find that we were able to compete against agencies with turnovers that were more similar to our own, recognising the value that the smaller agency can bring in helping big-name clients alongside the larger agencies,” says Bainbridge. “We work with these guys all the time in agency meetings, so it will be great to sit in meetings with them now as an award-winning company.”

For ABA, the status of Best Agency is already starting to open up further interest among potential clients within the retail industry, while Bainbridge sees it as vindication of her decision to take IT in-house and retain full control of what the agency offers clients through the development of QGen.

“It was a risky move to spend years developing proprietary software and gathering IT skills in-house, but evidently the expense has proved worthwhile. We are free to innovate and focus on delivering insight with bigger samples and better responses that will, in the end, compel stakeholders to act,” says Bainbridge.