Retail is changing and travel retailers need to change with it, Sofia Natal tells Ian Taylor.

The collapse of UK department store chain House of Fraser this month highlighted the difficulties high street retailers are experiencing. But the outlook for retailers need not be negative, insists retail expert Sofia Natal.

She argues: “Five years ago there was an apocalyptic vision of what would happen in retail. But that is not happened. Retail is transforming.” ‘Yes’, she says, House of Fraser and other high street chains are in trouble: “But retail is still growing.”

Natal, an expert in customer experience transformation at IBM iX – a subsidiary of technology giant IBM – will address the Travel Convention of UK travel association Abta on ‘The Psychology of Shopping’. The convention is in October in Seville.

She says: “I’ll talk about how to build a proposition to global customers based on trust. How brands are building trust, what it means to engage with customers and why people would want to buy from a middle man in travel retail.”

Natal argues: “We can transform relations with customers and build relations with those not yet customers. People have tools at their fingertips, but there is too much choice, too much false news. It has become complex to understand what is true or not. The role of the retailer is to establish truth.

“People look for trust, for gratification, for personalisation in everything they buy.”

She intends to explore three key areas at the Convention: “First, how well do travel retailers know their customers? What kind of insights are key to travel?

“Second, how do we stretch and leverage a brand proposition through different channels, blurring the boundaries between digital and physical? We want an integral, omni-channel experience.

“Third, how do we build trust? How are retail brands doing this? Where are the blank spaces for travel retailers to build trust and experiences?”

Natal says: “It is a moment of challenge – different players are disrupting the way you relate to the traveller. There is a lot to be done.

“This does not mean stores are going to close. [But] what new kinds of experiences can the travel retail store offer? Can we get the travel agent out of the store? What is the role of the human here?”

She adds: “I know travel only as a traveller, but I know general retail [and] in hospitality and travel there is lots to do.

“When I make an online car [rental] reservation, I expect the whole process is sorted. Then I get to the [car rental] store and I have still to fill out a form – something is wrong. When I go to a hotel and still have to wait in line and give further information, something is wrong.

“My expectations are different. I expect things are much more connected than they are. There is a lot to do around building experiences for clients.”

Natal confesses: “I plan all my trips myself. I’m not typical. I enjoy choosing my hotel and booking restaurants before I go. I don’t know how much time I spend doing it. I enjoy it. I spend my weekends reading about travel and destinations. I’m a traveller.”

But above all, she insists: “There is a need for truth and trust.” And as a consequence of that: “Maybe the human factor will be very important [in the future].”

Natal will speak on the opening morning of Abta’s Travel Convention.

The Travel Convention 2018
Oct 8-10
Barceló Convention Centre, Seville