Special Report: Thomas Cook's 'store of the future'

Special Report: Thomas Cook's 'store of the future'

Cook’s new concept store in Leeds won the Innovation prize at this week’s Agent Achievement Awards. Ian Taylor paid a visit

Thomas Cook opened its refitted White Rose shopping centre agency in Leeds just before Christmas, with a design that owes more to an Apple store than a traditional travel agency.

Videos streamed on wall-mounted LCD screens serve as a window display, and a self-help ‘advice bar’ with tablet devices greets customers on entry.

Cook regards the outlet as a test bed for ideas it will roll out in its larger shops, hence the title: the new concept store. However, retail director Joanna Wild calls it “the store of the future”.

“It’s a testing ground for different elements, for us to review what works and what doesn’t,” she says, adding: “We’re delighted. The turnover was 51% up on target to mid-March and foreign exchange 31% up.”

Thomas Cook Group had three stores in the White Rose centre until last September, the other two being Going Places and Co-operative Travel stores.

Wild says: “When a store closes, you don’t expect a 100% defection of business. We take an average. The 51% increase is on what we expected.”

She adds: “We can put the technology in, but it is still about the people in the store. We’ve attracted a lot more younger clients. We’ve seen an improvement of over 40% in younger visitors [18 to 30-year-olds]. But we have not lost sight of the more mature customer and the more high-end, Thomas Cook Signature market. That was one of our concerns.

Globe“People spending £10,000-£15,000 on a cruise booking want to spend time with someone.”

Wild adds: “Photos of the store all focus on the tablets, but the staff bring it to life.

“One side of the store has the technology, with a more traditional approach and face-to-face interaction on the other. If people want to book they can sit down at a desk or at an advice bar. If it is busy, staff can move people to the advice bar.

“Instead of people coming in, thinking it’s too busy and leaving, we hold people in store. Anecdotally, we hear people are spending more time browsing.

“When people look in, they are really curious – it’s so different to what they expect.

“It’s a very open space, but there is a private area.”

Wild says: “The White Rose concept won’t fit all larger stores,but the advice bar will be universal.”

Store review

Thomas Cook, White Rose shopping Centre, Leeds

The store is on the ground floor of the shopping centre, opposite an Argos and near a Sainsbury’s, M&S and Primark.

The first thing you notice is there is no window. The front is open, with a large globe on a wooden stand in the centre at an easy height to spin.

One patch is so worn from jabbing fingers – parents showing children where they live – that most of England, Wales and lowland Scotland has worn away.

There is seating to one side of the entrance.

Beyond the globe, to the right, there is an ‘advice bar’ with high stools and touch-screen tablets and brochure racks to the side. To the left is a row of consultation desks, with a central aisle leading to a foreign exchange counter at the back of the store.

There is a good balance of seating, browsing and consultancy areas, with space to move around.

The first advice bar has four tablets on it. Next to it is a lower, quick-transaction desk with a PC, phone and card terminal; beyond that is a second bar with stools and PCs, phones and card-payment terminals.

Behind the five conventional-style consultation desks is a lounge area with comfortable, high-backed bench seating around a long table, with a wide touchscreen and card terminal at one end. Here staff deal with family and group bookings. Manager Dominic Hosley says: “We’ve had 17 lads around the table.”

It’s Friday, 2pm: four desks are busy. Two people are talking to Dominic, four looking at the tablets, three standing talking to another staff member, five at the foreign exchange and two more walking in. The store is buzzing. Dominic greets everyone saying: “We won’t keep you a moment.”

Cook concept store

What the staff think

“I wasn’t apprehensive about the change. It was really exciting. The store was old; it looked tatty. It took a few days to adjust. We were all sitting at our desks waiting for people to come in. Now, unless I’m with someone or on the phone, I’m up greeting people. We go to any desk to make a booking – we don’t have a desk for a shift. I prefer the advice bar because you’re next to the customer. The only thing I find is there is nowhere to put my phone book. Dominic [the manager] likes everything tidied away.”

Emma Raikes, 13 years at the store

“It’s lovely to get a new shop and good for the company, but a bit of me did think ‘how is this going to work?’ It doesn’t appeal to every customer at first, but once they’ve sat down it works really well. All the younger customers like it. You see families with children playing on the tablets. I’m now more relaxed at the advice bar – you and the customer can both see the screen.”

Kealie Tordorff, 14 years at the store

“I started seven months ago. I did a week’s experience in a quieter store, but I prefer this – it can get really busy.”

Ellie Marton, trainee

Customers' views

A retired couple, the Murrays, are looking at a tablet. Anthony Murray says: “This is attractive to young people, but to older people it’s off-putting. I’m old-fashioned: I like someone to talk to. Older people find a tablet tricky.” Yet he adds: “I’ve done my research at home on a PC.”

As we chat, two young women sit down – each at a tablet – then pick up brochures from the racks behind and browse. One of them, Becky, says: “These are easier to look at.”

Becky likes the store. She says: “It’s bright and more modern.” Her friend Ashton says: “I’m more likely to come in. You don’t have to wait for someone to help you. You can look for yourself.” Becky adds: “It’s the globe that does it for me. You can swish it.”

Shop manager: it’s all about interaction

Manager Dominic Horsley, who has been involved with the new store from the early stages, says: “The shop is not much bigger than it was, but it was intimidating before. Interaction is a big part of the new store. It’s all opened out so we can welcome people.

“We want to create movement through the store. The globe attracts people in and there is always someone to meet and greet.

“When we’re busy we have a queuing service. We take a mobile number and call when someone is free. We manage the flow.

“We’re not pushy, but we always greet people. One lady looked at a tablet for two hours, then came in the next day for an hour, said ‘Right, I’m ready’ and booked. We’d never seen her before.

“We sell what’s appropriate to the customer. We’ll say, ‘I don’t think that is right for you’. We don’t just say, ‘You’ll love Magaluf’. The store is all about the customer. If people want to be left, they’re left. But we don’t assume people don’t want anything.

“We had a lady come in for foreign exchange. We got talking: she had already booked to New York. It wasn’t a Thomas Cook holiday, but she spent up to £600 with us on excursions.”

The store is open into the evening. “Everyone works flexible hours,” says Horsley. “I’m lucky I have an amazing team. The atmosphere is fantastic and the weekends amazing. The store is 100% about the team and shop‑floor management.

“I’ve worked 14 years as a consultant and manager and been here three years. I can’t imagine going back to the old store.”


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