In this Spotlight in Retail interview, we spoke with retail expert and leader Lars Axelsson. With over 20 years of experience working in the retail sector, Lars has built up a wealth of experience. Previously he has worked as Head of Merchandising for H&M, Sales Manager for &Other Stories, Co-founder, and ex-Managing Director of Arket. And in his last role—the Customer Experience Director at Monki—Lars joined to help restructure and build a new base for the future.
Lars reflects on his time at H&M group and what held him back from starting his business sooner.
“I said to myself 16 years ago, give me a few years with a well known global retailer, and then I’ll do it. But luckily, I loved the company and had so many huge opportunities, so I just couldn’t quit! I learned a vast amount and had the fortune to develop exciting & new brands. But now is the time to do the dream so I finally decided to start my own business.”
Lars now spends his time investing in retail companies that are in different phases where he can help to expand.
“I’m not an advisor guy, I’m not an investment guy. With that said, my base is retail commerce fashion and I love working with great people with a strong passion for business. So, we’re investing in new brands or brands that are on the next level with the aim of building the backbone and accelerating their expansion.
“I’m currently working with some different brands and projects but the majority of my time is with a new fashion brand that will launch during 2022. It’s not official yet, but what I can say is that we have put together an experienced team from different parts of the world and industries that all drive to develop responsible consumption and production but are still able to offer great products with digital innovation. We had an ambition when starting this project – is it possible to build a fashion brand with no permanent head office, no fixed full-time employees, no fixed physical stores but still have a strong team delivering great products?… And so far we still have a strong belief that this is possible but let us share more during 2022. What I can say is it’s really exciting building something from an idea to reality and as always anything is possible when you have great people around you!”
Over-delivering to the customer at every touchpoint
When asked what the difference between a good customer experience and customer service is, Lars highlights that customer service is just one fraction of the many customer experience touchpoints.
“If you compare retail today compared to 15 years ago compared to 200 years ago, the same meaning of ‘always deliver on the experience’ has always been crucial. The big difference today versus 10+ years ago, is that you have so many different channels where you as a brand or a company are exposed to the customer.
“So when I define the expression ‘good customer experience,’ it is to deliver (preferably over-deliver) within every touchpoint that you are meeting the customer in, with strong brand experience. Customer service is only one of the tools to use in all different touchpoints.”
Accelerating the need to become digital
Lars expands on the changing world of retail, emphasising that the critical part is the acceleration in the need for retailers to embrace a more digital approach.
“You still need to always deliver a good experience but companies should now be agile in using other demanding digital channels that they weren’t exposed to before the pandemic. It’s so important to be very agile in all the channels that are out there.
“And secondly, it has brought to light many people who were not previously exposed to those channels. Two big examples are the older generation moving to online shopping and physical shopping moving to live stream shopping. There are many things that have forced that shift in behaviour to be exposed to more channels. For me, this is the biggest power in shopping and retail.”
The industry has gone from Omnichannel to Opti-channel
The Covid crisis has upended the retail industry resulting in companies being forced to adapt to fit the needs of both old and new customers. As the industry shifted, more digital-focused and omnichannel retailers were able to pivot easier—quickly highlighting how crucial it is to have a robust channel strategy. Lars shares his insight on this:
“Previously, one of the most common and trendy phrases was seamless shopping or omnichannel shopping. The industry has evolved to what I call Opti-channel, meaning it’s very important to be a holistic brand in all channels.
“But it’s also key to be an agile brand that can maximise each of the benefits that they have because you cannot have the same strategy in every channel. And that means that you are more agile depending on what channel you either sell in or communicate in. You need to adapt yourself and your company to the key attributes of that channel because if you are not agile in that channel, you will not be efficient because you cannot just simply say ‘either we have a physical store or you have an online store.
“When you are creating anything (from content to product), you need to always have in mind, ‘where will this content land?’ Because when you have physical people in the retail store channel, and robots in the digital, you need to be very strategic in how you play those different key assets.
“But you need to be fundamental to who your brand is, so regardless of which channel, the consumer will resonate with you if they feel that the brand mirrors them. Unfortunately many today are failing in that.”
Utilising the data to make sure you really personalise the selling
With the rise of digitally focused brands, it’s become a critical time for brick-and-mortar retailers to reshape their business strategy. Customers have changed their expectations from the in-store presence resulting in huge online growth. Lars says:
“Something critical that brick-and-mortar retailers can learn from the digitally focused brands is data analytics and how to utilise it in the best way. It is about utilising the data much better to make sure that you really personalise the selling!
“On the flip side, I believe that the brick-and-mortar stores must move from a transactional approach into one which builds loyalty through relationships and experience. The online store can then deal with more of the transactional elements. The role of the brick-and-mortar retailers in the shopping experience is actually more crucial than ever.”
Advice you would give to other retailers
“I think that smooth and efficient customer learning, where you save time, will be critical!
“The second most important currency in the world of money, I believe, is time. We had the same amount of hours during the day today, but also 500 years ago, and imagine how many more things we can do today and how much more exposure we offer other things – I think anything that can save time is critical.
“Secondly, how can you showcase your attributes beyond the price of a product? What is beyond just the surface of a red dress and good style? What is behind the brand? What does the brand stand for and how is it produced? If you’re going to survive as a brand, you need to have a purpose, you need to have something more.
“Finally, what I touched upon earlier – the opti-channel experiences. How can you as a retailer be agile enough to prioritise the right channel for your brand, but also be good enough to read the holistic thread throughout the whole system, but still play with the different chapters in the best possible way. I don’t think you can maximise all of them but you should have a very clear brand idea through them all. But then take the channel that is most important for you and your consumer and go for it.
“Lastly, one thing I have learned so far is that without great people around you it’s extremely hard to succeed, so always embrace the power of collective intelligence and teamwork. Fun will always somehow equal results. However, just results will not always equal fun.”
More about Lars
Lars had been with the H&M group for almost 16 years and had many different roles with many different brands over those 16 years. He lives today in Gothenburg with his wife and 3 children. When he graduated from business school, his whole ambition was to build up different brands. Fortunately, he had the opportunity to build H&M in several countries, work with other brands within the H&M Group but foremost work with so many great people from all over the world.
Lars has recently started a new adventure building up a company that invests both time and money in interesting projects which share the same values, explores interesting ideas, and are willing to work as a team to create a sustainable business in different areas.
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