The UK retail industry has been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism over recent years, particularly with regard to the role it has played in homogenising Britain's high streets and creating a nation of so-called 'identikit' towns.
However, Marks & Spencer chief executive Marc Bolland announced last month that the retailer was on a mission to redesign its stores to suit local preferences, based on factors such as affluence, demographics, local competition as well as regional and ethnic differences, rather than on store size.
Tailoring ranges for local demographics is, of course, nothing new, particularly within grocery. Asda, for example, redesigned its Hounslow store in 2009 to better cater for the 70% of shoppers there who were of Asian, Mediterranean, Polish or Afro-Caribbean descent. More retailers are similarly starting to realise that catering for local tastes is critical for success.
James Daunt, incoming managing director of Waterstone's, appointed after new owner Alexander Mamut bought the chain from HMV Group last month, has implied that the bookseller's 300-strong chain will be adopting a tailored approach to retail, with 'bookshops that mirror the tastes of customers as closely as possible'.
Change of focus
Ian Thurman, vice-president of location at data consultancy CACI, which has recently completed a store-segmentation project for footwear brand Clarks, says retailers are putting a bigger focus on locality - and not just in terms of the differences between big cities and the provinces.
'The demographic differences between a Middlesbrough and a Guildford have become wider over the past few years, even for a retailer such as M&S,' he says.
In its drive to better appeal to local preferences, M&S will use data from an array of sources, such as attitudinal insights gleaned from focus groups and information from online purchases, all of which will paint a much more detailed picture of who is buying what and where.
Bolland says work on segmentation has already been completed. 'All stores have been grouped into clusters using several criteria including affluence and age,' he said when M&S revealed its results last month. 'In the autumn, we will begin to catalogue pilot stores according to one of these segments.'
Thurman says he is surprised that M&S did not adopt a segmentation approach years ago. Daunt, who joins Waterstone's next month, is equally adamant that all retailers must prioritise the issue.
'The best have done it,' he says. 'The degree to which they do so is dependent upon what they sell. Starbucks, with 50 products, can differentiate only so much; a supermarket with 20,000 lines much more; a bookshop that can draw from a million titles lies at the extreme end of this scale.'
Nonetheless, the fact that many retailers, including less salubrious ones, have made inroads into segmentation begs the question: why has it taken until now for M&S to adopt a store-segmentation approach?
A spokeswoman for the retailer says it is a case of evolution. 'Over the past five to six years, we have a made a lot of progress in terms of the logistics of our stores,' she says, referring to redesigned stores, new structures and layouts.
'The new chief executive presented his business strategy in November. A big part of that focus is on UK operations, to look at stores and inject further inspiration into them. We're not looking at ceilings and floors again, we're looking at the way stores are shopped by customers.'
While creating tailored ranges for every store would appear to be the goal for retailers, Tim Greenhalgh, chief creative officer at retail consultancy Fitch, warns that 'going local' is not right for every brand.
'Consumers don't want everything to be local,' he says. 'People get quite excited about what the likes of Zara or Urban Outfitters have coming into their stores. The local thing does work particularly well when you touch people's everyday lives.'
Mark Dickens, retail innovations consultant at customer communications specialist Wanda Communications, says that consumers should not expect to notice dramatic differences at their local M&S.
'You might see changes, but they will be subtle,' he says. 'The trick is to ensure customers don't notice. Put simply, customers aren't interested in brand - they're interested in buying stuff.'
And customers buying more stuff is what Bolland hopes will be the result of his strategy. If it is, and more retailers follow suit, could such moves reinvigorate the ailing high street?
'Yes,' says Daunt. 'Nothing is more dull than the identikit parade of multiple retailers. Localism within these same retailers would reintroduce the sense of discovery that a diverse high street offers.'