Profile: Catalogue of changes

Siobhan Fitzpatrick, head of brand marketing at Argos, is confident consumers will not abandon the retailer. Interview by Alex Brownsell.

Siobhan Fitzpatrick, head of brand marketing at Argos, does not fit the stereotype for people in her position. Post-recessionary retail marketers are meant to be battle-hardened and tough-talking, so the 42-year-old's mild manner comes as something of a surprise.

It is also a bit of a bombshell to hear that Argos is looking to drag its brand into the 2010s, particularly given the stubbornness the Home Retail Group-owned business has hitherto displayed about changing its singular approach to retailing.

Like a consumer waiting at Collection Point A for that trouser press hidden at the back of the stockroom, the retail industry has been expecting an Argos brand revamp for a long time.

Adapting to the environment

The current identity was rolled out in 1999, on a high street that has since changed almost beyond recognition. At that time online shopping was in its infancy, Woolworths was considered to have a strong business model, and credit-happy Britain embraced Argos' 'brighter shopping' proposition.

Since then, internet retail brands such as Amazon have taken a chunk out of Argos' customer base and traditional bricks-and-mortar shops have fallen by the wayside. The heyday of the old Green Shield Gift House, rebranded as Argos in 1973 by founder Richard Tompkins, feels an eon ago.

In an effort to inspire consumers and drive sales, Fitzpatrick tasked consultancy The Brand Union with making Argos relevant again. Nonetheless, she insists that Argos never lost its place in the hearts of the British public. 'We absolutely feel we are a brand for everybody, and that is backed up by the fact that you can find an Argos catalogue in over 70% of the UK population's homes,' she says.

'Yet, we do recognise it is 10 years since we last refreshed our identity,' adds Fitzpatrick. 'Customer needs have become more complex, so now the time is right to bring all that back together, and go into a new decade with a very modern refresh.'

The fresh look ditches Argos' arguably outdated use of every bright colour it could lay its hands on, with a return to plain red and white. The 'smile' motif on the logo is there to remind us that the retail chain is all about 'warmth and friendliness'.

'The critical part is that whether customers are going into an industrial park or any other place, they would connect with the brand - they absolutely know they are dealing with Argos,' says Fitzpatrick.

However, the company has taken the curious decision to roll out the identity over a four-year period, rather than sweep away the old branding overnight. Stores will be refitted steadily as part of the Argos' 'business-as-usual' programme, while some of its retail channels - including the website and catalogue - have already been refreshed.

Fitzpatrick claims this is because Argos would compromise its budget positioning if it were to splurge millions in one fell swoop. 'We are mindful of the fact we are a value brand, and we want to be responsible in how we handle the refresh. Customers expect us to act in that way,' she says.

The former MFI and Mothercare marketer is very careful in her choice of words and constantly makes reference to Argos' market research. 'We spent an awful lot of time talking to customers, and they have said it is absolutely the right time for us to be doing (the rebrand),' she says.

Customers, Fitzpatrick claims, also have the utmost confidence in Argos' business model. However, its recent performance has been less assured. A decent Christmas trading period saw like-for-like sales creep up by 0.1% on the same period last year, but overall sales are down 1% for the financial year so far.

A host of competitors has aped Argos' multichannel value strategy. Tesco fired a shot across the Argos bows with its Tesco Direct online brand, while consumers have also taken enthusiastically to cheap and cheerful homewares retailer Wilkinson.

Value is set to remain in vogue for some time, but consumers have unprecedented levels of choice, so Fitzpatrick is only too aware that the Argos brand needs to work harder to get customers through its doors and onto its website. According to sources close to Argos, she is keen to push the retailer in the direction of more 'acceptable value' brands such as Primark.'We're in a great place as we've always had great value credentials, and by value I mean both competitive prices and all the appropriate supports and services to sit underneath them,' says Fitzpatrick. 'We're making sure we understand what value means to our customers - that is what the business has been built on.'

As part of the brand revamp, Fitzpatrick promises that Argos will begin speaking to consumers in a new tone of voice. 'What is important is the way you converse with people,' she says. 'The way that you would talk to people 10 years ago is very different to how you want to communicate now, and the things they want to talk about are very different as well. The tone of voice has to be right for now and right for our customers. It's about being friendly, accessible, relevant, and retaining our credibility and trust with customers.'

This change has been reflected in the retailer's latest ad campaign, by CHI & Partners, which promotes Argos' Check & Reserve facility. According to Fitzpatrick, this service will play an increasingly significant role in the company's strategy as it seeks to integrate its online and bricks-and-mortar propositions. Separate kiosks are to be installed in stores to handle Check & Reserve sales, alongside other in-store changes such as a 'zig-zag' layout for browsing tables, and touchscreen stock-check machines.

Admittedly, most of these are cosmetic changes, but they will be vital if Argos is to convince British consumers that it is modernising and does not deserve a similar fate to Woolworths or Zavvi.

'By making these changes now, at a time when some retailers are disappearing from the high street and some are failing altogether, it gives customers the confidence that we are here to stay, that Argos is here to stay as a brand for the next 10 or 20 years,' says Fitzpatrick.

One has the impression that, if Argos is to continue for another two decades, it will need to make more radical changes to its retail model to take on the competition.

However, Fitzpatrick's more immediate priority is to convince consumers that Argos is not as stuck to its perceived stubborn approach to retailing as the bolted-down chairs once were to the floor of its waiting areas.

The success, and perhaps even the survival, of the brand in its current form could well be reliant on her success.

1988-1998: Various marketing and commercial roles on magazines, IPC
1998-2001: Marketing manager, Mothercare
2001-2005: Head of in-store and above-the-line communications, MFI
2005-present: Head of brand marketing, Argos

Family: Married with one child
Hobbies: Eating, drinking, reading, horse riding
Favourite holiday destination: Italy
Favourite movies: Crash and One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest
Last book read: The Clothes on their Backs by Linda Grant


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