Simulating in-store experiences with physical prototyping

The Customer Experience (CX) team has been working with our Co-op Food colleagues to look at how we can improve customer service in our stores. When the CX team help the wider Co-op business solve problems, our process usually involves prototyping. Because we often work in the digital space, our prototypes are often on a screen too.  

This challenge however focuses on in-person experiences in our stores. So, for this piece of work, testing in a physical space and in a more tangible way felt more appropriate. 

Before trialling in a store, we wanted to test our ideas in a low-risk environment where we wouldn’t be in the way of day-to-day store life but where we could still involve colleagues who bring other expert knowledge.  

We used a ‘desktop walkthrough’ method to simulate the in-store experiences. 

We are writing this post to share: 

  • why we chose the desktop walkthrough method as a prototyping tool 
  • how we used it to get a better understanding of our trial logistics 
  • what we learnt about using a less familiar method 

Exploring the problem with a team of experts 

To discover how we can improve customer service in store, we needed to understand the current customer experience and identify pain points.  

We formed a small team of colleagues across Food Operations, Insight and Research, and store managers to help us focus on the right things. Each discipline has its own perspective and involving the right people means we’re more likely to focus on the right things.  

Defining the problem and prioritising 1 concept to tackle

Based on our research, we identified 3 areas we could explore that would help our customers receive (and our colleagues to be able to provide) better service. They were: 

  1. Technology – how might we use new and existing technology to make improvements across different parts of the customer journey? 
  1. People – how might we help our colleagues to prioritise service through training and recognition? 
  1. Insight – how might we make better use of the insight we have on our customers, colleagues and stores to make improvements to customer service? 

We chose to explore the ideas focused on people because we identified the most amount of value, opportunity and feasibility here. We specifically wanted to look at how we might recognise colleagues who were great ‘customer service advocates’ in stores.  

We defined our hypothesis and used it to develop a plan for our trial in a real store. We established the basics of good customer service, and we defined the role of a customer service advocate.  

Choosing an inclusive and lightweight way to test  

To choose the right prototyping method for the scenario, we revisited what we wanted to learn. Our learning objectives were to: 

  • get a shared understanding about the end-to-end customer experience 
  • understand the important interactions between colleague and customer journeys 
  • identify other problem areas so we can address them 

We decided to try a desktop walkthrough because: 

  1. It brings experts from different areas together, in one room, without distraction so we could explain why we had arranged the walkthrough and what we planned to do afterwards in real stores. Each person has a unique perspective and can raise challenges the rest of the group wouldn’t necessarily consider. 
  1. We could figure out our next steps without getting in the way of or taking time away from in-store colleagues. 
  1. We had a hunch it might help us realise things relating to the physical space we otherwise likely wouldn’t have with a different method. For example, shelving and fixtures tend to be tall and make it difficult for colleagues to see each other providing good service.  

The set-up 

As the name implies, the walkthrough takes place at a desk. The Format team shared a generic store floor plan which we printed out and laid on the desk. Then we added 3D card shelving, tills and self-checkouts on top of the paper layout to recreate a mini-scale, realistic-as-possible store. We used figurines to represent colleagues and customers. 

photograph shows 3D card shelving, tills and self-checkouts on top of the paper floor plan
We added cardboard tills, self-checkouts and shelving on the floor plan.

Walking through scenarios 

We chose to walk through common scenarios for store colleagues. For example: 

  • opening the store  
  • navigating around the store at the times when there are fewer colleagues on the shop floor  
  • operational tasks such as unloading deliveries or scanning gaps on the shelves – times where a colleague is less available to directly help customers  
  • customer interaction trade-off scenarios like helping a customer to find an item while being asked over headset to pack a Deliveroo order 
image shows the full floor plan and has figurines at either side that represent customers and colleagues
We grouped customer and colleague figurines around the floor plan as we walked through scenarios.

We also took note of real colleagues’ shifts, lunch breaks and list of tasks too so we could get an idea of how busy the space would be. Weaving this into our walkthrough brought an additional layer of understanding for the people in the room. 

A desktop walkthrough meant we got a bird’s eye view of colleagues moving through our model store for the duration of their shift. It also helped us see where, when or why colleagues interact with customers. 

image shows the back of a colleague figurine facing the store floor [plan and other figurines in the distance
Customer team member number 3 is in the stockroom dealing with a delivery here

Building value for our CX team and the wider community 

Our desktop walkthrough was a quick, cheap way to prepare for an in-store trial. Bringing our ideas to life in this way meant we picked up on things that might not work in stores and we could adapt our concepts without wasting time or money. A lot of this was down to 2 ex-store managers who joined us for the walkthrough – their input was invaluable. Their first-hand experience of working in – and running – stores meant they could sense-check our assumptions which made the scenarios we walked through far more realistic. We made changes to our experiment plan based on their insight and we believe this contributed to the success of our first store trial. 

Since our desktop prototype we have progressed to trialling our customer service advocate concept in stores and continue to learn and adapt. 

Steph Clubb, Lead CX visual designer  

Hannah McDonald, CX strategist 

Introducing Co-op’s Customer Experience Strategy team

Co-op recently created a new Customer Experience (CX) Strategy team. This post explains why our team exists, our purpose and how we work. 

What we mean when we say ‘customer experience’

Customer experience (CX) is how a customer thinks and feels about all interactions they have with a brand. Customers no longer base their loyalty on price or product. Instead, they stay loyal to brands that offer the best experiences. This means brands can gain a competitive advantage by providing customers with a consistent, personal and rewarding experience.

We need to consider CX across the whole customer journey 

At Co-op, we offer a varied range of products and services. Customers can come to us to buy both pet food and pet insurance. They can pick up today’s dinner from a Food store or prepare for their future through Life Services. They can place an online food order or plan their funeral. And along the way, they have many different interactions with us. 

Speaking to a Co-op colleague in a Food store is just one of the many interactions that customers can have with us

By meeting or exceeding customer expectations every time they connect with us – whether in physical or digital spaces – we create better experiences for them. This means customers will be more likely to continue to use our services and to recommend Co-op. In the long term, this helps us gain a competitive advantage through: 

  • better retention 
  • more effective cross-selling 
  • bigger customer networks 

Lots of our colleagues are already working to create better customer experiences. But an approach that works across the whole business and considers the entire end-to-end experience for customers is a new and exciting opportunity for us. This is where the new CX Strategy team comes in.

Our CX Strategy team is responsible for the holistic customer experience across Co-op 

The CX Strategy team works in partnership with colleagues across the business to create seamless journeys that solve customer problems and improve their experience. 

We: 

  • collaborate with business areas, working alongside them to develop actionable CX strategy 
  • shape strategies based on customer insights 
  • join the dots across different teams, systems and processes 
  • define opportunities for improving the end-to-end experience for customers 
By considering the whole end-to-end journey customers have with us, including the ways we connect then with their community, we can improve their experiences

The CX Strategy team is partnering with teams across the business 

As well as CX strategists, the CX Strategy team is made up of experts in content strategy, research and service design. When we partner with a business area team on a project, it’s important that we begin by understanding the current landscape. We ask the team to share their expertise on their business area and customers with us. We then work with them to map customer journeys and identify points of friction. As we move through the process of exploring and setting the strategy, we’re able to distil our focus and make recommendations. This helps us create a realistic implementation plan that the business area team can put into action. 

A diagram outlining the working approach that the CX Strategy team use

So far, we’ve: 

  • worked with Life Services to create a customer experience strategy grounded in insight, making changes across a customer journey that crossed two business areas to generate new revenue streams 
  • worked with Nisa to understand the current wholesale customer experience and identified opportunities that have the potential to increase sales by millions  
  • mapped how we’re measuring CX at Co-op 

Next, we’ll be working with Membership, our customer service centre, Co-op Power and Food. We’ll be focusing on creating customer experience that works for our customers, members and communities and that also benefits our business. 

The CX Strategy team 


Co-op colleagues can join our ‘Customer Experience Spotlight’ talks 

We’re marking CX Day 2021 with a series of CX best practice talks on Tuesday 5, Wednesday 6 and Thursday 7 October.   

If you’re a Co-op colleague, you can sign up to join our lunchtime Customer Experience Spotlight talks to find out how Insurance, Life Services and Food are championing CX.