With a substantial number of its shoppers coming from China, Bicester Village has had to make rapid inroads into the digital sector.
“The train heading to Bicester will call at …” Nothing terribly remarkable in this perhaps, but imagine the same being announced in Mandarin as the journey is made to Middle England from Marylebone.
Mandarin passenger announcements are, in fact, a reality on the line out of the central London station and, along with the Chinese signage around the terminus, are an indication of the sheer numbers of Far Eastern visitors who make the pilgrimage to Oxfordshire.
The outlet centre near Oxford is actually one of 11 “villages” that comprise the Bicester Village Shopping Collection. Initially, there was just the eponymous Bicester Village, which welcomed its first shoppers in 1995. Owned by London‐based Value Retail, the “collection” is a multinational affair spanning the UK and Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy and China. The latter has two outposts, one in Shanghai and the other in nearby Suzhou.
Recently extended in size by around 30%, the company added a further 30 shops, bringing the total to 160 shops. With its own railway station, Bicester Village stands as a remarkable testimony to the power of marketing, and specifically digital marketing, to get people to locations they might not otherwise give a second thought to (no disrespect to Bicester, which is a perfectly nice place).
Around 25% of Bicester’s shoppers come from China – the world’s most digitally advanced shopping nation
And there is hardly a brand name that you might care to shake a stick at that has not got some kind of presence at Bicester, from Barbour to Burberry, Timberland to Tory Burch. That said, there is more to getting your message across than having a good‐looking collection of stores in an easily accessed site.
You also have to make concerted efforts in the digital arena and, given that around 25% of Bicester’s shoppers come from China – the world’s most digitally advanced shopping nation – this looks like a prerequisite for success.
Visit Bicester Village and the sharp end of this is apparent when it comes to paying in the shops. For most Chinese shoppers, payment is likely to mean Alipay (the mobile payment facility from Alibaba) or WeChat (the same thing, but provided by online giants Tencent and JD.com). Value Retail has a focused programme of rolling out Alipay and WeChat pay across as many Bicester Village shops as possible to ensure consumers have transaction conveniences they are used to in their home market.
This also means that both of the “wallets in a phone” – Alipay can be used in 21% of the stores at Bicester – are the subject of discussion with the brands at Bicester Village on a shop-by-shop basis, but given the notion of luxury and those clamouring for it, it is probable that this will prove an easy sell.
Value Retail claims that tens of thousands of coupons have been downloaded on Alipay and thousands of Chinese guests have visited Bicester Village as a result.
There is also the matter of smartphone use when shopping at Bicester Village. The base camp for digital shopping at Bicester is currently an app, but like all things of the kind, it comes with caveats.
The aim to produce “world-class content” for the app, in Chinese, results in functionality that enhances visitors mobile interactions, and, over time, these will become more personalised and be rolled out across more channels.
There is also the matter of loyalty. Most Chinese tourists will probably just make a one‐visit-trip to Bicester Village, although they may visit the “villages” back home in Shanghai or Suzhou. To this end, the app offers “privileges”. This is a “treats and rewards programme” used as a tool to encourage brand advocacy and repeat visits. Bicester plans to expand the scheme in the future.
As Bicester Village regards itself as a brand in its own right, rather than a location with a collection of brands, this in turn means that the app has to reflect its tone and feel, both in terms of the colour palette used and the fonts employed.
In China m‐commerce is the near‐universal point of entry as far as online retail is concerned
The other point that has to be considered is whether “online” means desktop or mobile.
In China m‐commerce is the near‐universal point of entry as far as online retail is concerned, and this is recognised by Bicester Village’s management: more than 70% of online visitors come through mobile. So the app strategy is to provide functionality that helps shoppers before and during their visit to Bicester.
In China, Value Retail is also trialling the use of TripAdvisor as a means of getting third-party endorsement of its product.
It would be tempting to wonder why all of this is relatively recent at Bicester Village, but a look at what is being done more generally in the UK will reveal something similar.
The fact that Bicester Village has outlets in China as well as Europe means that it is rather more advanced than most, particularly when it comes to allowing visitors to use WeChat or Alipay in the scheme’s stores.
Alighting from the train at Bicester Village station means entering a world that is a little ahead of the average UK high street. And if you happen to be a VIP, provision has been made for you and yours as well.
The centre was expanded at the end of 2017, which came with a significant number of relocations – it is easy to spot an anchor tenant, such as Prada or Burberry, as they have two floors – and the creation of The Apartment. This events space for talks and gatherings also has several rooms set aside for visiting dignitaries.
With its fireplaces, where the burning logs never seem to become ash, The Apartment is in keeping with the fresh‐scrubbed, New England‐style wooden buildings and avenues bedecked with flowers that give Bicester Village its identity.
Bicester Village has been in place since 1995, and for a while it looked as if the advent of ecommerce might take its toll on the sector, but this one proves that, if you play things right from a digital perspective, there are many reasons for shoppers to keep coming and to keep buying.
This is an ongoing story of reinvention and, while this is a physical entity, it is increasingly also a digital proposition.
Value Retail’s Bicester Village Shopping Collection
- Oxfordshire: Bicester Village
- Shanghai: Shanghai Village (pictured)
- Suzhou: Suzhou Village
- Dublin: Kildare Village
- Paris: La Vallée Village
- Frankfurt: Wertheim Village
- Munich: Ingolstadt Village
- Brussels/Antwerp/Cologne Maasmechelen Village
- Milan: Bolognafidenza Village
- Barcelona: La Roca Village
- Madrid: Las Rozas Village