Argos Neil Tinegate: “Were Currently Going Through a Huge Transformation”

Argos head of digital innovation Neil Tinegate
Argos head of digital innovation Neil Tinegate

Among all the headline-grabbing TV campaigns which dominate seasonal marketing in the run up to Christmas – especially with the second life YouTube has given to these mini films – it can be easy to forget about festive campaigns which take a more native approach to mobile.

Of course, its possible to do both. This year, as well its Get Set Go TV ads, Argos has launched a Christmas Gift Finder web app, which uses a swipe to like interface reminiscent of Tinder to navigate through products, as well as an iOS and Android app, Argos Wishlist.

The Wishlist app is targeted at children between the ages of three and seven, taking the tendency for kids to circle items in the catalogue and tear out pages to assemble a Christmas list collage, and adapting that behaviour for digital. Parents receive a Christmas list via email, featuring direct links to each product their children have selected.

Its a smart idea but whats arguably more interesting, as an insight into Argos digital operations, is how Wishlist came to be.

From hackathon to product
Back in March, Argos assembled 50 people for a hackathon event. These people worked across a variety of disciplines, mostly within the company, though there were also a handful of representative from partner companies.

“The event was focused around the question of how we can make the digital customer experience better for customers,” says Neil Tinegate, head of digital innovation and design at Argos. “We spent about an hour just shouting out ideas as a big group, until we eventually had about 20 ideas. We whittled these down to eight by voting, and split into teams – again, with a mix of disciplines – to built eight working prototypes.

Wishlist was the winning idea, and when we showed it around to the board members, they really got it.”

The project was quickly given the greenlight, and a “small, cost-functional team” were tasked with its development, with help from external app development team REPL Digital and two agencies which helped design the apps Helpers mascots. Work on the project began in July, and it launched in late October.

“The process, from concept to backing to delivery, has been pretty fast,” says Tinegate. “In fact, thats the way the company tends to be moving at the moment.”

Hackathons certainly arent unusual, but for a company whose identity is so strongly tied to its bricks-and-mortar presence on the high street – 90 per cent of transactions still touch a store, according to Tinegate – and its thick paper catalogues, Argos seems to have taken to the idea surprisingly quickly.

“That spirit of working a bit more agilely, and bringing people from different disciplines together in small groups, has taken hold across the company,” he says, adding that the next hackathon is already being planned for early 2015, and the same concept has been applied in other areas of the business.

“Argos is currently going through a huge transformation. The world is moving fast, and we need to become much more reactive to customers needs and wants. Going forward, having that kind of innovative speedy culture will be part of our DNA.”

Digital offices, stores – and catalogues?
Thats the thinking behind the Digital Hub office, which Argos opened in London at the very start of this year. “Part of the logic is attracting the right talent,” says Tinegate, explaining why the office is in London, away from Argos Milton Keynes HQ. “Another part of it is being near our partners, and especially technology companies. But what we dont want to do is create an outpost, a sort of digital ghetto, so people split their time between the two offices.”

“The other key reason for the location is to be close to the workings of a store, and give us the chance to test a few things out on customers in that environment.” The office is located above Argos Victoria branch, which was recently converted into a digital store.

From an initial six openings last December, 48 stores have now received the digital treatment, which replace the catalogue ordering system with fixed tablets. Even in stores that havent yet been digitised, Argos has introduced navigators, front-of-house staff armed with an iPad to help out customers, and free wi-fi.

“We dont discourage showrooming at all,” says Tinegate. “We think weve got a great offer for customers, so we dont block any sites. You see people accessing all sorts of content – not just retail sites, but people checking the news or football scores while theyre waiting.

“Weve worked to make it a single shopping experience across all channels, and the stores are an integral part of that,” Tinegate says. “The thing the stores do really well is combining the online and offline experience. We want to make it easy to start the shopping journey on your phone, reserve stuff to pick up at a store, and then be in and out in 60 seconds. And thats all because thats what customers want; thats how they shop.”

As for that iconic catalogue, Tinegate says Argos is still working on how to innovate around it.

“Its a key part of our shopping journey, the primary piece of the puzzle currently, but it will become less so as digital comes to the forefront.”

So far, this has primarily taken the form of Augmented Reality. Argos worked together with Blippar in 2013, which Tinegate says resulted in the content being blipped over a million times. This year, the retailer has brought in Aurasma to add augmented content to its Autumn/Winter catalogue. Notably, ARs function is actually to strengthen the role of a physical book via digital, rather than replace it, and that looks to be the case going forward.

“A lot of customers still love the catalogue,” says Tinegate. “Eventually, I expect the traditional large twice-a-year book will disappear – but in the short term, therell always be a catalogue of some description.”