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Multichannel report: Keeping pace with customers

Shoppers flit between stores, mobiles, tablets and online to research and buy products, so retailers need to join the dots to create a seamless experience.

Whether it is staff armed with iPads helping shoppers find a product in their size or retailers allowing customers to pick up their online orders, multichannel is blurring the lines between the physical and online world.

Consumers are rapidly changing how they shop and expect retailers to keep up by making their retail journey as smooth and convenient as possible. A survey from management and technology consultant Accenture found that almost half (49%) of respondents believe the best way for retailers to improve the shopping experience is to better integrate in-store, online and mobile shopping channels.

Blending together the channels to provide a consistent experience is no mean feat. A report by multichannel specialist Ivis Group found that while retailers are providing more ways to browse products, the level of information they supply has dropped considerably - 30% of retailers failed to provide exact product dimensions, clothing sizes and materials across all channels, up from 20% in 2012.

“Offering more channels through which to shop but not giving the information by which to do it doesn’t make sense,” says Paul Bolton, director of product and strategy at Ivis Group.

Karen Dracou, head of omnichannel development at John Lewis, often cited as one of the leading multichannel retailers, says delivering an omnichannel experience requires a significant amount of collaboration across all functions. “Success is reliant on the John Lewis brand behaving consistently across all touch points, from shop to online, call centre, mobile and social channels. The challenge is to have a clear vision and engage all functions so that the brand is fully united in delivering a fantastic customer experience each and every time.”

Similarly, Ross Loughlin, head of ecommerce at premium retailer Reiss, says it has recognised the need for an interconnected experience.

“We run all of our digital and phone sales through a single platform so there is a common basket and history across all devices,” says Loughlin. “This way a user can start the transaction process on a desktop, continue on their mobile and finish by completing the order by phone, if need be, through the same login.”

The customer journey might be more complex than ever as shoppers cross channels in the run-up to making a purchase by browsing in store or researching and buying on a mobile. Retailers must understand who the customer is at any touchpoint, urges Ivis Group’s Bolton.

“Whether accessing through a mobile, in-store tablet or website, a customer needs to be identified, otherwise they experience the same as any other customer entering the store,” he says. “The simple way to do this is to associate a customer to a single identifier, usually an email address, but it could be a loyalty card number.”

Bolton advises retailers to collect customer data to help align the multichannel experience. “Capture customer details from each respective channel in a central repository, analyse the purchasing behaviour of customers via each channel to enhance your product offer and target customers through regular email campaigns to encourage repeat visits to each channel,” he says. Offering consistent promotions and discounts can also be used across the channels to engage and retain customers, adds Bolton.

With a rise in click-and-collect orders leading to stock flying out of warehouses to stores, retailers need to understand how to best manage their stockrooms.

Craig Sears-Black, UK managing director of supply chain specialist Manhattan Associates, says retailers should use a tool that integrates across the full distribution network including warehouses, stores, in-transit inventory and vendors, to provide a consolidated and centralised view of inventory. “This will allow a retailer to respond in a split second to a purchase request,” he says. “This approach allows a multichannel retailer to operate under a single roof rather than in silos.”

Paul Wright, head of ecommerce at lifestyle retailer Fat Face, believes the “holy grail” for building a successful multichannel strategy is to have a single view of the stockroom.

The retailer is working on a project to ensure stock information is kept up to date.

Wright offers the example of a customer using its website to find out if a particular pair of shorts is in stock at its Portsmouth store. “If we promise we’ve got it and a customer comes and it turns out that we’ve sold it, it turns the customer off,” he says. “It’s all about making sure the website talks to the back office.”

Multichannel experts bang the drum that cross-channel is all about the customer experience, not just introducing technology for the sake of being innovative. Wright says: “I see multichannel as meaning more of a customer service aspect, using all channels together to offer better and more fantastic service. It’s less about offering all technical enhancements and more about articulating that multichannel experience for customers.”

To illustrate, he points to the retailer’s trial of iPads in stores over the past six months. “It obviously has benefits. For example, it allows customers to browse products and place orders. But the real value [in multichannel] is more about enhancing the nuts and bolts services, such as offering online customers free return and exchanges in store.”

Footwear retailer Schuh, which has blended the physical and virtual worlds of retail by offering services such as check-and-reserve and click-and-collect, has applied this attitude to its website. Head of ecommerce Sean McKee says the retailer has moved “the best of the store into the web”. One facility allows shoppers to contact customer services through a live video, where staff can talk specifics about footwear. They can even take over the customer’s mouse to help guide them to products. “It all started as a desire to add another touchpoint but it became apparent that it’s actually another sales channel,” says McKee.

One of the most important parts of the multichannel experience has been click-and-collect, which is now employed by more than half of retailers, up from 44% last year, according to Ivis Group. With increasing rents and other economic pressures on retailers, does it mean they can scale back on their store portfolio and use stores as a collection point?

“The importance of stores will not necessarily diminish as online and multichannel spending grows,” believes Matthew Rubin, retail analyst for research firm Verdict. “Retailers that identify the best use for their stores, which in some cases may be as collection points or even to showcase their best products, will be the most successful.”

Bolton agrees that for some stores in the right environment of a vibrant high street, click-and-collect could give them a new lease of life and additional footfall. Not only that, but click-and-collect offers retailers the opportunity to upsell and cross-sell product.

One major challenge confronting retailers is showrooming, where consumers view products in store before buying the product elsewhere for a lower price. It is a widespread practice, with 73% of respondents in the Accenture study admitting they had done this.

“The challenge with showrooming is this: if the customer cannot do it at your store, they will simply do it somewhere else,” says Bolton. “Retailers should embrace showrooming and allow customers to do all the research they
need while they are in store. Retailers can also positively influence their acquisition and retention plans by offering additional value such as a discount or exclusive content.”

Many retailers are accepting this practice by introducing free wi-fi into their stores such as Schuh, which completed a roll-out of free wi-fi in May. McKee says: “Customers do it anyway [check the price of competitors’ products online] and they’re doing it overtly. But they’re also seeking other people’s reviews and might be telling their friends about the product.”

By closing the circle and embracing the way their customers use technology to research and buy products, retailers will move closer to achieving a seamless multichannel experience.

Read more from the Multichannel report

Story in numbers

44% Number of retailers offering interactive screens in store
Source: Ivis Group

65% Number of TM Lewin stores offering click-and-collect

13% Percentage of online orders click-and-collect accounts for at Reiss

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