The growing demands of multichannel global retail mean it is crucial that retailers invest in technology or risk losing out.
Today, UK fashion brands and retailers must be multichannel in order to be competitive. With international retailing now also firmly on the agenda, however, business models are being stretched like never before as they attempt to service a customer that wants to browse, buy, receive and potentially return their goods globally. Rising to the challenge will require technological investment, from back-end systems to online and in store.
As fashion retailers look to meet consumer expectations by ensuring product is where it needs to be when it needs to be, one area for investment will be back-end supply chain management systems.
“It seems to me that the main focus from a UK service level perspective is that a lot of it is moving towards flexibility on delivery as opposed to speed or location of delivery. And that will require a lot from the technology side,” says Andrew Robb, chief operating officer at online indie portal Farfetch.
Nick McLean, director of product and marketing at ecommerce consultancy eCommera, agrees.
“When looking for a product, customers now expect flexibility of fulfilment options and they want to know when and how they can have it. A new omnichannel technology is required: a retail order management system that can identify the available stock options and can direct the order by the most appropriate route to the customer,” he says.
He adds that key functionality includes configurable workflows that implement the retailer’s chosen business rules, defining whether product is shipped from the nearest or cheapest point, the fastest route, or from the location with the slowest-moving stock - with similar rules to govern the returns process.
Premium menswear brand Hackett largely manufactures in the UK and Europe, but is a growing, global business. Ecommerce director Kristine Kirby says that, as a result, managing the supply chain is a complicated process. “There is a lot of streamlining of the supply chain and how we get that to work, because we have stores from China to Singapore, Venezuela to Panama and the UK,” she explains. “And supply chain is one of those areas that if you can get it better-synced you can generally make great gains, not only in delivery times but also in terms of cost and presentation to the customer.”
Premium retailer Reiss will also be replacing its supply chain system this year. “Our current system has evolved since long before ecommerce and smartphones became the norm,” says global head of information systems Hugh Raeburn. “It has coped well, but now is the time to move to the next level. A single stock pool, with visibility across all channels and complete transparency, is imperative in this brave new world of lightning-fast user adoption of ever-changing mobile devices. We, as retailers, must learn to be equally as nimble and agile.”
Online, mobile and tablet solutions will also see greater investment this year. In particular, businesses should focus on better use of data capture through customer relationship management (CRM) technology, as retailers attempt to maximise conversion via personalised dialogues with their customers. Kirby says Hackett, which launched mobile and tablet versions of its website at the
end of January, has just started a CRM programme. “I know for us that it’s one of the things we are putting a fair amount of money and effort towards,” she says.
Right now Farfetch’s Robb doesn’t think anyone is doing this that well, but says the technology is starting to enable better usage.
Raeburn, meanwhile, believes “2014 could be the year for CRM to deliver on its promise. It will provide much richer information rather than just the usual: recency, frequency, spend and profitability information. From a CRM promotional perspective, ‘localise and personalise’ will be the buzzwords”.
Responsive design - whereby retailers offer websites that adapt to the device on which they are viewed - is not new, but is likely to become more widespread this year. “Investing in a responsive/adaptive design also makes it easier for the merchandising and web teams to manage the site, while Google will also provide higher SEO rankings for responsive sites,” says McLean.
For increasingly global businesses, local language sites and the delivery options, in addition to the supply chain capability that they require will also become essential. “That is another big one for us. Hackett is a global brand so we are rolling out language sites throughout the year [in Spain, France and perhaps Germany],” says Kirby.
The past couple of years have seen a wave of investment of technology in stores, designed to blur the lines between channels, with notable winners such as click-and-collect.
“With click-and-collect orders up 62% over the Christmas period, investment in ensuring our online and offline systems work seamlessly will be a key area of focus for me in the year ahead,” says Paul Coby, IT director at John Lewis. “In terms of investments, we are developing a second, £100m distribution centre in Milton Keynes, which is being specifically designed to increase our capacity for processing fashion orders.”
Kirby admits that Hackett is “a little behind the curve on click-and-collect”, but that it is moving quickly in that direction. “For us it’s not just about being able to collect in store. We have a small estate, so it’s giving the stores the ability to access the full web stock,” she says.
Tablet devices have been rolled out by retailers including Reiss, Karen Millen and East, but will see a further push this year as businesses focus on assisted selling. “We’ll be investing in more hand-held devices for our associates, helping them to engage more fluidly with the customer, and steer them away from hiding behind the cash desk,” says Raeburn of Reiss.
Roy Patrick, multichannel product director at retail solutions provider Micros, agrees. “Web-enabling the store network will be a major part of many retailers’ multichannel strategies. Retailers are discovering that running the website on tablets or kiosk in store isn’t as effective as they hoped - what’s needed are applications that empower the sales assistants and allow them to actively engage with customers.”
John Lewis will also invest here this year. “Fashion is a key driver for our mobile site, so this will continue to be a focus for us in 2014. As well as our own mobile site and apps we will test mobile technology in shops with a new tablet trial, giving more mobile access to both customers and our partners,” says Coby.
However, as retailers invest in some technologies, others will fall by the wayside, with questions over kiosks, QR codes or even Wi-Fi . “We will continue to offer free Wi-Fi in all our stores globally in 2014, but we acknowledge that as 4G and affordable data tariffs become more prevalent, the requirement for customer Wi-Fi may diminish,” says Raeburn, though he adds: “There will still be a use for Wi-Fi in store for promotions and internal devices and systems.”
For Kirby, kiosks “don’t seem to make sense”, and she doubts the real use of online tools such as virtual fitting rooms. “If you are a man you probably know your collar size. Do you really need to see it on a robot to help you buy? Probably not. They claim they will help you reduce returns. I don’t think they do that. I think those are just noise and distract the customer from a clean shopping experience.”
Robb agrees that in-store kiosks don’t appear to have been a success, but says that, as mobile becomes more integral in store, QR codes could see a greater uptake. He adds that, while a lot has also been done around click-and-collect, less has been done on how to recognise a digitally engaged customer when they walk through the door, citing Asia as an example of where this is being done best.
“Things like near-field-communication have been talked about for so long and I think a lot of people are waiting for the mobile industry to solve the problem, and then build services on top of it. But actually I think quite a lot can be done with what we have now, we just haven’t tried very hard,” says Robb.
With so much change happening in the sector, future flexibility will be key. Raeburn says: “Every system that we build today is implemented recognising that we don’t know what new devices, payment channels and distribution routes our customers will want to use tomorrow. What we can do is make sure that it is easy to integrate and apply new business rules to the customer journey as it evolves along its path.”
- Findings from Micros’ 2014 Multichannel Retail Delivery Report into how retailers are using technology in their stores and online