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Join the channel hoppers

Multichannel retail is yet to be fully explored by the majority of fashion businesses, which could learn a trick or two from other retail sectors that have been quicker to innovate and embrace the possibilities

When it comes to multi-channel retailing, the fashion industry would do well to look at those boring consumer electricals types over on the retail park.

If you ask Comet about its multichannel approach, the electricals retailer could talk about the mobile version of its website, an upcoming iPhone application, a Christmas ‘pass-the-parcel’ Twitter promotion and a smorgasbord of delivery mechanisms including click-and-collect, where customers buy online and pick up in store.

Jason Shorrock, programme director for multichannel retail at multichannel solutions provider BT Expedite, says most retailers initially opted for separate inventory databases for their stores and online. Now, many are looking at pooled inventory. “It allows greater inventory control, cross-channel ordering and should result in less discounting,” he says.

“It’s about working the inventory harder across the whole business to make product available. That means the retailer can guide consumers through ‘searchandising’ [where the search and merchandising functions are combined so the retailer manipulates the search function towards a particular product].”

Leigh Whitney, managing director at web design and digital consultancy firm DesignUK, adds: “There’s no reason not to innovate. Look at Argos, the oldest multichannel retailer on the block, but it continues to develop with new services such as SMS confirmation of orders and order numbers.”

He believes that the challenge is consistent service across the offers. For example, when a customer does a click-and-collect in-store order should they queue with everyone else or be served separately? “There’s no doubt there should be a dedicated point from where to collect goods in store, otherwise it reduces the incentive for shoppers to go online. Multichannel is all about service and offering the customer the best and most convenient way to purchase. Retailers need to think holistically about selling and delivery across all channels,” says Whitney.

David Duke, online marketing manager at web developer Visualsoft, says fashion indies tend to adopt an attitude of “my shop is my focus”.

“One of the first things they need to understand is that an online presence needs marketing and while this may be a toe in the water, they have to embrace it, which they usually do as their confidence grows,” he says. “To get a return on investment, all the cross-channel marketing strategies must work together.”

From the ground up

He stresses that the starting block is the website, which needs to be built with driving conversion rates in mind and from the ground up, optimised for search engines. “Most good indies will also have a strong reputation for service and product and the website needs to reflect that on a national level, even if they only operate in one part of the country.”

Nigel Swan, business development director at logistics firm DHL Supply Chain’s fashion division, believes increasingly complex supply chains are making bigger demands on retailers. “With a customer like House of Fraser we take the view that it knows its business so our job is to build a relationship where we understand the product, the brand and company and the retailer can then have confidence in the stock holding,” he says.

Email promotions are also key to a multichannel strategy, and a personalised approach is the way forward, says Paul Anderson, strategic marketing consultant at email marketing software firm Emailvision. “A lot of communication is still shouting, with no personalisation,” he says. “Customers are getting very savvy and they know when they are being manipulated. You need to build trust so you can start asking questions of the customer and then tailor your offers.”

Anderson points out that a one-size-fits-all strategy is in danger of giving shoppers email marketing fatigue, which will eventually lead to them landing in spam mailboxes. “What email needs to do is work with other media, so a promotion supported by an email campaign will provide an incremental uplift,” he stresses.

As for social media, Anderson describes it as “word of mouth on steroids”. He adds: “But retailers should thank people who provide negative feedback on social media sites, and deal with those complaints. If you resolve problems then you can bet that will be publicised by those people.”

Case study House of Fraser

Department store chain House of Fraser made its multichannel intentions clear last month when it appointed Robin Terrell, who has run multi-channel strategies at industry leaders John Lewis and Amazon, to lead its online and international operations. Part of his brief will be to double the retailer’s online sales.

“Multichannel retail is fundamental to our growth plan,” says Mark Holland, HoF’s supply chain director. “We want to develop consistency across all the channels and make sure that integration helps us to drive cross-channel behaviour.”

Holland says HoF uses a dedicated stock pool to service its web offer but that it is open-minded about how inventory is controlled in the future.

He adds that Terrell’s appointment also reflects the importance the company is placing on ensuring that staff understand the multi-channel offer and that the consumer receives the same experience in every part of the business.

Case study Cath Kidston

Vintage-inspired homeware and fashion retailer Cath Kidston upgraded its IT systems and ecommerce service late in 2008 and handed its stock control and warehouse operations to multi-channel systems provider Maginus.

Cath Kidston managing director Paul Spinks says: “Our website supports the business as it expands. The website needed technology for better integration between it and the head office retail system, and to support our warehouse.”

Case study Aurora Fashions

Aurora Fashions, parent company of retailers including Karen Millen, Oasis, Coast and Warehouse, manages its individual fascias as distinct businesses but IT support is centralised.

Ishan Patel, strategic development director at Aurora Fashions, says of its multi-channel approach: “Many people like to do their research online and then come into stores to buy, so we see online and bricks-and-mortar as complementary.”

Aurora Fashions launched its transactional websites at the end of 2007, starting with Oasis and Warehouse. The primary point of integration is with Aurora Fashions’ existing BT Expedite buying and merchandising application.

This integration enables online shoppers to verify product availability in real time.

On the Oasis website, features include a virtual boutique which enables browsers to assemble fashion outfits and share them on Facebook, and also a weekly updated ‘Oasis Edits’, where the retailer highlights the latest must-have pieces.


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