Drapers outlines the challenges retailers may encounter when launching a multichannel strategy.
About 20 years ago, retailers grabbed headlines with innovative brand marketing: Benetton put just-born babies on its posters and French Connection introduced FCUK. Today, digital commerce has changed everything, and retailers get noticed by the multichannel strategies they’re carving out. While most brands considered ecommerce to be ‘on the side’ of their business for many years, the smart early adopters – Aurora Fashions, House of Fraser, New Look and Next – realised it would benefit to integrate new channels into the mainstream business. Now virtually all retailers aspire to being ‘multichannel’.
“Over the past decade, the online shopping experience has changed profoundly as brands better understand how to engage with different audiences over multiple channels,” says Enda Breslin, vice-president technology solutions at ecommerce and marketing services provider GSI Commerce. “Our recent research into multichannel customer engagement has found that more shoppers than ever are taking an integrated approach to their purchasing habits, using their internet browser for window shopping before they visit the high street. Almost two thirds (64%) surveyed visit fashion retailers’ websites to research items they like, before buying them on the high street.”
Retailers can only exploit multichannel if their systems have the capability, says Russell Dorset, sales and marketing director at software provider Maginus. He says fashion presents unique challenges because retailers must deal with a complex inventory – different sizes, colours and regularly changing styles. “Stock visibility must now be incredibly accurate and not just in terms of what’s in the warehouse, but down to which styles in which sizes are available in every store in a large network. It’s no good promising a skirt in the right size to someone looking online, only for them to find it sold by the time they arrive at the store,” says Dorset. “So retailers must make careful decisions about what customers can find out online and how they ensure they fulfil promises. Real-time information is becoming a necessity.”
The volumes coming through non-store channels are significant, which is prompting retailers to invest in robust multichannel systems, says Simon Evetts, partner and smart commerce leader at IT consultancy IBM. “It’s no longer possible to hold everything together with string and Excel print-outs. All the channels from website and stores to mobile and social channels, need to be properly integrated, with real-time visibility of stock, sales, and CRM activity.”
Systems architecture for multichannel may have to change and adapt over time though, because no one knows which sales channels will be popular in five years’ time. Will social shopping become significant? Will mobile sales keep growing? What percentage of sales will come through web-enabled ‘smart’ TVs? “The key is not to try and predict which channels you’ll be selling through in 2017, but to have flexible architecture that can easily adapt to the new touchpoints as they emerge,” says Evetts.
A truly multichannel offer might include home delivery and in-store pick-up, in-store kiosks or iPads for ordering online, tailored promotions that drive the most valuable customers to spend in all channels, and personalised mobile and social shopping opportunities that continue the same level of customer experience and brand familiarity. Fulfilling home deliveries – regardless of how goods were ordered, is a big challenge, but retailers are benefiting from new services in the market. House of Fraser added the Collect+ service to its home shopping channel to make it easier for customers to collect packages during the busy Christmas season. This offers the option of parcel pick-up and return through local convenience stores – customers who buy online can collect within two days from a choice of 6,000 stores. “The major advantage is the option of collecting packages outside of typical store and Post Office opening hours,” says a House of Fraser spokesman.
Click-and-collect is a big multichannel ambition, but very few are offering it today. New Look is pushing click-and-collect out to 600 stores, predicting that it could account for 40% of sales over the next three years. The service is expected to drive 500,000 store visits in the second half of this financial year, providing opportunities to cross-sell. Premium retailer Reiss launched its click-and-collect service in time for the Christmas trading period. “Our website is now our largest store,” says brand director Andy Rogers. “We need to look at ways to combine shopping online with shopping in-store to make the experience as easy as possible for our customers.” He says a quarter of website visitors go there to find store information and opening times “and we want to make sure that 25% also decide to shop with us while they are there”. He adds: “The key thing is that the store and online businesses are entwined and that we service them both equally.”
Dorset says: “Everyone wants to offer click-and-collect, but it’s far from straightforward to set up. Often store staff aren’t prepared for this new element of their job, and sometimes there’s not enough space in the store for fulfilment. It’s no good having a fancy website with ease of ordering – only to have your customer badly treated in the store when they go for click-and-collect pick-up. For multichannel to work seamlessly, retailers need extra space in store, perhaps a separate service desk, and staff must be highly trained in what’s expected of them.”
Good people and good communication will both be central to the success of multichannel, says Graham Lucas, regional director for recruitment firm Michael Page Buying and Merchandising. “The customer expects a seamless cross-channel proposition. This involves numerous stakeholders and departments delivering in a fast-paced, evolving climate,” he says. “In many cases, retailers are setting up dedicated online teams to drive an area of potential growth.” He says this allows specialists to shape and deliver the most suitable online proposition but does require first-class, cross-channel communication to deliver an excellent customer experience.
Michael Ross, chief executive of ecommerce technology provider eCommera, says the term ‘multichannel’ doesn’t define a strategy, and retailers should avoid rushing into new business areas without considering the commercial benefits first. “Multichannel encompasses everything from stores, catalogues, websites, call centres and mobile apps to emerging services such as click-and-collect, return in-store, order in-store and assisted sale in-store,” says Ross. “Some things will make a difference to the success of your business, but others won’t, so jumping on the bandwagon isn’t necessarily the answer.”
Knowing what your customers want, and delivering this profitably, should be at the heart of any multichannel strategy, says Ross. Once integration is achieved and the systems are in place to fulfil cross-channel services and promotions, will the service you’re offering definitely make money? “Integrating across ERP, EPoS and ecommerce is complicated, and the technology is nascent,” says Ross. “It is still early days as to what good, modern retailing looks like. Retailers that put the customer first as they map out their version of multichannel will fare the best.”
iPad shopping – extending the aisle
Last December, Aurora Fashions piloted iPads in 23 Coast, Oasis, Warehouse and Karen Millen stores, and found that customers enjoyed the service. iPad transactions accounted for 20% of sales at Oasis in the first week of operation and the brand is now rolling out iPad shopping across its 74 stores in the UK and Republic of Ireland.
The devices allow staff to access the brands’ websites anywhere in the store, check product availability and place an order if the right stock isn’t immediately available. Because it’s a point-of-sale app, the iPads can also be used as a quick and easy checkout, and in some cases goods can be paid for on the device, and then delivered to the customer’s home within 90 minutes. Used in this way the iPad can become a valuable sales tool, capturing customer data in the store, and making full use of the company’s multichannel structure. It could also help reduce queues.
Liz Evans, managing director of Oasis, says: “Using iPads is a fun and more practical way of shopping. People don’t have to queue and can buy anywhere on the shopfloor. They can also look things up online and take pictures of themselves when trying on clothes. We want to make shopping fun and innovative.”