By Rich Beattie, VP Mercado Europe
With the on-going boom of the internet and broadband, retailers are now faced with adopting new ways of interacting with customers across several different channels.
As the mainstream shopping population comes online, it is imperative for retailers to stop viewing e-Commerce as a separate entity and include it as part of their overall retail strategy. It is also key for merchandising to be engaged cross-channel to maximise sales, and therefore profit.
There has been a lot of news recently surrounding the importance of multi-channel strategy. However, many retailers fail to understand the difference between ‘multiple channel retailing’ and ‘multi-channel retailing’.
Those that don’t understand this significant distinction often fail to integrate their eCommerce and physical operations in a consistent and seamless manner. This will lead to inefficiencies and inconsistencies that can end up leaving customers confused and frustrated, resulting in a loss of profits and worst still, a negative effect on customer loyalty.
Many successful multi-channel retailers, generally the front runners in the adoption of practices that facilitate the multi-channel experience, have realised and embraced the fact that an offline sale may have been the result of an online research.
They are conscious that their brand experience must be consistent across all channels, and understand that conversions may not be the be-all and end-all. They are fully aware that their site is a critical vehicle for cross channel marketing.
Merchandising effectively in – and across – multiple channels has its own challenges. Whether discussing issues that are related to competing channels, or inconsistencies in product names and descriptions from one channel to the next (yes, this really happens!), multi-channel retailing is ready for a merchandising overhaul.
There are three key themes that emerge; all of which need improvement to result in successful e-retailing.
The first key theme is breaking down the barriers between channels. The market is full of “multiple-channel” retailers, who take a rather narrow approach to doing business. Instead of viewing shoppers as shoppers and customers as customers – they have their brick-and-mortar customers, their catalogue shoppers and their online customers.
The bottom line is that customers are customers – regardless of which channel they use to buy products from. Many retailers still view their channels as separate entities, operating and organised differently; creating a competitive “us versus them” culture, which ends up discouraging cross-channel consistency and lucrative cross-channel shopping.
As obvious as this may seem, this is the first and most important step to reaching a holistic approach to multi-channel retailing.
Customers are loyal beings who continue to shop because they are satisfied with the service or product that a certain brand delivers. One of the early failings of eCommerce, and one that may have kept e-tail sites limited to being an electronic version of a print catalogue, was that brands failed to deliver on a their promise.
A lot of this had to do with technology; the tools were rather limited in the pioneering days of online retail – form and functionality were extremely polarized.
When thinking back to the early days of eCommerce, retailers have explained that it was not possible to replicate the sophistication and expertise of their experienced sales associates online.
This resulted in disappointed customers who expected the same level of customer service. Many multi-channel brands were actually damaged when their online experience failed to live up to the high expectations of brand-loyal offline shoppers.
Since those early days however, there have been vast advancements in technology, which have improved the online experience and its ability to preserve or even enhance a retailer’s brand. Recent site search and navigation improvements have enabled shoppers to be guided through a selection process that truly reflects the experience provided by knowledgeable in-store sales assistants.
Improving basic search and navigation, and being able to offer choices and solutions online will result in a brand delivering its promise, enabling customers to easily and quickly find what they want, when they want it.
Industry experts concur that the power of one channel to positively affect another is significant. Whether a shopper starts online then completes their purchase offline, or browses through a print catalogue at the breakfast table then heads online to buy an item, cross-channel shopping is becoming more the rule than the exception.
According to these same experts, growth in cross-channel (web to store) business will surpass the growth of online business in the next three to four years.
This re-emphasises the importance of providing a smooth and seamless transition from one channel to another. The cross-channel shopper expects that one channel will pick up where the other leaves off. One example of successful and effective multi-channel retailing is building upon the cataloguing tradition by providing in-store pickup for purchases made online.
Another example is presenting a store locator page when shoppers search online for products that are carried exclusively in their brick-and-mortar stores. Of course, some retail sectors experience more (or less) cross-channel activity than others. For example, according to a recent Consumer Electronics Association study, nearly 80% of offline electronics purchases are researched online before shoppers head to the store.
Two key points to remember in building a loyal customer base, both offline and online, are to allow shoppers to move freely and easily between different channels, and to provide better product descriptions and displays of selection criteria, in order to make it easier for a shopper to complete a purchase.
In the years to come, as cross-channel shopping takes off, the most successful multi-channel retailers will be those who carry out effective cross-channel merchandising strategies. A retailer’s online channel represents great direct-sales revenue potential, as well as being one of the your most important marketing mediums.
The three key themes - breaking down the barriers between channels, delivering the brand’s promise online and providing a seamless shopper transition from one channel to another - are key areas that retailers have to consider when devising a complete and holistic approach to multi-channel marketing and retailing.
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