In the age of the digitally-empowered consumer, stores that tailor their shopping experiences to individual customer needs will be the ones that foster the greatest amount of loyalty. But can on- and offline channels present a united front?
Having so many different devices at the disposal of consumers’ should increase their likelihood to spend online, right? Sure it does. That’s a no-brainer. But they still visit stores too – and expect the same levels of service, quality, and customer care across every single channel, touchpoint, and interaction.
For the same reasons that people prefer visiting certain stores ‘in-person’ can be applied to their digital counterparts. That said, any focus on the ‘digital’ shouldn’t be to the detriment of the in-person customer experience.
In fact, the continued decline of bricks-and-mortar retail should mean that vendors place even more importance on customer service. Without a compelling reason to be loyal to a particular brand or retailer, shoppers will look elsewhere for their preferred product or service. Or they will go online and buy it at the cheapest price.
However, smarter retailers are waking up to the idea that the customer experience isn’t tied to a single point-of-sale or channel: it’s something that needs to be reinforced, improved, and made consistent across all the entire customer journey. Retailers need to offer a unified experience – one that translates their brands, values, and personalities into something visible, tangible, and actionable: on- and offline.
A pervasive shift in perception in both how people shop, what they want from retailers, and how they communicate is unfolding right now. Let’s take a closer look.
The term ‘window shopping’ holds just as strong today as it ever did. Casual browsing may be a more effective endeavor using a phone, tablet, or computer; but certain core aspects of the in-store experience aren’t going anywhere fast. The reality, however, is that store visits may not lead to purchases in the way they once did.
McKinsey speculates that stores might soon serve an array of purposes other than points of sales – as showrooms, fulfillment centers, or returns kiosks for online orders. They may even become destinations for those seeking ideas and inspiration.
However, while the evolution of online shopping has made a massive dent in mall and downtown commerce, that hasn’t stopped some of the biggest online retailers from venturing from ‘Clicks’ to ‘Bricks’. Everyone from Amazon to Zappos has taken notable sidesteps into more solid structures – with some opting for more permanent premises and others championing the pop-up shop option.
But why would successful online retailers piggyback onto what appears to be a dying trend? Because they believe they can do better. When you consider that Amazon has developed a vast network of retailers, brand partnerships, drone deliveries, and its own voice-enabled technology stack; you have to wonder why Bezos and co. continue to innovate and experiment. The answer is simple: customers want more choice, customization, and control. And that’s exactly what technology helps to facilitate.
The pain points associated with retail as a whole – from returns to sizing to wanting to speak to someone who knows what they’re talking about – are channel-agnostic. This means they need to be addressed in a similarly holistic way; a way that better aligns both the digital and physical aspects of shopping. In short, what’s needed is an ‘omnichannel’ solution.
According to Shopify, omnichannel retail can be defined as: “an approach to sales and marketing that provides customers with a fully-integrated shopping experience by uniting user experiences: from brick-and-mortar to mobile-browsing and everything in between.”
It sounds more complicated than it really is. There’re two keywords here. The first is ‘user’ – also known as the ‘customer’. Keeping their needs front-of-mind is critical to the success of any business. The second is ‘experience’. Understanding how, when, and where users shop is crucial insight.
For example, we cannot deny that shopper habits are now largely initiated digitally. Equally, there’re so many ways in which they might see a brand or product for the first time. It could just as easily be a billboard ad, online banner ad, or a Pinterest board. So which platforms should retailers divert their time, money, and attention to – if they want to be truly omnichannel?
From a strategic perspective, the very nature of omnichannel retail means that no single channel can be viewed in isolation. Equally, despite what the word implies, ‘omnichannel’ isn’t about being everywhere; it’s about being where your customers are – knowing enough about them, their needs, and their preferences, to understand how your brand fits into their lives.
Savvy retailers, therefore, need to have a good understanding of what each channel is for, how they relate to each other, and ensure each one has a clearly defined purpose. For example, social media continues to play a big role in helping retailers build out their omnichannel footprint. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram continue to offer brands numerous opportunities to grow their online awareness. They have also become key components in the sales cycle: partly because their influence and impact are trackable; and also because as they offer a form of two-way communication between vendor and consumer.
And it’s this level of interaction that essentially replicates a large part of the in-store experience: having a real person to answer questions. But now that a large proportion of information can be stored online, websites and online marketplaces are quickly becoming much more reliable and accurate – in a way that people just cannot be.
But the while the human touch still accounts for a great deal in retail, technology has a compelling solution.
So many different aspects of the retail experience are already being automated – from payment services to logistics. And now communications are being optimized in a similar way in order to give customers a consistent digital experience.
Messaging services – such as Facebook Messenger, Google’s RBM messenger, WhatsApp, and Apple Business Chat – are fast becoming customer service tools in their own right. In a similar way to social media, they give retailers an opportunity to tap into already well-established channels and build broader awareness.
However, as these services are connected to other channels (e.g. Facebook and Instagram, in Messenger and WhatsApp’s cases) or native to hardware devices (in both Apple and Google’s cases) using them also allows brands to exponentially grow their audiences digitally. It also gives consumers different ways of interacting with brands and retailers on numerous devices.
Additionally, advances in Natural Language Processing are also making it increasingly possible for brands to create their own humanlike customer service chatbots – Artificial Intelligences able to answer customer queries using pre-programmed information – anytime, anywhere.
The knock-on effect of having more online resources inevitably reduces the cost of employing more people in customer service roles – giving those that do more opportunity to focus on more in-depth work. Additionally, a greater number of digital contact points is an opportunity for retailers to streamline more complex queries and manage customer expectations appropriately – particularly useful when handling complaints.
According to Gartner, by 2020, 85% of all customer service interactions will take place via chatbot. But how do using these – or indeed using any digital channels as customer service tools – benefit offline retail efforts? In a word, data. Or more specifically, being able to measure customer behavior in stereo.
The decline of bricks and mortar stores has inevitably prompted many retailers to close stores which are deemed ‘underperforming’. However, research from McKinsey claims that the conventional metrics used – the so-called ‘Four-Wall’ economics, which analyzes the sales, cost, profit, and loss of each store – don’t give an accurate enough reading of a store’s impact.
One increasingly important indicator of the combined impact of on- and offline sales is geospatial analytics. This essentially means that retailers take an omnichannel overview of the way in which their stores are performing – aligning both online and offline sales to different stores by acknowledging their role in the overall process. While this metric is still relatively new, adoption is gaining ground as data becomes more reliable and machine learning starts to crunch ever bigger numbers, overlaying them to a number of different trends and insights.
There can be no doubt that geospatial analysis is clever stuff. But on a more simplistic note, doing omnichannel justice ultimately means having a clear understanding of what customers want – and being able to give them what they need from an online retail experience and from offline stores.
Take Apple for example. The brand gets that shoppers head in-store to try things out: to play with the technology, essentially. It could be said that their stores operate in a similar way to car showrooms – the products on display out front; the repairs taking place in the Genius Bar, where product experts overtly perform a valuable service in front of customers’ very eyes.
However, sales themselves are seemingly sidelined in store. Sure, shoppers can buy phones, watches, and tablets too; but the absence of visible pricing information indicates that this isn’t the store’s primary function. Like a luxury car vendor, Apple plays on the idea that its tech is ‘reassuringly expensive’ – and relies on its online network of direct and third-party vendors to reinforce its brand, service, and sales.
Now, were we to consider the profitability of store-driven Apple sales, the assumption would be that bricks and mortar sales were something of a loss leader; a necessary evil to complement online sales. However, nothing could be further than the truth. Apple consistently ranks as commanding the most sales-per-square foot.
Central to this success, isn’t so much the tech itself, but what it allows users to do – and how Apple showcases this in a tangible, meaningful way: both on- and offline.
Overall, online and offline retail efforts need to be complementary. Customer data gleaned online can be optimized to make the in-store experience better for consumers. Similarly, the in-store activity can inform online buyer behavior; helping drive insights and helping retailers get a more accurate picture of their customers.
Not every channel is relevant to every vendor. But by mapping out customer journeys, understanding the role each touchpoint plays, and knowing when and how to use a combination of automation and personalization to make each customer’s experience positive and on-brand, will go a long way in retaining their loyalty. Often, just being accessible, responsive, and visible – when others aren’t – is enough to gain a competitive advantage.