I recently was asked to add my comments to a selection of questions about multi-channel retail for a feature in a publication. I thought it would be interesting to share my thoughts in full as my comments will be edited and used as extracts for the article! What follows are the questions and my answers… enjoy!
Q: Do you think all customers will eventually become multi-channel shoppers? If so, when?
Actually this depends on your definition of multi-channel – Google have suggested that some 90% of all purchasing decisions will be influenced by on online content by 2020 – perhaps sooner – and the ability to simply get information about a retailer online ahead of a shopping trip (e.g. Opening hours, location, customer reviews etc), to me, is still multi-channel engagement… If Multi-channel is about the ability to select and transact across channels it may well be much longer.
I think we are all, already, multi-channel shoppers, inherently. To me multi-channel is about the ability to engage and interact with a brand through different forms of media – this concept pre-dates the internet and includes press advertising, phone contact, post/mail order and face to face. Consumer review includes word of mouth. All the behaviours that underpin multi-channel (if we assume this means inclusion of online in the consumer engagement and transaction process) have been established for many decades. Technology has merely enabled us to interact across more channels. I also believe multi-channel needs to be about providing a consistent brand experience and interaction from first point of contact and throughout the lifetime engagement with that customer. If a retailer isn’t yet taking online transactions but has useful content online, is easy to communicate with via social media / email, and what’s promised online lives up to the in store experience, then I would suggest they are already multi-channel and that the shopper, possibly without realising it, is too!
Q: What are the main challenges and opportunities for retailers in the multi-channel age?
I think too many over complicate things – if they stick to the principle that everything they do should enhance the customer experience, and walk-through the customer experience before adding new channels for transaction or engagement, then they will not go far wrong. Issues arise when they try to take on too much too soon. John Lewis is an example of how to do things well – they didn’t rush to be the first, instead focusing on doing things right. Contrast that with some of the supermarkets who launched online platforms selling goods not sold in the main stores. Customers, who rightly considered that a single brand would be able to deal with their issues regardless of point of contact, were frustrated at not being able to refund an online purchase in a store “because the product wasn’t listed on the epos”. That’s an inexcusable error as it’s not rocket science to assume a customer would want to be able to refund an online product in a store at their convenience. Essentially it boils down to the retailer putting themselves in the customers shoes and walking through all purchasing scenarios AND refunds too.
Q: Which sectors have benefited the most from multi-channel shopping? And which have struggled most to adapt to this new way of shopping?
Fashion were slow to adapt – many of the high street names still lag behind the competition in having a quality online presence. Next of course were multi-channel before the internet existed, so proving it could be done, and ASOS, being online only, illustrate clothing will sell online. However, many of the fashion retailers took a little longer to get their multi-channel proposition in place.
All sectors which have integrated a truly multi-channel way of trading into their customer experience have benefited, although those who seem to have really been successful are the likes of John Lewis and Debenhams with their online proposition and in-store offering working harmoniously to bring new services to customers such as click-and-collect. Both of these department store chains have done very well out of their online offering with limited detriment to stores.
Some sectors however have almost been annihilated by pure play competition, perhaps because they didn’t engage with online and new media quickly enough – Blockbuster and HMV are prime examples of retailers who could have transformed their businesses into a great multi-channel proposition, with stores as enjoyment centres and fulfilment centres and online / virtual offerings supplementing their sales. They failed to grasp this opportunity and suffered the consequences.
Q: With greater choice for the consumer, does multi-channel retail allow businesses to deliver a more personalised service?
Multi-channel enables businesses to deliver a more convenient service to customers in that customers can chose to tailor their shopping experience to their needs – browse in store, transact on line. Browse online, transact in store. Click and collect… All meaning that we can have the experience we want, when we want it, to fit in with our busy lives. My take on this is that the retailer platforms the offering and the consumer will personalise their experience.
The data that retailers now have access to thanks to technology development and multi-channel engagement can help them get more sophisticated with personalisation of promotions and experience, but this is still an area where much work is needed to get it right… I would suggest this area needs to be treated with great sensitivity as there is a risk of alienating a customer through incorrect assumptions (based on past purchase history for instance) as there is to up sell / cross sell or engage repeat business.
Q: Do you think multi-channel retail helps to increase brand loyalty? If so, how?
Yes – by being available to consumers they way they want, when they want. Making it easy to interact and being consistent in experience is the key to securing customer loyalty.
Q: If multichannel retail has created more choice for the customer, does this also mean that the future of retail is a more customer-focussed approach to business?
Business should have been, and should always be, about the customer – if it’s not about the customer then how do they expect to sell anything? Any retail business that does not strive to put the customer at the heart of their commercial decision making, to ensure that they anticipate the future needs of the customer and support their current needs, will fail!
Q: Will the rise in multi-channel retail significantly change the shopping experience in the future?
Yes, technology will enable us as customers to better tailor the experience we want from retailers. As I said above, if they platform the proposition to us as consumers, we’ll be able to interact with the brand in the way that best suits our needs. I hope that the experience will become increasingly customer-led and that retailers will provide the flexibility to enable us to shop the way that is most convenient to our busy lives.