EDITORIAL Omni-channel: retailers face a balancing act

The balance needs to be struck between store and online for many retailers (Image: Shutterstock)

The balance needs to be struck between store and online for many retailers (Image: Shutterstock)

With stores opening up again next week, many retailers face a difficult balancing act: what is the balance between newly popular online and old-fashioned stores going to be and how can they make that work?

The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, may have pledged money to help businesses continue to operate through the pandemic, but to keep staff on, retailers need to be profitably able to make use of them and no one knows how busy stores may or may not be, nor what online may look like.

Famous London department store Liberty faces this challenge and it is, like many, looking at how to use staff to work both the store and online – not to mention social media too – to help cater for what is likely to be one of the most omni-channel peaks to date.

In an interview, Liberty’s director of ecommerce, Eric Fergusson, told InternetRetailing’s Scarlette Isaacs that, to help the company continue four years of annual growth fuelled by a successful peak, he was looking for the first time to deploy store staff online and on social – as well as on the shop floor – to help create the famed Liberty Christmas feeling no matter how people shopped this year.

Fergusson says that, since enabling this functionality – which allows browsers on the website to converse with, or ask product-related questions, of in-store staff – has proved really popular, with many customers being particularly into talking to staff, even if they have now been forced online.

Liberty is not alone in this. Numerous niche and luxury retailers are also looking at how to best balance the online and in-store experience and how to use the staff and resources they have to make that work.

While Liberty is going it alone, Ted Baker, Phase Eight, Mint Velvet, Jigsaw and Hobbs and 11 other retail brands are working together on a concept called #saveshops. The aim is to, primarily, raise awareness of click and collect and assisted remote shopping options, but it serves the higher purpose of effectively reskilling these stores are a new breed of omni-channel store-cum-online shop.

Combining the benefits of both a real-world store, the expert staff and the personal touch, with the ability to sell online is going to be vital to retail in the coming months. With the shopper shift to online likely to be permanent for many, stores need to rethink how they operate and, if they are to hang to staff, they need to use them in new ways.

These schemes will save stores and save retail jobs. They will also shift retail into being truly omni-channel for many retailers who never before considered making that leap.

This can only be good news. Hopefully it can keeps stores open, keep high streets alive and keep ground floor retail jobs. It also makes online retail a much better and more ‘real’ experience, closing that gap of not having the ability to see, feel and talk about things shoppers are looking to buy.

In short this could be the change that retail, especially in the high street, has needed long before COVID-19 made it a prerequisite.

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