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It's just retail

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Two people, separately, said to me at the Internet Retailing Conference in Hammersmith this week that it's “not about omni-channel, it's about retail”. And this pretty much sums up where retailers have got to right now.

The conference is a great barometer of retailer thinking and the key messages to come out of this year’s gathering was that retailers have to simply be where the customers are and to try and service them as best they can. Thinking about channels isn’t necessarily the way to do it.

As one wag pointed out retailers should be retailing, and software engineers should be working out how to make that work as well as possible. However, everyone knows that these days you have to service customers wherever they are – and right now that means really understanding mobile.

Not only has smartphone penetration passed the 50% mark in the UK, but tablet traffic is growing rapidly: often at the expense of the desktop PC. There is no escaping that you have to service mobile OSs and the variety of screen sizes and form factors that that throws up.

And this can be a real challenge and can be costly: but you can’t avoid it.

But, cry many a naysayer, conversion rates on mobile are about half that of the online world, aren't they? Is it really worth it? The emphatic answer is yes. AS Ashley Payne from Debenhams told the audience, “Don’t think of conversion rates as low on mobile, think of it as perhaps more complicated than that. Tablets are often not counted as mobile and they are seeing great conversion rates. Also the tablet is becoming the browsing and shopping tool of choice”.

One of the other key Views to emerge from conference is that to make omni-channel fly, retailers really need to get to know their customers better – they need to collect far more data about them and use it more effectively to model what they do and who they are. Only through doing this will they actually deliver what consumers want across all the contact points that they want to use.

But again, this is a costly and organizational nightmare – and something that all by the very largest retailers can pull off. For now at least.

And this disparity between the large and the small has become ever more obvious. Where once the web offered a leveling of the playing field between the large and the small retailers the need for tech is actually widening this gap. I met several small retailers at IRC13 all desperate to improve their online presence and to add mobile – but no one, not even those offering SaaS models, are can get price point low enough for SMEs and start ups. I smell an opportunity.
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