By Frank Lord
As purse strings have tightened over the last couple of years, retailers have been forced to make some hard decisions as to where they invest their efforts to attract customers. Some have moved to a solely online offering – Woolworths being a prime example of a shop that fell into liquidation on the high street, only to reopen online within a matter of months – while others have embraced the high street, taking advantage of lower rents and a return to local shopping. Tesco’s expansion onto the UK high street up and down the county is a good illustration to this point.
Still more have stuck to their guns and continued to offer the best of both worlds, Molton Brown and Tommy Hilfiger being prime examples. However, according to the results of a survey by Pricerunner earlier this year, for consumers at least it seems that the best bargains are to be had on the web.
The so-called ‘high street tax’ identified by the survey means that consumers are paying almost a third more for goods in shops than online. While this won’t have come as a huge surprise to many readers, what is perhaps more surprising is the polarisation between on- and off-line businesses it indicates. There will always be companies on both sides of the fence, but for retailers looking to make the most of today’s cost-conscious and high-maintenance consumer, it seems logical that these different channels should be seen as complementary rather than competitive.
What constitutes an effective retailing strategy today really depends on who you ask. Everyone wants the same things by and large – convenience, value-for-money, excellent service – but what that actually looks like will change from person to person. Fans of bricks-and-mortar shops will point to the importance of seeing and trying purchases in person and the value of dealing with a real human being; seasoned internet shoppers will extol the virtues of 24/7 browsing and instant price comparison. Most people however will want to use different channels at different times, for different reasons, and so in turn tend to reward those retailers that allow them to shop how they want and where they want, depending on what suits them at that particular time.
The point is that today’s consumers are far more complex than we may think. One day they’ll be in a hurry and will prefer to purchase something over the net to save time traipsing to the high street – the next they’ll be making an emergency purchase and won’t have time to wait for it to be delivered, so will prefer to go to the shop directly. It’s the same driver that is causing both actions: a lack of time – but it is being fulfilled in very different ways. If you’re going to encourage loyalty in this fickle environment, the trick is to ensure that whether customers are engaging with your brand online or off, the experience is the same.
Today’s well-informed “anytime, anywhere consumer” with their smartphone in hand, ubiquitous access to broadband, and embracing of social media, will have many interactions across many channels, and rely more heavily on peers, friends and family before making a final purchase decision. Sellers need to understand this more complex consumer journey, and intelligently connect with their customers, no matter where they are and how they shop. Targeted marketing, personalised user experiences, user-generated content, and relevant recommendations have become must-haves.
There are five key steps that will set any retailer well on the path to providing a truly joined-up customer experience:
Be consistent: Make sure that your brand looks, feels, and acts the same whether the customer is engaging with you online, in-store or via their mobile. Then, make sure you are using these different channels to cross- and up-sell so that you reach customers when they wish, no matter where they are – for example providing online vouchers that can be redeemed in store.
Be seamless: If you know who your customer is when you’re online, don’t make them feel like a stranger when they call you by phone. It is no good if this information is held in silos – if your customers are registered with you online they will expect your in-store staff to have access to the same information when needed.
Get personal: If your business takes pride in the customer service it delivers off-line, make sure that your online customers get the same level of attention. Just because you can’t see them in person, doesn’t mean you can’t tailor the shopping experience according to your customer’s age, previous purchases or personal preferences, to name just a few features.
Be helpful: In a High street store there will be sales assistants on hand to answer any questions, so it is worth giving users the same option online to speak to a real person. Adding ‘Click to Call’ or ‘Click to Chat’ functionality not only gives customers a more positive brand experience, it prevents valuable transactions from being abandoned and provides cross- and up-sell opportunities.
Be easy to deal with: Just as high street shops flex their opening hours and layouts to cater for customers’ needs, make sure your online site is easy to navigate and quick to load. Experts estimate over half of customers abandon shopping carts due to anything from hidden charges at the checkout, to overly complex registration requirements or bad page layouts. So unless you can afford to lose half your business, it pays to make sure your site delivers an outstanding customer experience.
The retail world has evolved far beyond a simple dichotomy between high street and online. But by following these guidelines, retailers will be able to provide a seamless user experience whether customers buy on the web, in store, over the phone, or using a mobile device.
Frank Lord is VP EMEA, ATG