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GUEST COMMENT Unified commerce makes the customer experience even more defining for retailers

Consumer expectations in the retail sector are higher than ever before. A highly responsive, fast and frictionless service has become the norm across all channels, whether this is placing an order at the touch of a button, receiving personalised shopping recommendations or accessing a large product range from a single source. 

As the global ecommerce market is set to more than double between 2017 and 2022, the pressure is seriously mounting on high street stores to transform themselves from a place where stock is kept, to a showroom where unique experiences happen.

Retailers need to explore new ways to deliver a superior customer experience and stand out among the competition in this crowded space – and a unified commerce strategy can be the key to fast success.

Digital transformation: learning from the mistakes of others 

As internet retail sales continue to dominate the sector, a strong online presence cannot be underestimated. This in turn requires a reliable ecommerce platform that can bring significant benefits for all retail businesses. 

But despite a strong level of investment and willingness to adopt emerging technologies in retail, there are budgetary constraints, capacity limitations and sometimes retailers simply don’t have the technical capability to connect disparate business processes and systems. It’s not rare to see businesses attempt to roll out ambitious digital commerce projects only to find themselves further detached from their customers. What causes the discrepancy?

The first problem is the word “project” itself. Projects are dangerously slow and, in terms of digital, are all too often driven by fear and the perceived need to be doing something innovative. The harshest of critics simply label this as guesswork. 

Secondly, the dependencies introduced during a programme of works create negative siloing and trickle-down effects on day-to-day business activity, limiting the potential to seize opportunity. This is largely a consequence of the mis-appropriation of agility and can be overcome by shifting internal thinking away from the methodology and into BAU. 

Delivering outstanding service at every customer touchpoint 

Today’s retailers need to be able to react much quicker to market opportunities – and threats – to better serve customers. Is there a major demand for seasonal products due to unexpectedly warm weather? Is there a market gap that urgently needs filling – and if your products can fill this gap, can you promote this fast enough? 

The best action a business can take is to map out a pathway of all possible customer touchpoints – digital or physical – to identify if all stages are linked and, if not, how to better integrate systems and teams to ensure the customer journey does not falter or end prematurely.

The customer experience must be highly personalised and seamless – if a customer switching between platforms loses their selected discounts or is presented with a different set of offers, the customer journey risks being disrupted.

Personas and personalisation – context is everything

Inability to deliver a consistently high level of service across the customer’s platform of choice is often the reason why businesses struggle to drive revenue growth and develop brand loyalty. To fix this, they must think like their customers and understand their needs. They can achieve this by building complete customer personas. 

When businesses work with “personas in context” they get models that evolve and are frequently re-tested. This is continual integrated thinking between digital, trading / merchandising and customer service teams which delivers the capability to both react and proact to influencers and market conditions. 

The goal of accurate customer personalisation at “point in time” creates its own journey, upon which every business should embark. However, although this is a good customer experience exercise, there is a chance that it remains exactly that – an exercise which all too often ends with a wall covered in high-level customer type CVs.

Unified commerce connects all the dots

A unified commerce strategy is the next logical step for retailers seeking to move beyond omnichannel tactics. By adopting this approach, businesses can integrate and streamline existing business systems and processes through the easy deployment of APIs and if required, the cloud – avoiding a complete IT overhaul.

This is ideal for retailers looking to disrupt without suffering negative repercussions on day-to-day operations. A wider unified commerce approach evaluates the suitability of existing systems across the business and integrates them using simple APIs. By linking together systems spanning ecommerce, CRM, inventory management and POS, employees are presented with business-wide visibility and can avoid a disconnect between individual departments. Greater transparency means retailers avoid errors and duplicated efforts across departments – leading to significant time and financial savings.

Tracking customer interactions this way provides a single version of truth for employees and management, helping to identify browsing and purchasing habits, and provide the more personalised recommendations customers love.

A centralised viewpoint – it’s all systems go 

To function effectively, businesses need to know that product information is up-to-date across all platforms, and that the latest offers and promotions are visible and correctly applied at the point of sale. Consistent communication across all departments is required to ensure assets, campaigns and offers are accurate across all possible channels and points of entry. It is essential that businesses harness a product information management solution to gather, manage and feed product data into ERP and ecommerce systems as required. We have seen the benefits of this first hand.

But with data gathered at every available opportunity, businesses need to scrutinise whether it is being sorted, filtered, stored and analysed appropriately. This is key to gaining a complete centralised view of accurate insights in real-time.

One of our longstanding ecommerce clients is an online business that has successfully shifted from being a vitamins retailer to a health and wellness provider. Product information, branding and marketing assets all had to be updated accordingly – and this could only be achieved by ensuring all systems and channels were linked and updated with accurate content.

A small step for retailers, one giant leap for customer satisfaction

For retailers that want to optimise the customer journey, taking a unified commerce approach can bring benefits that far outweigh those offered by omnichannel strategies. From a single standpoint of improved visibility, businesses can ensure any customer engagement results in a consistent experience each time. Unified commerce is readily available for retailers of all sizes – so the time to dial up the customer experience is now.

James Baker is digital customer experience lead at Columbus

Image: Fotolia

Author image courtesy of Columbus

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