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GUEST COMMENT What challenges do multichannel leaders face in 2013?

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by Karen Richards

The role of the multichannel leader (MCL) is increasingly complex. With technology moving at a rapid pace and customers’ expectations of both in-store and online experiences becoming more demanding, professionals have to consolidate multiple channels to create consistency across their brand.

Challenge one: pricing

Penna’s Mindset of the Multichannel Leader report reveals that one of the biggest issues to consider is how to manage price differences between in-store and online. For example, online discounts may encourage new customers to purchase brands that they may not have initially engaged with and it helps new customer acquisition in an increasingly tough retail climate. However, existing clientele may feel disgruntled if their regular in-store visit results in being more expensive than shopping from their sofa.

As a result, MCLs need to decide upon the transparency of their pricing policy across all channels. For example they may choose to maintain the same pricing throughout, but they risk becoming too expensive in the eyes of the online community. On the flipside if businesses have differences in their pricing, they could potentially disengage their regular customers through discrepancies in cost. There is no clear-cut solution to this, but businesses that have a communications stance on their pricing, which front-end sales staff are briefed on, go a long way to maintaining customer engagement and trust.

Challenge two: brand consistency

A key challenge for MCLs is how to maintain brand consistency both online and in-store. If customers have a conflicting experience across these two channels, they can quickly become disengaged with the brand, which can have serious impact on their future spend – and the bottom line.

One of the biggest challenges, particularly with the high volumes of refunds associated with the festive season, is how to manage the process of returning online bought goods in store. This presents considerable demands on supply chains and logistics and it is the role of the MCL to coordinate and manage this change. With many retailers now looking to offer same day delivery (even within 60 minutes in some cases), the customer is starting to expect the same speedy service level when it comes to returns.

With two thirds of retailers planning to use stores for online order fulfilment, according to recent CBRE research, this adds an additional layer of complexity. Shoppers are still keen to visit stores for the ‘experience’ and perusal of goods, but they will expect it to be consistent with their online browsing too.

Challenge three: convincing the board

With technology moving at such a rapid pace MCLs need to put a solid business case to board members on how they intend to stay ahead of the game. But with the retail landscape having dramatically changed over the past ten years, including a global recession, increase in international trade and rapid online developments, many boards are struggling to keep pace. Here, MCLs have a central role to play in educating and convincing the board to take bold action to stay relevant in the current retail climate. Oasis has even introduced a ‘Generation Y’ shadow board, where employees that were born after 1980 are teamed up with management board executives to help them think differently about the business, ensuring they stay relevant with the younger market.

Each decision to change and innovate is daunting but necessary; it’s crucial to surviving in a market where customers are demanding so much from one brand. Businesses that don’t adapt to changes in the industry will inevitably be overtaken by savvy competitors.

Therefore MCLs must be able to demonstrate how progressing with new technology can have a positive impact on the bottom line – and what may happen if they don’t innovate with their brand. They have to strike a delicate balance, as they need to continually drive the agenda of creating an engaging on and offline experience whilst convincing board members, that may be fearful or just don’t understand technology, that it’s a worthwhile investment.

Challenge four: skills

When considering that many businesses originally hired junior staff to ‘cover online bases’, roles in ecommerce have become increasingly sophisticated. With the news agenda awash with stories regarding ‘death of the high street’ and stores closing to focus on their internet capability, the role of the MCL is high profile and crucial to business survival.

Now, MCLs need to combine all of their hard earned skills in IT, marketing and technology to face the challenges of 2013. Professionals need to create a shopping experience that keeps customers coming back to their physical and online stores.

Analysing consumer behaviour, keeping an eye on competitors, challenging online capability and convincing the board to support innovation are all part of the agenda for MCLs in 2013. With the increasing complex array of skills that MCLs need, it is important to look at any training requirements that can help professionals to progress in their careers. Equally, speaking with specialist MCL recruiters can help to plug gaps that organisations are experiencing in accessing professionals with a cross range of skills.

Challenge five: mobile and tablet

Businesses that have traditionally operated in store face considerable challenges as they are up against competitors that have set up and thrived in purely online trade. With the advent of mobile and tablets, online shopping has taken on a new dimension altogether and MCLs need to keep pace by ensuring their website is optimised for such usage.

With £1bn expected to be spent by customers using mobile devices in the run up to Christmas, according to research by Capgemini and IMRG, there is a considerable opportunity for those that have a robust and compatible mobile offering. It is clearly an area that cannot be overlooked in such a competitive market place.

Many retailers are embracing free Wi-Fi in store too. This may seem contradictory as on one hand more customers will be encouraged in store, increasing footfall, but on the other it is opening the business up to challenges such as open price comparison and misuse of free internet services. However retailers that offer free Wi-Fi are often guiding customers to their homepage as a landing site. This creates a greater experience for customers, increases their dwell time in store and allows them to find more out about products – such as streaming music and finding where other clothes sizes are available.

With nearly three-quarters (73%) of 10-year olds in the UK owning a personal mobile phone, according to research from The Marketing Store, the future is increasingly mobile and at a younger age than ever before. Combined with the rollout of 4G, many retailers are embracing this technological development alongside demands of the younger generation. The added benefit too being that retail apps can be downloaded as a permanent fixture on customer phones – almost acting as a constant advertisement.

Overall, customers have a plethora of information at their fingertips nowadays and retailers need to keep pace and stay relevant. MCLs play a significant role in helping businesses staying ahead of the game, by advising on latest trends and how to tackle the next retail industry challenge.

Karen Richards is sector head, retail and consumer board and executive search at Penna.

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