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GUEST COMMENT Why in-store and online sales performance must go hand in hand

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High street vs online: It’s a topic that has dominated headlines and conversations within the retail industry in recent times. And it’s never more topical than when we’re planning ahead for the next busy Christmas season.

Retailers have been looking back at their Christmas performance in preparation for 2015, but new to the mix this year is the planning for Black Friday following its unexpected popularity last year. Black Friday is an initiative that made its way from the online to the offline world in the UK, and has taken the industry by storm. While November 28 2014 delivered significant sales opportunities, it also exposed weaknesses both in infrastructure and in some retailers’ ability to deliver a seamless shopping experience across multiple channels.

The shopping phenomenon saw scuffles break out in Asda while Marks & Spencer doubled the length of its delivery times. Consumers spent hours refreshing their browsers to secure online deals. Meanwhile, John Lewis reported its highest sales week on record thanks to Black Friday. The company’s managing director urged retailers to think twice before repeating it next year due to the huge pressure it put on back end operations.

Regardless of whether we see the likes of Black Friday 2014 again, the most recent festive period brought home once and for all that there is no line between in-store and ecommerce for retailers. Multichannel consistency is an imperative, not an optional strategy.

The old world

As online retailing gained momentum, stories began to emerge hinting at the imminent demise of the high street. Even the government stepped in to kick-start our traditional shopping habits. And in truth, high street retailers have struggled. A number of brands were forced to close during the recession and many retailers found they were ill-equipped to compete against the convenience of ecommerce players.

For larger retailers, it has been hard to bring the worlds of online and offline together. Traditionally, the channels have worked in silos and rather than having a common goal, the effectiveness of online and offline sales have been measured independently, with each channel having its own targets and both striving to outperform the other.

While targets are a good thing and help to keep teams on track and performing at their best, at times, this approach has become counter-intuitive for the business as a whole and it certainly isn’t what the modern consumer demands from their retail experience.

However, in 2015 there is a growing sense that the traditional store is making a comeback and that the online world is helping to make that happen. The media are beginning to look at the various efforts that retailers are going to in order to bridge the gap between the online and offline worlds, driving footfall, in-store engagement and, ultimately, sales.

Uniting online and offline

In-store technology is changing the dynamic between online and offline as it becomes clearer that an integrated multi-channel offering enables retailers to map the customer journey better. It also means they can give shoppers a consistent experience from browsing to buying, regardless of their device or location.

Research has shown that more than 40% of shoppers have done some form of ‘pre-shopping’ before they hit the stores. When they walk through the door they expect the same experience and product range that they were promised online.

Traditionally, when a shopper didn’t find the right item, or the correct size in-store, they would be left to their own devices to order online at home – or, at best, they would need to go to another store to collect it, or return to the shop in a few days after it had been delivered. As the industry has witnessed, this simply isn’t convenient enough anymore.

Technology makes it possible for retailers to provide the level of convenience required by customers in-store, even if stock isn’t instantly available. Assistive sales tools such as iPads and kiosks are some of the most popular technologies, particularly since it has become possible to incorporate transactional properties within them.

These tools give retailers the opportunity to showcase and sell their entire product portfolio in-store, even if certain items are only available online or are out of stock.

This means that sales assistants no longer have to turn customers away. Instead, they can browse on fully transactional iPads, for example, showing shoppers a full range of products based on their specific requirements. They can then process the order and take payment without the customer ever having to go to the point of sale.

Crucially, these transactional technologies also allow the customer to choose a method of delivery that fits in with their lifestyle including; home or work delivery, drop-off at another store, or click and collect. Retailers are putting the customer’s convenience first.

eMarketer claims that by 2017, 84% of UK retail activity will still take place within bricks and mortar, but in-store technology enables the ecommerce channel to continue performing within the store environment. For retailers, thinking in terms of the overall journey and experience rather than the channel is the key to building loyalty and long term value from a customer perspective.

Damian Hanson is chief executive of retail technology business One Iota

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