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GUEST COMMENT Will bricks and mortar stores disappear completely?

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Online shopping continues to grow and grow in popularity, leading to repeated claims of the death of the high street and that bricks-and-mortar shopping will fade into nothingness. These days there is simply no need for shoppers to travel to stores and carry their purchases home – food, clothes, furniture, almost everything can be delivered right to your doorstep, and of course prices are also cheaper online due to decreased margins. The government is even intervening to help boost high street footfall – earlier this year by relaxing planning permission regulations to enable click and collect services to be made available in all high street shops.

With this in mind, it is perhaps surprising that shoppers still visit actual stores at all. However, physical shopping continues to be popular – and forward-thinking retailers are still seeing strong results from offline sales as well as linked upswings to online sales. What is behind this growth? Part of it is that increasing anonymity of the web leads to shoppers to go into the opposite direction and look for outstanding customer service and advice. Customer engagement on all levels could hence become the major differentiator of the future.

The benefits of real world interaction

As the web’s potential as a sales channel began to grow many years ago, virtually every major retailer began to sell online. We are now slowly starting to see the opposite of this trend. Previously online-only retailers such as eyeglass company Warby Parker have now started to open physical stores – as they can see the benefits for themselves and their customers. They get a chance to interact, gather feedback and provide great customer service, and customers get the opportunity to test the product in a real world setting and ask questions face-to-face. In addition, major retailers selling through multiple channels are now very much focused on integrating their ecommerce and bricks and mortar offerings so that they complement each other, rather than treating them as distinct (and often competing) strands of the business.

The role of technology

A growing interest in unified commerce platforms underlines this desire to provide an integrated experience that brings out the best in all channels. Unified commerce platforms enhance any commerce solution with a CMS (content management system), delivering additional usable features and benefits for providing consistent, quality content at each touch point. In a survey of more than 300 retailers, the National Retail Federation (NRF) found that 53% of retailers plan to implement some form of a unified commerce platform over the next three years. Over the next 10 years, 86% plan to create such a platform within their existing commerce infrastructure. This would allow them to ensure omnichannel consistency despite being able to use key data currently maintained in multiple silos including ecommerce backends, CRM (customer relationship management), PIM (product information management) and DAM/MAM (digital asset management/media asset management). High levels of integration with a CMS, allows for central access to all data and provides the usability and processes to serve all touch points with the right personalised content at the right time. This results in better usability, reduced complexity and faster time-to-market. Perhaps most crucially these platforms allow employees in both online and offline environments to view a customer’s previous interactions – meaning they can provide tailored offers and advice.

However, according to recent research by Forrester, there is still a significant gap between retailers’ omnichannel intentions and actual delivery. For example, they found that 85% of consumers want an integrated shopping experience and yet only 30% receive one; similarly 72% want an integrated marketing experience and only 39% get one. While a technological fix such as a unified commerce platform will be a huge help, it needs to be supplemented with the training and on-going instruction. It is about giving employees the right tools and information they need to support customers.

There is a realisation that retailers need to make the most out of all interactions with customers, and that this engagement must span not just the commerce phase but the whole online and offline customer journey. This starts at awareness and research through to purchase, and then implementation and post-sales support. If a retailer gets each stage right, it will drive further sales, positive reviews and word of mouth recommendations. The bricks and mortar shop is on the frontline of this customer journey – it is where shoppers put a human face to a retailer. These shops will clearly not disappear but form a crucial part of the future of retail.

Tim Jenkins is country sales director at e-Spirit in the UK

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