CUSTOMERS NOW EXPECT TO BE RECOGNISED AND INFORMED ACROSS THE SALES CHANNELS, A TRICK THAT RELIES ON MANAGING LARGE QUANTITIES OF DATA. CHLOE RIGBY ASKS HOW COMMERCE TECHNOLOGY CAN HELP RETAILERS ACHIEVE THE ‘NIRVANA’ OF SEAMLESS CROSS-CHANNEL SHOPPING.
Shoppers no longer make conscious decisions about which channel they will buy through. Rather, they do so through the device or touchpoint that is most readily to hand. Whether that’s a shop, a mobile device or a PC, they expect to browse, to complete their transaction and, above all, to be recognised, wherever they come in contact with a brand. This is no longer a question of ecommerce, but of commerce. And the technology that enables commerce is evolving with the customer.
“Customers expect that no matter which way they choose to communicate with the retailer they are recognised as the one person they are,” says Andreas Kopatz, senior expert, business development at platform provider Intershop. “If they use a smartphone for in-store browsing they also want to be able to purchase the product while being in the store, with home delivery or in-store pick-up. If customers receive a voucher or a coupon online or in the newspaper, they want to use it in the store as well, getting the best of all worlds.
“The same applies to QR codes or any other vehicle that retailers use to acquire new customers. As a consumer I expect there is only one world of commerce, with lots of different facets but only one personality.”
What’s demanded amounts to a swan-like effect, with the retailer expected to glide serenely along the surface of the water as they give the consumer the relevant information and content that they demand at every turn. Very often, of course, the legs are paddling furiously, and so it is with the commerce business that has yet to connect up fully the data that lies below the visible surface of retail.
But the technology that enables commerce is evolving with those customer demands, says Rob Garf, vice president of product and solutions marketing, Demandware. He sums up the future of commerce technology thus: “We’re getting rid of the e in ecommerce and now it’s just an omnichannel platform, taking over as the singular entity to serve the customer in a consistent way across devices and channels.”
For many this is still an aspiration. But it’s an aspiration that lies within the lifetime of the newest commerce platforms. So do retailers do next in order to give connected consumers the seamless shopping experiences they’d like to become accustomed to?
GAIN THE SINGLE VIEW
To answer that question, retailers are turning to systems that harness and interpret the large amounts of data that they hold in their businesses. Recognising the customer at every contact, giving them the consistent service they demand, means having a single view of their shopping activity, whether they’re on the website, in the store or phoning the call centre. That’s something that multichannel retailers have now been working to achieve for several years, through building blocks that include recognising customers when they place an order or visit the website. Identifying data such as account or loyalty card details, order numbers and email addresses enable them to respond appropriately to the customer wherever they identify themselves, and target them with relevant offers for future purchases.
More recently, forward-thinking retailers, particularly in the fast-moving fashion sector, have also started to establish a single view of their stock. Knowing exactly where products are enables them to fulfil web orders from stores, or deliver to store for a click and collection pick-up, making the most of every request to buy and boosting both profit and return on investment. Bringing all the data that feeds all the sales channels into one place, or platform, also boosts accuracy, argues Julia Priddle, head of UK account management, EMEA, ChannelAdvisor. For example, she says: “By working from a single inventory feed across multiple channels, retailers can ensure inventory levels are consistent and prevent issues such as overselling.”
Today, says Mark Adams of Portaltech, the “nirvana” of crosschannel retailing is the “single view of the customer, of stock, and of products.” In order to have that, he says, “we have to ideally have one set of interfaces to manage that journey and the transaction regardless of where it happens.”
He argues that it’s now both possible and common for retailers to manage many of their existing channels through the commerce platform, from where the mobile customer experience, the tablet, the call centre experience and the desktop web experience can all be overseen.
Intershop’s Kopatz sees the ecommerce platform as the glue between a range of systems, sending and calling data from a range of backend systems, whether the CRM or the order management system. He says: “The essential foundation of it all is an open platform with well-defined integration points on a data (import/export) and programming (API) level. If everything interacts with one another, then we can talk about a real cross-channel solution.”
Today, the biggest challenge to crosschannel integration lies in the store.
INTERGRATE THE STORE
Retailers are making solid progress in bringing digital into their stores. Marks & Spencer, Debenhams and Burberry are just a few of the retailers who have brought their websites into the store, marshalling a valuable information resource. To cite just one example for each, clientelling sales assistants at M&S and Burberry use iPads to show customers alternative sizes, colours and styles to those held in their store, while Debenhams’ shoppers can tap into online resources through self-service kiosks that can also be used to explore the range beyond that which can be held in the store. Earlier this year M&S unveiled its first virtual rail when it opened its Kalverstraat, Amsterdam store. Customers can use the rail, made up of three stacked 46” screens alongside three physical rails that carry example sizes and styles, to find out about a wider range of products, sizes and colour options than the store can carry. At launch, Laura Wade-Gery, executive director, ecommerce multichannel, at M&S described the new store as an “innovative, aspirational” layout that “allows us to offer our latest fashion collections from a much smaller footprint”.
Other retailers are still mapping out strategies to adapt to changes in consumer behaviour that see consumers now routinely using their smartphones in the store to check prices and reviews. For every John Lewis , which two years ago became the first UK department store to offer free wi-fi, saying it would give customers “the information they need at their fingertips”, there are many others still unsure of how to react to the showrooming phenomenon. Indeed, the recent Autumn Fair Retail Sentiment Survey 2013 quizzed around 700 independent retailers on their attitudes to ecommerce, and detected a clear fear of showrooming, with 55 per cent reporting an increase in the phenomenon over the previous year, and 53 per cent approving of the idea of an online sales tax in order to level the playing field.
Portaltech’s Adams sees increasing numbers of retailers now looking to map out strategies for this area. But he believes the slow development of technologies to add the store into the commerce platform has held back progress in this area. However, he says, “I think now you’ll begin to see lots of retailers begin to invest heavily in in-store retailing to allow that single view of everything with transactional, product and customer data to be held in one single location across the entire enterprise.”
And in order to do that, he believes the time has come to replace the point of sale with an internet-enabled system.
LEARN FROM DATA
Taking steps to improve the way that data is handled within businesses also represents a learning opportunity. Just as so-called ‘big data’ is helping to solve problems in the worlds of scientific research, so retailers can take lessons from the data they collect. ChannelAdvisor’s Priddle points to ways that retailers can understand which keywords worked best for them in a campaign, or how they can use inventory data to manage stock levels across channels. “The notion of big data, and the use of information generated by a company’s operations,” she says, “is increasingly filtering into retail. Retailers can constantly better their performance by assessing historical data and using this knowledge to test and optimise future campaigns.”
Such lessons notwithstanding, it’s easy to be daunted by the complexity and volume of the data that now exists in retail. John Squire, president of eCommera Inc points to the sheer volume of information that retailers can collect while acquiring a ‘single view of everything’: from consumer data, analytics, rich product data to fraud risk measurement and delivery information. And that’s not to mention the marketing data. All, he says wryly, “to meet the needs of this very fickle consumer that could go just about anywhere for the product”. It’s no less than “one of the biggest data problems that any retailer will be faced with,” he says. And yet in that complexity, he argues, lies opportunity. “When you go to cross-channel, data is one of the key components to winning, creating growth, profits and delivering an experience to consumers that you’re convinced is building more loyal customer and less one-time customers,” says Squire. And that has to be a challenge worth facing head on.
SPEAKING FROM EXPERIENCE
“As the web puts power in the hands of the consumer the concept of consumer-centric retailing has caught on. Retailers are now considering what that means from a technology standpoint.”
John Squire, president, eCommera Inc
“The big shift we’re seeing across the world is a significant convergence between ecommerce platform and in-store platform, most notably at the point of sale. We anticipate over the next couple of years that these two platforms will totally mesh together.”
Rob Garf, vice president of product and solutions marketing, Demandware
“Whilst the ecommerce platform is the hub of retail operations across channels, it should not be viewed in isolation. A platform should help bring together different functions and allow channels to work in harmony as opposed to individual point solutions competing for budget.”
Julia Priddle, head of UK account management, EMEA, ChannelAdvisor
The idea of the ecommerce platform is starting to give way to the broader concept of the commerce platform-as-retail-hub that manages data not only, or even primarily, from the website but all parts of the business. And data management has assumed new importance, with retailers now looking to put the reams of information they have acquired to purposeful use. Looking forward, we’ll expect to see more technologies emerging to bring the point of sale more securely within the remit of the commerce platform.