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First Steps

The complexities involved in designing for omnichannel retail will be formidable. But approaches that build on lessons learned in web and mobile interface design are beginning to emerge, discovers Jonathan Wrigth.

From the inside looking out, it’s easy to regard retail as being all about the products. To see this at its most acute, think about, say, the menswear department in a bricks-and-mortar store during a sale as the seasons change. The pressure is on to shift those shorts and polo shirts to make space for jeans and jumpers, preferably without taking too much of a hit on the bottom line. The emphasis is on getting goods out of the door. Self-evidently, retailers need customers if this is to happen, yet it’s actually surprisingly easy for customers to be overlooked in all the furor.

Now consider what’s going on from the perspective of an outsider looking in, someone visiting the shop, the potential customer. He or she isn’t remotely interested in the seasonal merchandising and stock management considerations underlying this activity. Instead, each customer simply wants to be offered a deal that suits them personally. ]

Yes, it was ever thus, but there’s a new factor here. In the emerging omnichannel world, where a smartphone offers instant access to price and product comparisons, if that deal isn’t on offer, the customer carries a device that acts as a constant reminder of how easy it is to go elsewhere – whether that’s in the real world or within the digital realm.

Make no mistake, this kind of scenario, for all it’s now commonplace, poses real challenges to retailers. As Rob Garf, VP of products and solutions marketing at ecommerce specialists Demandware, says, although retail professionals ‘get’ the idea of omnichannel, “Now it’s down to how you basically re-architect a business that’s been generally product-centric from the beginning of time.”

That’s not to say, he adds, that “merchants buying and designing and assorting really innovative product” isn’t important. Rather, his point is that retailers also need to put “a laser focus on how do I serve the customer, how do I put them at the centre of my operations, how do I reorganise to give them the control they invariably have anyways?”

One part of the answer is to design for omnichannel, which rather begs the question what is omnichannel retail? Maybe the easiest way to explain this – and the terminology here is used in subtly different ways across the industry – is to think of the term in relation to multichannel and cross-channel, terms that convey similar but subtly different ideas. If multichannel was about selling across multiple channels and crosschannel was about integrating these different channels, omnichannel is all about moving towards a world where the lines between channels is so blurred as to be non-existent, seamless.

After all, says Daren Ward, director of retail and consumer at ecommerce specialists Glue Reply, customers don’t see channels. “To me, the danger with omnichannel is we still miss the point, and the point being that surely it’s not about the channel,” he says. Rather, he thinks, retailers need to think about how to engage with customers, to have a conversation.

He gives an instructive, real-world example of this not happening, when a retailer was selling a product that had a fault, an issue that had been fixed after being flagged up on social media. “I said, ‘Fantastic, now have you gone back to those customers who complained and told them that you listened to them and fixed it?’” he remembers. “And it was at that point they said, ‘Ahh, no, we haven’t done that.’ You’re missing a massive opportunity there to say, ‘Hey, one. we’re listening; two, we’re doing something about it; and three, here’s a five per cent gift voucher or whatever for your time and effort in raising it to us, please come and spend with us again.’”


From different angles, both Garf and Ward have arrived at the same place: the importance putting the customer at the centre of retail rather than thinking about channels and products. Yet, as both hint, it’s one thing to ‘get’ the idea of omnichannel, it’s quite another to roll it out. This is a theme taken up by Mo Syed, head of user experience at technology company Amplience. “It’s enough of a challenge to create a great experience in one channel,” he says. Few websites, Syed adds, “seem to nail everything”.

A major problem here lies with silos within companies. These may not be intellectual, certainly not amongst those many ecommerce professionals who are keen, for example, to see digital technologies employed in the high street, but down to legacy systems. Too often, a company’s point applications – the CRM software employed in the call centre, point-of-sale systems, the ecommerce platform and so on – simply don’t talk to each other.

Within this context, the first challenge in designing for omnichannel often doesn’t have anything to do with the front end, but lies in analysing where a company’s data is held and how it’s used. Without wishing too obviously to beat a drum for the PIM fraternity, too many companies still hold duplicate data across different systems, or perhaps more accurately hold data that would be duplicated if only if it were actually consistent in the first place.

This is crucial because designing for omnichannel retail, with its emphasis on having conversations with customers, puts a new emphasis on personalisation. Take the following scenario: a customer walks into a bricks-and-mortar store after having recently having had an issue with a faulty product. When the customer approaches the till, and assuming this isn’t done in an overly intrusive way, wouldn’t it be a good idea to acknowledge what’s happened, for the sales assistant to check that matters have been resolved?

“Personalisation is key,” says Daren Ward. “The trend about, ‘How do I personalise?’ is one of the driving forces [in retail], whether that’s recognising people when they come in or even potentially now people are looking at how do I change my store environment to interact? Can customers identify themselves and then the store almost reacts to this, whether that’s via screens, whether it’s shelf-edge labeling?”


Bearing in mind the problems with different legacy systems, this may seem like a distant dream. However, help is at hand from an unlikely source. According to Demandware’s Rob Graf, many retailers are currently using point-of-sale systems that are reaching the end of their lives. This in turn means CIOs and IT directors are starting to question whether they need multiple systems, with 73 per cent of retailers either planning to use the ecommerce platform in stores or already doing so, according to research by RSR.

“If you think about tills today, there are high training costs, they are not at all intuitive and extremely brittle and not flexible,” Graf argues. “And they don’t mirror how the store associates or consumers navigate through their digital experience. So what’s going to happen, we see, is retailers are going to leverage their commerce platform, bring that into the store and mirror the digital user interface that store associates and consumers – people, right? – are more accepting and used to using.”

In other words, designing for omnichannel, with its tricky emphasis on personalisation and removing friction from a process that inevitably involves multiple touchpoints, may just be about to get easier. As Garf says, that’s in great part because ecommerce technologies that were designed to be intuitive are escaping their desktop roots.

Escaping too is the web designer’s emphasis on usability. For all his warnings about the challenge of creating a great user experience even for one channel, Mo Syed also talks up responsive design, the idea of creating sites that adapt according to the device they’re being viewed on. “If you’ve got a simple, responsive design where all the core flows have been optimised and all the screens make sense – they’re very easy to get through, they’ve been optimised for conversion – once you’ve done that on one channel, whatever your dominant channel is, maybe you do it on mobile first, maybe on desktop, then you can do it in the other channels,” he argues.

Thus, what might seem like an impossible problem, designing for omnichannel, becomes a case of transferring work undertaken for one channel to another. Just as importantly, this makes ongoing design work easier. “The main advantage is that [responsive design] allows you to iterate your design much more rapidly,” Syed says. “If you have one responsive site which is addressing multiple channels, then all your analytics, all of your design thinking, is being focused on that one point, which means when you identify pages that don’t perform as well as they could, or that are confusing the customer, you can address them in one point.”


It’s important to realise here that Syed and other design professionals aren’t necessarily talking about bringing desktop techniques into the store or somehow migrating these to digital TV. What’s happening is actually more subtle, a convergence between techniques used successfully in different channels, all built on ecommerce technology.

“What many of our clients are doing is designing mobile first and understanding it needs to be contextual and location aware,” says Rob Graf. “For instance, mobile for a store associate, and the capabilities and information that might need to be accessible to them, might be a lot different than a consumer device outside the store.”

We’re at the starting point of such developments, but the direction of travel is clear. To return to where we began, this is commerce designed around how consumers want to shop, around people rather than products. It may turn out to be a change far more profound than we yet realise.

Speaking from Experience


image003“Omnichannel is extremely complex and one of the tricks is for retailers to make sure they don’t expose that complexity to the consumer. A very specific example is the checkout process, which has become extremely complex as it relates to the various payment methods that are offered – as it relates to click and collect and identifying the store that has the inventory, as it relates to configuration if you’re doing post-manufacturing add-ons like embroidery, or some customisation that the customer wants. A significant focus needs to be on simplifying that extremely complex process.”

Rob Garf, VP of products and solutions marketing, Demandware [IRDX VDMW]


image006“If I’m buying a bus ticket and I’m next to the bus stop, then that has a different user journey then if I’m at home and I’m buying a ticket. The context there is I might not know where I’m going, or I might have multiple options, I’m obviously not too worried about what time it is yet, or I’m planning it for the future. Whereas if I’m at the bus stop, I probably want to know what time the next one is coming in, and these are the destinations from that bus stop. My choices from that destination become much simpler.”

Daren Ward, director of retail and consumer, Glue Reply


image007“There’s a broad awareness within ecommerce that customers are wanting to engage over tablets and mobile. It’s a natural assumption because a lot of people are comfortable now buying over tablet and mobile so retailers are perfectly comfortable with that. The next point from that is are we satisfying that expectation and I think the standard answer now, which is gaining momentum, is a responsive design.”

Mo Syed, head of user experience, Amplience [IRDX VAMP]

What’s Changed

Over the last couple of years, there’s been an increasing recognition within the industry that retailers need to support the ways in which consumers want to shop using digital technologies. However, designers are still working out how best to do this. As ecommerce platforms and other point applications need replacing in the years ahead, expect new approaches to emerge.

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