First published in Internet Retailing.
What keeps customers coming back? It’s the question that forever has and forever will be at the heart of a retailer’s business plan. Rather unhelpfully, however, it’s a question with an answer that is forever changing.
Once upon a time, being the only game in town was enough. The emergence of cheaper rivals put paid to that.
Then it came down to location. If we have enough stores in the right places, the people will come for the convenience and, eventually, out of sheer habit. Whilst that tactic may still be viable for coffee shops (count the number of Starbucks you see on a given day) the advent of e-commerce proved a huge disruptor for others in the sector. Blockbuster shuttered the last of its 528 UK stores at the end of 2013, its online offering not robust enough to keep up with its online-only rivals. Men’s high street tailor, Austin Reed, followed a similar path in 2016 but was saved by a new owner later that year.
The sands, inevitably, have shifted once again. The long-running death knell for bricks-and-mortar has yet to materialize, whilst simultaneously customers are expanding their purchasing habits across mobile devices. With so many paths to purchase open, the new battleground for consumer cash is customer experience in-store, online, and across various devices. Or, in more succinct form, the omnichannel.
Customers are fickle now, and they have a right to be. With so many alternative options open to them, any unpleasantness or inconvenience in the customer journey can quickly send them to competitors. Discrepancies between online vs in-store stock, confusing online returns forms, mistargeted marketing materials and clunky mobile apps are just some of the missteps that can result in abandoned carts and lost customers.
The data puzzle
Despite being a term that’s been around for some years now, few retailers have yet to master the seamless omnichannel experience. The solution, as with most things in the 21st Century, comes down to data.
At the World Retail Congress Asia Pacific event in Hong Kong earlier this year, Guillaume Bacuvier, CEO of customer data science company dunnhumby, said: “One of the main assets of a retailer in the future will be the data assets at its disposal and the ability of the retailer to exploit those to its advantage.”
It’s a point I couldn’t agree with more. Although retailers may be collecting troves of customer data, it’s their ability to utilize it properly across the whole business that marks the successful omnichannel retailer from the unsuccessful. In order to achieve this, proper data integration practices need to be entrenched in the back-end processes of the modern retailer.
Take customer services, for instance. One of the keys to a top-notch customer experience is the ability to predict and deliver what the customer wants, often before they ask for it. Retailers can choose to invest heavily in a flashy CRM system to give them an edge, but if there’s no integration between that and their e-commerce system, then website ordering, pricing, or shopping cart issues can remain invisible to customer services. With no oversight of these common problems, customer services staff are effectively working with one hand tied behind their back, unable to pre-empt the queries that will be coming their way.
When cracks in the system like this become visible to customers, they become dissatisfied, and given their capricious nature, will turn to a competitor with a more convenient, efficient system.
What this boils down to, is that to have a seamless multi-channel shopping experience at front of house you need a seamless experience behind the scenes. Every interaction with the customer needs to be informed by data, and that data needs to be available to those systems and the members of staff who need it.
Peak times turmoil
Retail is a sector of highs and lows. Peak sales periods can drive a huge portion of annual revenue, so if these data gaps are a problem during slower periods they can be disastrous during the busy season. It may be January for travel booking, bank holiday weekends for DIY and homeware, or Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day for florists. Whatever their peak season is, it’s essential that retailers make the most of them.
Recent US import, Black Friday, has become a key trading period for electrical goods retailers. Sales of electrical goods go through the roof at the end of November, with consumers often purchasing multiple deals from the same retailer, allowing these stores to clear out old stock to make way for fresh models in the New Year.
Competition, as such, is fierce. Imagine, as a consumer, if you’re enticed to a retailer’s site by a targeted email offer of a discounted TV, only to find that, when you click the link, the TV is no longer in stock. You feel cheated, you leave the site to search for the same TV at a different retailer, whose site surfaces other deals (targeted at you personally) that you may snap up during the path to the checkout.
Although the first retailer successfully used customer data to make a successful targeted offer, the lack of integration between the automated email marketing and the inventory management system scuppered the potential sale. It’s no use having partial integration across the business. If all the cogs aren’t working in unison, the machine simply won’t work.
It’s important that retailers who have yet to flesh out an integrated omnichannel offering do so quickly. The next stage in the omnichannel development is the further integration of in-store data with online. With more data comes more opportunity but, as I’ve demonstrated, if you’re not using that data properly the gap between you and your more data-capable competitors will only widen.