Retailers have always lived and died by the experience they offer their customers and, in a previous age, the butcher who greeted customers by name and memorised their Sunday joint was likely to command loyalty.
Today a good customer experience still provides a genuine point of difference in what can sometimes seem a rather homogeneous landscape. Forward-thinking retailers use fast-evolving technology to replicate the butcher’s local information, and give customers a more satisfying experience in shops and online.
In store, for example, location-based analytics like ShopperTrak follow customers as they move through a store, using anonymous signals emitted from shoppers’ mobile devices. It means customers see relevant marketing materials in the right locations and find staff on hand in the right areas at the right times.
But in-store is only one part of the multichannel offer. The rise of e-commerce means retailers offer customers two or more distinct sales channels – a bricks-and-mortar shop, its e-commerce equivalent and, increasingly, a mobile option.
And now that almost every retailer sells online, the most progressive seek to differentiate customer experience in increasingly sophisticated ways. “Smart retailers are shortening the purchase path,” says Jo Coombs, managing director of customer engagement agency OgilvyOne UK. “Amazon said recently they want to go from ‘I want that’ to ‘I bought that’ in 30 seconds, hence innovations such as Amazon Dash.”
Customers want a smooth and speedy experience online, and that’s as true for non-retail commerce as it is for Amazon. Similarly, B&Q and Next, praised for embracing online communication channels and the speedy resolution of online customer complaints, offer an example to other sectors.
On top of that, retailers are increasingly integrating hitherto distinct channels – store, catalogue, e-commerce, mobile – into one coherent customer experience, the so-called omnichannel approach.
Marks & Spencer’s “endless aisle” means its physical stores and e-commerce site become extensions of each other, rather than distinct silos. “Marks & Spencer reported in May that over half of all online purchases had an in-store element; for example, goods ordered from home for in-store collection,” says Ms Coombs. Then there’s fashion retailer Oasis’ Seek & Send service, which will search the company’s stores and send an item to a customer’s home if it is sold out online.
Smartphones are pushing retailers to embrace another aspect of the omnichannel experience. A shopper sees a product in-store and checks out reviews online before buying. They might scan a barcode and comparison shop in real time. They’ll expect their brand browsing history to follow them from web to smartphone to tablet, and even be available to staff in-store.
Walking through the doors of a shop will turn a customer’s mobile device into a personal virtual sales assistant
Most of all, the customer experience must be consistent between these elements. “Brands cannot afford for customers to have a great experience when they visit their website or mobile app, only for it to be fundamentally different when they then visit a store,” says Adam Goran, director of customer engagement at Grass Roots Group.
Sales assistants in-store have to be informed, engaged and steeped in the philosophy of the brand. Apple is an obvious example.
Retailers also increasingly use the mountain of data thrown up by online shopping habits to personalise messages and offers. And that, too, is driving the goal of a true omnichannel experience. “Today, the focus is moving towards customer recognition and data connectivity across channels, media and devices,” says Paul Hatley, data strategy expert at data solutions company Acxiom, whose clients include iconic London store Liberty.
Bricks-and-mortar stores, in combination with their online operations, are slowly learning that they can use that data, alongside other technology, to offer customers a truly holistic, personalised experience across all sales channels. In theory, for example, physical retailers could recognise individuals entering the store from their online profiles, and push relevant discounts and offers to their smartphone or tablet.
“This seamless integration of our online persona with our physical location ensures that retailers can provide a more personal interaction than that available through internet-based shopping alone,” says Scott Cairns, chief technology officer for IT and telecommunications service provider T-Systems.
He sees a near future in which walking through the doors of a shop turns a customer’s mobile device into a personal virtual sales assistant, pinging pricing information on a product they browsed online, guiding them to its physical location and providing other relevant details, such as discount offers or information on relevant accessories.
We’re not quite there yet, but interest in omnichannel is building. And it’s clear that, for all businesses, retail and otherwise, customers will soon come to expect a seamless experience between real and virtual worlds. Or as OgilvyOne UK’s Ms Coombs says, companies need to stop thinking in channels “and simply think of it as continuous commerce”. Those that get it right will win.