The proliferation of e-commerce has presented myriad concerns and opportunities depending on which side of the fence organizations fall on. For brick-and-mortar stores, there has long been some fear that online shopping would win the hearts and minds of customers through convenience and free shipping deals. However, those operating primarily on the Web may have a thing or two to learn from their counterparts with physical storefronts. That lesson? Customers are not merely purchasing online or offline - they are spending across numerous channels.
"In the last 12 months, retailers such as Target, Best Buy and Walmart introduced a host of innovative, omni-channel initiatives to bring customers back into stores," wrote Multichannel Merchant contributor Jonathan Levitt. "From 'match any online price' offers and same-day in-store pickup, to tablet-equipped sales clerks and location-aware mobile coupons, retailers have turned their stores into assets - instead of albatrosses. Stores are once again on the bleeding edge of retail innovation, turning shopping into an experience, instead of just a transaction."
The way that customers, whether consumers or other businesses, interact with companies has evolved dramatically in the past several years. Alongside the rise of e-commerce, mobile technology and customer-centric business models have led to the emergence of many more touch points. This does not mean that either e-commerce or traditional retail will achieve victory over the other. Instead, the winners in the retail battle will be those that enable consistent messaging and service across all of their channels.
Retail best practices for multi-channel integration
Because it is the core goal of any business, the product purchasing process is a good place to start evaluating your multi-channel strategy. It is important to keep in mind that a successful strategy is not just about translating traditional frameworks across multiple channels. Some processes will need to shift, and companies will need to invest in new technologies and frameworks to keep all the parts moving in unison.
1. Purchases and order fulfillment
A 2011 white paper from Retail Systems Research outlined a few key trends among the most successful omni-channel retailers and those that were lagging behind. One of the key differences between the two groups emerged in regard to order fulfillment. While 54 percent of winners had the ability to fulfill demand from any channel leveraging any distribution center, only 27 percent of other organizations had this ability.
Analysts pointed out that organizations struggling with omni-channel purchases often separated inventory into pools that were segregated by channel. While this can work for the short-term, it often leads to supply that does not always meet demand. Instead, retailers not only need comprehensive visibility of their inventories but the ability to adequately track demand across channels.
"[I]n the omni-channel model, the consumer digitally investigates and selects, and sometimes even pays for merchandise, and then wants to take possession of the merchandise in a store," RSR stated, "So it follows that the biggest opportunity for retailers is to integrate store-level demand fulfillment with omni-channel order generation capabilities."
2. Consistency in messaging and service
Customer service has long been a focal point of brand interaction, but the traditional centralized contact center has become dispersed across channels such as social media and live chat. While convenient for customers, it does create the possibility for inconsistencies to emerge. This does not mean that every medium should be treated exactly the same. Someone coming to a branded site via a smartphone likely has different needs from someone using a desktop. However, the overall look and feel of the website should be the same and the quality of service should be similar regardless of the medium of interaction. For example, customers that use social media to ask questions about a product expect the same detail and care that someone who calls the company directly would, even though the former channel is often considered to be a more casual environment.
To showcase how quickly expectations can change, social media was the least used customer interaction channel in 2012. However, according to an IBM study, the number of CEOs planning to use social business tools will increase from 16 percent to 57 percent by 2017. Using such tools effectively requires an even greater focus on integration and quality of service, since information regarding both positive and negative customer experiences will be more widely available to leads as well as existing customers.
According to IBM's researchers, this means that organizations "must equip employees with a set of guiding principles that they can use to empower everyday decision making." It is equally important to ensure that the technology used for these initiatives is robust enough to keep track of customers across multiple channels and throughout their entire journey.
3. Integrate data from different channels
Data has become the heart of most businesses - analytics tools can drive decisions ranging from product and service deals to back-end processes. In a multi-channel world, customer and partner information flows in from a huge array of sources. Furthermore, getting the most value out of this data often depends on the ability to connect different sets of information and see the relationship between them.
For example, there are numerous tools businesses can use to track the effectiveness of website landing pages. Google Analytics can provide a good idea of how many visitors are coming to a page as well as conversion rate, dwell time and other important factors. However, as a white paper by voice tracking and marketing automation firm Ifbyphone noted, there are significant information gaps when relying only on traditional tools. In Ifbyphone's case, the company uses its phone tracking software in conjunction with Google Analytics to determine the effectiveness of its pay-per-click campaigns. Analysts noted that these areas of the site result in a 3.17 percent conversion rate for Web downloads. However, the number for phone leads was significantly higher at 5.28 percent.
The lesson here is that multi-channel integration requires businesses to have the full picture, and this extends beyond the scope of marketing. Whether looking at lead generation, CRM or partner data, the ability to integrate information from every channel the business is engaged with leads to better decision making.
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