How retailers balance online and brick-and-mortar brands

  1. Retail
    Lucie Mitchell

    Lucie Mitchell Staff writer Full Member - Verified Business

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    In association with Lightspeed

    Today’s consumer is becoming more demanding. Thanks to advances in technology, customers expect to have choices as to where, when and how they shop, both online and offline.

    This means that, as an independent retailer, you have to meet their needs and provide them with ways to engage with your brand across every channel, whether that is in a physical store, on your website, on social media or through a mobile app – otherwise they will simply go elsewhere.

    Omnichannel retail is now considered the norm for many shoppers. A 2014 Accenture report revealed that 71% of consumers expect to view in-store inventory online, while 50% expect to buy online and pick up in-store. Plus, according to Bain & Company, omnichannel shoppers are typically a retailer’s most valuable customers, spending over five times as much as those who only shop online.

    “A small business that embraces omnichannel retailing will seek to provide the customer with a seamless and efficient shopping experience,” comments Kevin Cook, small business consultant at Business Doctors. “With so many choices for customers to make on where they shop, businesses that deliver enhanced and, therefore, superior customer service and integration will gain a competitive advantage.”

    Research by Aberdeen Group revealed that 61% of retailers implemented omnichannel fulfillment strategies in 2015. Increasingly more retailers are therefore investing in omnichannel technologies that enable them to merge both their online and brick-and-mortar brands, deliver a flexible customer experience, build brand loyalty, increase sales and stay ahead of the competition.

    Yet herein lies the challenge – how do you strike the right balance and stay focused when the lines between online and offline are becoming blurred?

    “It requires visionary thinking, a detailed strategy in which everyone is invested and a truly digital transformation,” remarks Daniel O’Toole, MD of retail development firm RMS. “All of this takes time, energy, dedication and, most importantly, financial investment. The whole experience has to be viewed through the eyes of the customer and made as seamless as possible, otherwise it’s not going to be truly omnichannel.”

    The omnichannel challenge

    The key challenge for most organisations is a combination of a lack of technology and organisational culture to tie data together, says Cook.

    “Where data is siloed in various legacy systems, it is potentially cost prohibitive to integrate these. Theoretically, a small business is likely to have less data, and fewer silos than a larger one, but often their software is far simpler. To adopt [new systems], an established business has to take the strategic and cultural leap of faith to move on from their legacy systems.”

    Katherine Fraser, founder of designer weaver Katherine Fraser, has both an online and physical store selling handwoven textiles. She cites keeping track of stock as the main challenge associated with omnichannel.

    “The more channels your business has, the harder it is to manage,” she says. “We keep our online product range fairly small and then offer a broader range of one-off items in store.”

    To keep all your sales channels well balanced, it’s vital to implement strategies that focus on the needs of your customers and their perception of your brand.

    “Establishing balance in service across all of the channels that a customer might use is a crucial strategic aim,” states Cook. “A business that has historically delivered great customer service through its brick-and-mortar store will lose market share when its services can’t be accessed efficiently through web or mobile platforms.”

    Social media is key

    Social media is a fundamental part of any strategy, adds O’Toole. “If your customers are using a particular channel, make sure you have an active presence on that channel. You have to interact with customers and respond to their queries - and complaints - as well as build brand awareness. To make the shopping experience seamless, your social media offering should promote your brick-and-mortar stores – encourage staff to post images of their stores on Instagram, for example, or tweet about special in-store offers or events.”

    Social media has been an extremely effective and inexpensive way of targeting customers for Fraser. “Our product is very visual so we find Instagram generates the most sales out of all our social media channels,” she remarks.

    Leslie Docherty, owner of menswear boutique Fat Buddha Store, has also used social media to help leverage his brand both on and offline. “We have worked hard to create our social media image. I now feel we have it covered - we can automate the whole process, and every day we ping the right message to the right audience at the right time.”

    It’s also important to ensure the advantages gained through online shopping for consumers are translated to in-store customers too.

    “There are a lot of benefits to shopping online — 24/7 shopping, first chance to buy new products, free shipping, promo codes, great descriptions, brand info, telephone support, and easy 14-day returns — so we try to balance that out for in-store shoppers,” remarks Docherty. “We’ve trailed everything from special shopping nights to free coffee and Wi-Fi.”

    With this in mind, it’s crucial that retailers keep up with the latest technological developments, especially when it comes to in-store technology.

    “Some of the most exciting technological developments are actually in store, such as beacons, which allow retailers to identify when individual shoppers, who have downloaded an app on their smartphone, have entered their store,” explains O’Toole. “They can then send instant, personalised offers to that shopper based on their previous shopping habits.”

    Retailers are increasingly using apps to both support their omnichannel presence and reinforce the brand, adds Cook.

    “Assuming you have the basics of quality, price, value and good customer service sorted, an app on your customers’ mobile device that works well, and helps the customer either make or receive purchases, is a constant reminder of the brand. If the retailer can then use its customer relationship management software and shopping habits data to personalise the entire experience, it will have very satisfied and loyal customers.”

    Balance the brand

    The key thing to remember here is to have consistency across all your channels, making sure you pay equal attention to both your offline and online brands and ensure they are reflective of each other.

    “If a client walks into your shop and loves your products, but then visits your website and it doesn’t have the same feel in terms of branding and quality, you’ve missed an opportunity,” says Fraser.

    Cook advises small retailers to focus on identifying what value omnichannel solutions can add to your customers’ experience.

    “Replicate your brand values and culture consistently across whatever channel the customer chooses to use,” he adds. “Also, identify innovative customer contact points to increase the customer’s exposure to your brand and allow them to move seamlessly from channel to channel, and be ‘wowed’ by the resultant experience or service.”

    To make your omnichannel aspirations a reality, find out more about Lightspeed: a single solution for your online and brick-and-mortar store. Lightspeed believes in providing cutting edge technology to retailers of all sizes and have the industry’s most powerful integrated ecommerce and in-store point of sale system.