eCommerce & Merchandising

Today’s Merchandising Realities: Are Stores Ready For “The Truth”?

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Are Stores Ready_embed_1The amount of change to be handled in order to support various omni-channel capabilities is, perhaps, greatest in stores — where change is often difficult (i.e., given the number of stores and employees involved). Such omni-channel initiatives as in-store pickup or return of online purchases, online visibility into available store inventory, pickup time guarantees, (and the list goes on) impose new processes on stores and tax already-constrained resources to deliver a consistently-positive brand experience for customers.

But, as challenging as these can be for some retailers, in the tradition of the ever-evolving consumer, findings from a 2016 study of consumer expectations by IBM’s Institute for Business Value (IBV) show that of the 1,500 US consumers surveyed, significant portions of them have even higher expectations for stores and the brand experience they want while in the store.  The question is whether or not stores are ready to step up to the challenge.

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The ubiquitous brand experience

Consumers see your brand, not the channel(s) in which they interact with it. Said differently, their relationship is with your brand, not the channel of interaction they’re using at any given time. Evidence of this seamless view of the brand that consumers have is borne out by the fact that 58% of consumers consider it important for a retailer to be able to tell them when a new shipment of products or product lines that they’ve “liked” on a social site has arrived at their favorite store.

Another example of how consumers want to be able to navigate seamlessly across channels is that 64% want to be able to start an order on line or via mobile and have a store associate access the cart in the store and assist in completing the order.  [Note: This is up from 44% who considered this important in a similar IBV study conducted five years ago.]

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The evolving in-store brand experience

But, where several of the newer expectations really start to shake the foundation of the traditional “store experience” concept is how consumers want to be able to interact with various non-store channels while in the store. Sixty-six percent consider it important to be able to provide “ready access” to user reviews and recommendations while in the store shopping. And, nearly as many (60%) want to be able to purchase Internet-only items in the store.

There’s also an expectation that the store will know the consumer for her entire brand relationship, not just what she’s purchased in stores. Fifty-six percent of consumers (and 68% of those 13-39) consider it important for a retailer to provide recommendations and offers that reflect the consumer’s past purchases and interests (including all channels and online browsing history). And, so, even when you’ve groomed your store associates to recognize repeat customers and give them personalized service, they’ll still fall short of consumers’ expectations if they don’t have access to the customers’ online browsing and purchase history.

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Store, meet digital; digital, meet store

Another issue with which multi-channel retailers have long wrestled is how to handle pricing differences between channels. And, with an increasing number of consumers opting for in-store pickup or return, there’s the heightened likelihood of a customer noticing that the store’s prices are different than the online channel for the same item.

With this concern in mind, we asked how important it is for a retailer to have prices that are either the same across different channels or the differences are clearly explained. Eighty-one percent of respondents considered it important to very important, although the same group did indicate that it was acceptable to have different prices as long as stores could clearly explain why they can’t/won’t honor the lower price on the retailer’s Website.

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How consumers want to interact with the retailer while in the store is changing, as well. Overall, 52% (60% for those 13-39) want to have mobile self-service capabilities they can use to help themselves while in the store. But, it’s not like they don’t want to have any interaction with the retailer in the store. On the contrary, 45% of consumers (and 61% of those 13-39) consider it important for a retailer to be able to recognize them in the store and interact with them via their mobile smart device (e.g., phone or tablet) while they’re in the store. So, nearly half of our respondents are looking for some form of mobile interaction as part of their store experience.

The “so what?” for stores

With such escalating expectations and preferences for brand interactions without boundaries, stores are faced with a very real challenge to view the world through new eyes. Rethinking how you will evolve the brand experience your customers have with you while in the store is paramount. But, this rethinking cannot be done in a silo (i.e., as if none of the other channels exist or as if the consumer isn’t visiting the store as just another step in her omni-channel path to purchase).

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The store must be able to demonstrate that it knows the customer just as well as the online and mobile channels have shown her is possible. This means putting critical information at the fingertips of store associates to enable them to deliver a similarly personalized in-store experience like the customer just encountered on line. It means making sure that the store associate has access to as much information as the customer has, and they are able to get to that information quickly and efficiently. Finally, since your store employees can’t be everywhere delivering a personalized experience to each of your customers, you must begin to consider how you will continue the brand experience you want to give to your customers while leveraging the mobile channel through which she’s indicated that she’s anxious to interact in the store.

This presents a remarkable opportunity for those whose world has always been about brick and mortar and direct customer interaction. New cognitive capabilities are setting the stage for the highly-personalized engagement of online and store customers that will rival even the best store associate. Similarly, similar cognitive capabilities will aid store associates in the execution of their omni-channel tasks to add consistency and efficiency to their job performance.

For Store Operations veterans, this can seem like a bit of a bitter pill to swallow. And, there will most certainly be growing pains as initiatives are rolled out across hundreds of stores and thousands of employees. But, the daunting task ahead must not be an impediment for moving forward. The opportunities for reimagining and elevating the in-store brand experience have never been greater or more competitively differentiating. The mentality that we’ve seen from some of our most successful clients has been to “fail fast”…albeit one carefully-planned step at a time. But, regardless of the rate of change you can digest, the time to start is yesterday.

Find out more, read Consumer Expectations Soar: What does it mean for retailers?


Read my other blogs in this series:

Senior Omni-channel Strategist, IBM

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