By Tridip Saha, vice president and head of Europe for Sonata Software.
There will always be customers who buy the latest product from a brand as it becomes available, whether it is the latest political thriller, smartphone or sports shoe. Equally, there are customers who do their research and know precisely what they want to buy, down to the model number.
Their only decision is influenced by the speed of delivery and price. However, these people are not the majority. Most shoppers know in broad terms what they want – a new washing machine, a book to read on holiday, etc, but they need, and want, to be guided to a product that will, in their terms, deliver value for money. So, the key is knowing what, for an individual customer, makes up 'their terms'; a mixture of budget, style preferences, need to see before purchase and so on.
Therefore, we need to tag a customer at the start of their journey of looking for a product, link their purchasing history to them, be aware of their browsing and social media history, which might also show aspirations or peer pressure and ensure that we can point them in the right direction for appropriate purchase options. Add the complexity of choosing to buy across any medium which means either in-store, online and on-the-go or anytime, anything and anywhere sounds like the perfect retail environment. However, how close are we to being able to do all of this?
The ability to aggregate everything we know about a customer into one place and having this information available in or near real-time to influence the purchasing decision is perceived as the 'holy grail' of retail but operational and technological issues have hampered our ability to deliver the experience. In the perfect omnichannel environment, a retailer provides its customers with a seamless experience across multiple platforms.
Bridging the gap between Brick and Click
Delivering omnichannel requires data, lots of it. The problems, faced by most retailers, are that existing disparate and legacy systems make it difficult to integrate operational silos and touch points effectively to offer consistent cross-channel experiences.
Siloed and non-integrated customer data can result in multiple copies of customer profiles being held in different data stores that limit the ability to understand customer behaviour and purchase patterns; which can further affect any contextual messaging or personalised experiences. Silos within legacy IT systems make it complex to manage inventories across channels. The lack of visibility could flag up out-of-stock scenarios in one but surplus in another, making the process wholly inefficient. Organisational silos pose a slightly different challenge: teams working independently from ecommerce and in-store would find difficulty in optimising cross-channel inventories, enhancing operational efficiencies or integrating multiple channels of businesses.
As long as data remains siloed it is extremely difficult to provide any kind of omnichannel offering. While internal big-data systems can help with the volume and the speed of the data coming into an organisation, breaking down these silos is a challenge for many.
Breaking down the silos – the building blocks
Consumers expect a consistent brand experience across channels and easy access to information at any given point of time. Technologies such as retail store analytics, beacons and store fulfilment programmes are rapidly transforming how retail stores operate and engage with their customers, which all happens in real-time. To encourage engagement and improve loyalty retailers needs to better understand their customers and leverage this to continuously enhance the experience across all channels. That process requires the integration of numerous data streams including transaction history, website interactions, social conversations and others to enable data analysis and deeper insights on behaviour.
Placing the customer at the centre is a crucial part of offering seamless personalised and consistent experiences with a 360-degree view of shoppers' attributes, wants and desires. Having access to preferences, purchase history, shopping habits and demographics can all steer the design of unique retail experiences.
The customer-focused approach has multiple benefits with one being a single, clear view of stock across the entire business. No matter whether customers buy from a physical store, a web site, a catalogue, or on mobile platforms, it is fulfilled from one central inventory. This allows stock to be in the right place, at the right time, and provides a more seamless experience, delivering a consistent service. Cross-channel supply chain optimisation reduces the possibility of out-of-stock situations and by standardising the inventory across channels, forecast inventory, allocate and replenish and order planning ensure fulfilment is effective.
In an omnichannel marketplace the supply chain also takes centre stage and contributes to the overall shopping experience. When order fulfilment falls flat it can impact customer satisfaction and rates of attrition. Retailers equipped with total visibility of order management can guarantee on-time store pickups and deliveries as well as optimise route planning for home deliveries and 3rd party delivery locations. Knowing exact details of stock allow far better distribution and quicker delivery to customers, resulting in improved profits and a seamless omnichannel experience.
Omnichannel has been put into practice by many retailers. Take the example of a leading global retailer based in Europe with a presence across multiple segments and formats of retailing. Each business maintained its own customer log in systems and records before a single sign-on for all customers was employed to enable easier customer access and a customer-centric view of business. The retailer was also able to innovate with click and collect models to allow customers to pick-up orders at the store and warehouse locations to further enhance the omni channel service. Another retailer, in cosmetics, with a strong store chain presence was able to use its loyalty database to drive rapid adoption of its mobile shopping app, retaining customers who would otherwise have been vulnerable to poaching by online players. These kinds of innovations showcase customer service in a seamlessly connected digital world.
We've yet to talk about the costs but to introduce new systems, training staff and a move towards a single stock inventory all add up to a considerable initial investment. In a highly competitive market where customer experience comes at a price and with many traditional retailers finding the high street a difficult place to operate, the upfront cost can prove a significant barrier.
But can anyone afford not to be part of the transformation when omnichannel promises to deliver a new era of customer retailer relationships, blurring the lines between multiple channels to help retailers stay competitive. Customers only care about experiences, solutions and shopping with ease and simplicity. Omnichannel offers this and more. Dispensing with siloed legacy systems and moving to scalable unified platforms will bring us one step closer.