One of the most significant changes in retail in recent years has been the spread of 'multi-channel' shopping. In the past, a purchase would usually take place, from beginning to end, through one channel, either on the high street or perhaps through the pages of a mail order catalogue
But the introduction of ecommerce has produced a diversification of behaviour and the widespread use of multiple channels in the buying process. For example, shoppers may research online before buying in-store, or browse a printed catalogue before ordering from a website.
Research has shown that customers who shop across multiple channels tend to spend more than those who just use a single channel. However, accommodating their behaviour presents new challenges for the seller.
The following tips are designed to help stimulate your thinking about how to plan and operate a successful multi-channel strategy. They only scratch the surface, but should help you identify the key issues.
Remember the customer
The heart of a multi-channel strategy is to allow your supporters to interact with you as they choose. Systems, processes and staff training for multi-channel should be implemented with 'customer choice' as the central theme.
Multi-channel customers are your best customers. Having multiple sales channels helps you attract high-spending customers. Make sure your marketing flaunts your capabilities. And customers who stick with you when they cross over channels are showing a significant degree of loyalty, so ensure you reciprocate.
One of the key ways to help your customers online is to make sure your website is optimised for mobile. Ecommerce is increasingly conducted on mobile devices - so this matters already but will become even more important in the future.
Provide a seamless experience
Get yourself organised so that everyone is motivated to support customers buying through whatever channel they want. This means rewarding loyalty through any channel equally and allowing discount coupons and gift vouchers to be used across all channels. Structure your business and incentivise your staff in ways that actively discourage competitiveness and conflict between departments.
Price the channel in relation to cost
Offer your best prices via the channel with lowest associated costs. If you don't, you will be left with the most business in your highest-cost channel where you will make less margin - because you are cheaper than the competition. At the same time you will have less business in your low-cost channel where you are too expensive.
Provide a consistent product range
Have the same range available online as is in your retail premises. Visitors to your website will have their expectations set by what they have experienced in your premises, and vice versa. If the item they expect is not available, they will be disappointed.
Avoid damaging your reputation
Common sense tells us that shoppers see a single brand, whether they are looking at your website or your retail premises. While this is obvious, the implication that people expect seamless integration isn't always so clear. For instance, even if they bought in your shop this year, next year they may prefer to order online.
Have the right staff
Web marketing requires a different set of skills from traditional channels, so make sure you don't simply take the same staff, or even worse, same practices, from one channel to another. Take full advantage of the possibilities that the web presents. For instance, use your Facebook page, website and email to announce promptly when new products become available or when old ones come back in stock.
Support online enquiries
Organise how to support the new channel properly (e.g. answer emails in a timely manner). Ensure any new online offering provides a quality service. So many surveys have found that a large proportion of emails are never answered, it's now beyond a joke. If there's one thing that's certain, failure to provide good customer service will alienate your supporters and damage your reputation.
Integrate your back-office appropriately
Integration of systems can be horrendously expensive, unless your whole operation is based on a package that already provides integration. There are fundamentally two approaches - create the new channel, make sure everything can run smoothly with a manual integration, then integrate the systems once it can be seen that demand is there. The second approach is to integrate fully from day one.
Both have perils. If initial demand is high, the first approach can be catastrophic, and if someone has "forgotten" to budget the subsequent integration, a lot of fur can fly. With the second approach, it can take so much time and funding to get a complex integration working that the enthusiasm and budget is drained before any business is transacted.
Consider whether to go single channel
Once you have built up your online channel, it might become apparent that this is the most profitable. If so, it may make sense to take the plunge and switch entirely to online sales. That’s where the growth is.
Multi-channel retailing is a new discipline and is still evolving. The odd mistake will be forgiven, but making sure you keep up with the times and meet the latest expectations is not a choice.
Chris Barling is chairman of SellerDeck, a company he co-founded in 1996. An ecommerce expert, enthusiastic entrepreneur and business angel, Chris has a passion for helping small businesses take advantage of new technology. He has over 30 year' experience in the IT industry.