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Seamless multi-channel is what retailers aspire to

Thursday September 15th 2011

Although the likes of mobile and social networks provide retailers with massive potential opportunities they have more imminent challenges around integrating their current multiple channels to provide a seamless multi-channel experience for customers.By Glynn Davis

Speaking at the Retail Systems Multi-channel Summit 2011 in London this week Joanna Brazier, multi-channel programme director at John Lewis, told delegates her company had “achieved ‘multi-channel’ largely through legacy and disconnected systems” but that to become truly multi-channel the business is undergoing major business change programmes.

This involves introducing new “package software” with an EPoS solution from PCMS, online platform from ATG and order management solution from Sterling Commerce. “Technology is changing the world. We are on the cusp on a new IT world,” she says.

With the aid of IT, Brazier says John Lewis is looking at: ‘consumerisation’, whereby retailers keep a close eye on what customers are doing; cloud computing; connectivity, which provides a true multi-channel experience for shoppers; and convergent commerce, where all platforms are connected to drive more traffic and sales.

Hayley Meenan-Wilkin, head of web operations at Tesco.com, agrees seamless multi-channel is some way off for the majority of retailers: “There are not a lot of people out there who have got seamless channels. Nobody knows what ‘good’ [multi-channel] looks like yet.”

She warns that those retailers without plans to move towards greater connectivity across their channels will have problems because “in 10 years’ time their legacy systems will not be good enough to support a multi-channel business.”

A driver of this change will be customer demand as Meenan-Wilkin says: “The expectations of customers will be [for retailers] to get goods to them immediately. Information is now expected immediately and in future customers will also be demanding products immediately.”

Helping retailers achieve this immediacy is delivery company Shutl that is enjoying 74% month-on-month growth. Tom Allason, founder and chief executive of Shutl, says: “Over the last 17 years lots has changed but not delivery. This is the biggest challenge for retailers today. For some multi-channel businesses we can solve this delivery problem.”

For distances of less than 10 miles he says the best delivery method is the traditional hub and spoke system where parcels are sent to central hubs and then sorted before being batched and delivered onwards to the customer. Twelve companies handle 97% of this market.

In contrast, Shutl aggregates the UK’s local couriers (3,000 companies handle this 3% of the market) and selects the most relevant firms to deliver a parcel from retailer to customer. The chosen firm depends on their quote and their customer service record.

Using this model, Shutl offers both a 90-minute delivery service and a one hour delivery window, with customers now including Argos, Aurora Fashions, and Laithwaites. Initially, the service has been in London only but numerous cities are about to be added and 50% of UK households will be served by the service by Christmas.

One of the most successful ways of getting around the delivery problem is through click and collect-type services, which have shown massive growth for those retailers who have offered their customers such an option.

Andrew Walker, chief executive of Portaltech, questions why only 17% of retailers offer reserve and collect and a mere 2% have a buy and collect option: “Why aren’t all multi-channel retailers offering this?”

It must be assumed that their existing IT infrastructure does not easily support such services. Research from Portaltech found 54% of current systems employed by retailers were making their multi-channel strategy more challenging. “This is a huge burden, managing separate channels and not having a unified execution approach. It is why 78% of respondents say better integration of systems is now a priority.”

Also moving up the priority list is mobile technologies. “It’s a new channel but is also a cross-channel enabler. Customers will be in-store but will also be online – using their mobile devices for buying decisions,” says Walker.

This was a widely held view among speakers at the Summit, including Jason Taylor, vice president of platform strategy at Usablenet, who says: “Innovations involve linking mobile to in-store. How does mobile impact, not only as a channel itself, but also on the in-store experience?” 

John Sullivan, director of IT at Gondola Group – that operates restaurant brands including Ask and Zizzi, says “mobile is now the channel that our customers are using” and he is currently working on how to integrate it into the restaurants.

“Tesco is great, with its scanning [of barcodes] and adding to [home delivery] shopping lists as it will impact on customers. They love a bit of technology, a bit of wizardry,” he suggests.

One question with mobile is whether it adds incremental sales. Sullivan is unsure but he says he is still compelled to invest in mobile solutions: “We can’t determine if it brings us new customers but for sure the hits we’ve seen – a third are now from mobiles and next year it will be 50:50. We’ve therefore got to do it as the customers want it.”

While mobile is recognised as a channel of communication and conduit for commerce there was far less conviction among the speakers at the Summit regarding social media tools such Twitter and Facebook becoming sales channels alongside their undoubted roles as communicational methods.

David Smith, managing director of IMRG, says: “You need to be part of it [social media] because if you are not servicing the customer there then you could lose out. But it won’t be a new [sales] channel.” Huw Thomas, managing director of PMC, also questioned the focus by retailers on trying to directly drive the top-line from social networks.

“There is talk of F-commerce [Facebook commerce] and a groundswell of people wanting to get involved, but why? Facebook is great marketing tool but there seems to be a drive to using it to make money,” he says.

What retailers face from this onslaught of innovation is the challenge of trying to stay close to their customers and monitor how they are embracing these new technologies. Geraint Owen Evans, multi-channel solutions director at Steria, says that with 28% of consumers now using a smartphone and newer handsets now incorporating NFC (Near Field Communications) “the pace of change means retailers have got to be on top of it”. 

To add to retailers’ tasks, Evans says 65% of consumers want more from the shopping experience - challenging times indeed.

The Retail Bulletin’s 3rd Annual Multichannel Summit 2012 already has an impressive list of retailer speakers from Schuh, Marks & Spencer, Boots.com, Game Group, Halfords, Alexon Group, Tesco.com, EverythingEverywhere, Joules Clothing, Adnams plc, Best Buy UK, Penhaligon, ASOS…  Delegates will be able to learn how to ‘DriveROI through profitable, engaging, seamlessly integrated and consistent multichannel strategies’. The 2011 Multichannel Summit was a sell-out, so make sure you don’t miss out in 2012. Click here for full details.