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Review: Omnichannel Futures 2023

Physical stores will continue to be an important part of the retail landscape but they have to fit into a broader eco-system that delivers a relevant… View Article


Review: Omnichannel Futures 2023

Physical stores will continue to be an important part of the retail landscape but they have to fit into a broader eco-system that delivers a relevant and seamless experience for customers across all channels.

Speaking at The Retail Bulletin Omnichannel Futures Conference 2023 in London recently Loek Berendsen, global omnichannel strategist at IKEA, told a packed room of delegates that retailers have to stay relevant, especially to the younger generation of shoppers, and this involves adapting their stores.

Staying relevant

“How do you stay relevant? Omnichannel helps with this…it involves using store space in a different way. Retailers can’t measure their square footage just by sales anymore, instead stores have to be used as delivery hubs, with click & collect, ship from store, and replenishment from stores. And with returns, retailers should get customers to think in a more sustainable way and push them to bring [unwanted] products into stores,” he says.

David Kohn, ecommerce investor and advisor, suggests that any retailer not accepting returns in-store is already at least a year behind and therefore needs to seriously work out what is the role of their stores. He recommends they are treated as part of a customers’ overall experience with the brand.

“When customers are in-store then retailers need to impress on them that they are in the right place. They also need to ensure that the customer can find the right products because it is very different to online, and once a customer has made a purchase then retailers have to convince them they’ve made the right choice,” he says.

Visibility of inventory

This would be more easily achievable if retailers used their in-store staff as customer service agents for the online store because that is where shoppers can access the full range, according to David Gardiner, former head of back office at, who says the full online inventory has to be made easily accessible to store staff: “They have to understand all about the inventory and for returns they have to understand its repatriation [procedure].”

Contributing to making this task easier are the various technology solutions in the marketplace. James Gentile, solutions manager at Exponential-e, suggests lots of retailers are investing in connectivity that is helping them power tools such as hand-held tablets and scanners for stock taking that helps the in-store teams access all stock information across the whole organisation.

Bunty Stokes, consultant managing director of Asquith, agrees that stores are still valuable but in a changing retail environment she suggests “they should be about all the emotive stuff that you can’t do online”. She adds: “It’s as much about customer care as anything. Retailers also should not be afraid to share the space with non-cannibalistic [complementary] brands. People have to recognise the role of the brand is to serve the community.”

Engaging employees

Delivering these in-store experiences very much depends on the people within the organisation. Linda Campbell, former global retail director at The Body Shop, says companies need to attract and retain the right talent. “You need to keep them engaged by moving them around. Not necessarily straight upwards [with promotions] but zig-zagging. This will help deliver the right customer experience. The passion of the person makes the customer experience unique to each customer,” she says.

Attracting people is very tough, especially with digital skills now so often required in the retail sector. Charlotte Rees-John, head of consumer goods & services at Irwin Mitchell, says there are “great problems” in retail with 79% of jobs now needing digital skills of some sort [according to BRC figures] but it is hard for retailers to get these skills into their organisations. “They need to ensure they are up-skilling their employees and make sure they are motivated and can move around the business,” she says.

Make the tech easy to use

Luke Phillips, programme director at Studio Retail, advocates retailers involve their employees with technology: “It is vital that technologists engage with staff. But store staff should not have to think about technology because it should be easy [to use]. If it’s not easy then it is the fault of the tech people. It’s all about using technology to support the stores.”

Ease-of-use for both employees and customers – is crucial to Vishal Talreja, property director at Itsu, who says that when Itsu has introduced the likes of kiosks and an app the decision making on roll-outs have not been undertaken by executives at head office but by employees on the shop floor who review feedback from customers who demand technology solutions that deliver a seamless customer journey.

This seamless experience is also necessary online, according to Gareth Jones, head of ecommerce at Pour Moi, who says: “If the online experience is not frictionless then people won’t buy from you. You won’t be able to unlock the volumes that you should.”

Care needed with shopper journeys

Certainly great care has to be taken with shopper journeys on the various channels. Krisi Smith, co-Founder & creative director at Bird & Blend Tea Co., worked hard on trying to replicate the store experience online before she gave up: “We spent a couple of years on it but we just don’t think it can be done. The physical space is different. They are both complementary. You need to figure out what the customers are there for and what is their journey.”

For Octavia Benham, head of ecommerce at Dreams, the selling of big-ticket items means the customer journey often involves multiple touch-points before a purchase is made. Post-pandemic she says customers are much more “comfortable” shopping online and this is reflected in the way Dreams is developing its touch-points including the all-important final delivery. “This is a vital time to create a great experience as people might have taken the afternoon off work to wait for the delivery,” says Benham.

Among the people more comfortable with shopping online nowadays are the older grouping, according to Janis Thomas, ecommerce and marketing director at Look Fabulous Forever, who says: “There are more people from the older generation online than is given credit for. There are lots of stereotypes that are just not true. As a direct-to-consumer business we need to build trust with these people and we do that through content. We build a relationship through useful and helpful content for older customers.”

Realising the value of content

Nick King, market research and insight director at Auto Trader, recognises that content can be massively important when it comes to descriptions of cars on the Auto Trader site as it contributes significantly to conversion rates. “For lazy retailers we would even recommend they use artificial intelligence [ChatGPT] to give better product descriptions as this will help them sell the product,” he says.

The high value of content has led Ayaz Rafael Ibrahimov, co-founder of Sellier, to employ content creators whose output is used across channels to promote the products on his marketplace for pre-loved luxury goods. “We use all the channels at our disposal including Instagram. It’s driven engagement and sales.” The platform does daily stories for Instagram that promotes relevant products to an engaged 140,000 users.

Such moves by the likes of Sellier into specific verticals is to some extent a response to Amazon failing to deliver a suitably good experience for the sale of a curated selection of products on its marketplace, according to Jessica Christenson, regional vice president for UK & Ireland at Mirakl, who says tools like that from Mirakl help organisations build a platform from which curated offers of goods can be sold.

Controlling the data and experience

The Amazon experience has resulted in brands such as Nike pulling away from the all-encompassing platform as it moves away from wholesaling in general. It prefers to sell its products down specific channels that deliver a better curated experience for shoppers that it can control. “The brands control the data and surface it on the marketplace. This is better than the traditional wholesaling model,” says Christenson.

Moses Rashid, founder and chief executive of The Edit LDN, is very much focused on curating the product mix as his marketplace is positioned at the very premium end of sneakers and street-wear. Although the business is predominantly an online proposition and there was no intention at the outset to move into physical stores they have now become an important part of the business model.

The Edit LDN was approached by Harrods to open a store in its London flagship and the result has been an opportunity for the platform’s power sellers to showcase their products. The success of the arrangement has led to further stores opening around the world. The sales mix is now 70% online and 30% in-store. As stores five, six and seven are close to opening the business has become increasingly multichannel, with bricks-and-mortar now an important component.

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