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Special report: However you choose to define it, multi-channel is the only way to go

There is no doubt that operating a seamless multi-channel operation is an aspiration for pretty much all retailers but there are great divergences over issues such as whether consistent pricing across channels is preferable, and whether the future is more about generalist or specialist retailers. By Glynn Davis

OMNICHANNEL

Special report: However you choose to define it, multi-channel is the only way to go

There is no doubt that operating a seamless multi-channel operation is an aspiration for pretty much all retailers but there are great divergences over issues such as whether consistent pricing across channels is preferable, and whether the future is more about generalist or specialist retailers. By Glynn Davis

Generalists versus specialists
These issues came up at the recent British Retail Consortium Multi-channel Retailing 2012 conference in London. Among those debating was Richard Cristofoli, marketing director at Debenhams, who suggests: “There is not a retailer on earth that does not have building multi-channel relationships [with their customers] as a goal.”

With this backdrop he predicts the “phoenix-like rise of the generalist”. He adds: “Jeff Bezos [Amazon founder] was not building a bookstore he was building the biggest department store. Customers are editing destinations, not their choice, in the multi-channel world. They are having fewer, deeper relationships and they do not want to compromise on choice.”

John Bovill, commercial director at Jacques Vert, agrees: “The breadth of stock held is a big debate in the fashion world. Online gives you the opportunity to do web exclusives and I see the internet as an ‘extended aisle’ approach.”

But this is not a universally held view as Nick Wheeler, owner of Charles Tyrwhitt, told delegates that he was more in the camp that “favoured cutting choice”. Editing the product lines available has its merits but for many retailers the advent of the internet has not only enabled them to boost their stock via their online stores but also through in-store kiosks that are a growing feature in UK stores.

In-store technology abounds
Cristofoli says there are now 500 Debenhams ‘Extra’ kiosks within its stores that enable the group’s smallest outlets to offer five-times the range that could be physically held. “Even our Oxford Street space, at 200,000 sq ft, has 33 per cent more products available through the kiosks,” he explains.

But it is not just about using in-store technology to expand the range. At Marks & Spencer its ‘Style Online’ large interactive touch screen kiosks help boost service levels. Tanith Dodge, human resources director at M&S, says: “It’s an interactive way to shop. You can create outfits and order goods. And for our customer assistants it’s a different interaction so we’ve given them an iPad to assist customers.”

Bringing store employees along
Initiating such technological change in the business has been a major challenge, according to Dodge, who says: “The mindset of our [80,000] employees have been in-store with customer interactions. Multi-channel has been a threat especially as many employees have never been online.”

To take M&S down the multi-channel route the focus has been on “demystifying” the internet and bringing it into the DNA of the business, according to Dodge: “We’re at the beginning and have lots to do but we’re building the confidence of the workforce.”

However, for some retailers it is more a case of their old retail practices holding employees back. Tom Devine, managing director of UK and Northern Europe at Game Group, says: “Most retailers are worried about how to give knowledge to their store staff but our employees know the details and our challenge is to translate this online.”

Employee engagement with customers
To do this he says the store employees are brought into the company’s head office to review products, get them to feature in videos and compare games. “We can get them to engage in conversations with our customers online and through social media,” says Devine.

It is a similar strategy employed by David Kohn, multi-channel director at Snow + Rock (that operates Runners Need, Cycle Surgery and Snow + Rock): “All three businesses are choc-full of enthusiasts. They are an asset but how do you exploit it? We use them to populate the website and they create engagement with customers. The call centre staff also review products at quieter times.”

The company is planning to launch Live Chat later this year to take this engagement further. Kohn told delegates that the knowledge of his team is one of the key advantages the company has over its much larger and online-only competitors who are now its close rivals in this multi-channel world.

Stores play big role
It also plans to take more advantage of its store base - that runs to 40-plus outlets - by launching a Click & Collect service and also implementing a despatch-from-stores (as well as from its warehouse) proposition for online orders. A ‘rapid delivery’ option is also planned to launch with third-party provider Shutl.

The relatively small size of Snow + Rock is also deemed a potential positive because Kohn says “our flexibility means we can do more projects in six months than in a number of years for other retailers”. This is a strong advantage during this period of great change for the industry.

Mobile bandwagon rolls on
Nowhere is change happening more quickly than with mobile technology. Ishan Patel, strategic development director at Aurora Fashions, says: “It has taken us 10 years to get where we are with multi-channel but with mobile it’s happening at a speed that puts the web to shame and is scary. Stores are 80 per cent of sales and mobile 10 per cent but it’s growing at a phenomenal rate.”

But it is not just about generating sales via mobile devices as Patel says Aurora is trialling wi-fi in its stores and it is “not just for consumers but for store staff too”. He adds: “They’ve got access in the back-office to the internet but they need access in the front-of-store because we need teams that are equipped to give this [high] level of service”.

Social media cannot be ignored
Customer service is also encompassing social media but retailers are still in a quandary over how to deliver a return on investment (ROI) from their Facebook and Twitter activities. Many merchants are justifying their involvement simply by the existence of their rivals in the space.

Gavin Sathianathan, head of commerce partnerships at Facebook, suggests the likes of Facebook are particularly suited to campaigns and product launches where buzz can be created around forthcoming events and it should be possible for ROI to be “easily” calculated.

However, he acknowledges that “it’s generally difficult [to calculate] where the purchase journey is complicated”. But nobody ever said developing multi-channel propositions, when they encompass the latest digital marketing activities, was going to be easy.

The alternative of doing nothing and failing to evolve in today’s rapidly changing market is not an option for retailers, according to Stephen Robertson, director General of the British Retail Consortium, who revealed BRC research has found - at the current rates of growth – that Amazon will take over from Wal-Mart to become the world’s largest retailer by 2024. 

It’s a sobering thought for merchants because this online giant is gradually encroaching onto the turf of pretty much every retailer in the UK.

International multichannel growth strategies is the theme of the Retail Bulletin International Expansion Conference 2012, sponsored by GfK. Sharing expertise and best practice will be speakers from Tesco, New Look, Coast, WHSmith, Debenhams, Carphone Warehouse Group, Wiggle, JD Williams, Hamleys Group, TUI Travel, French Connection, GfK, Javelin Group, Field Fisher Waterhouse LLP, Chase Paymentech. For full details and to register for this interactive event in London, March 27th, click here.

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