How retailers can bypass the omnichannel disconnect to provide a consistent, quality customer experience
By James Baker, Digital Customer Experience Lead, Columbus
Global e-commerce is set to boom in the next few years with its market value expected to hit almost $6 trillion as it continues to detract shoppers away from physical stores. As a result, it has become more challenging for retailers to stand out from this increased competition. In this article, I discuss how a unified commerce strategy can help them future-proof their business operations by providing a first rate customer experience.
Customers of today expect a highly responsive, top quality service from retailers across all available channels triggered by the power to access a broader range of products at the touch of a button and being offered highly personalised shopping recommendations based on past buying habits.
As the number of goods sold online continues to rise, physical UK retail stores look set to make the transition from holding large volumes of stock towards being more of a showroom for online outlets.
But to be successful businesses must map out a route for all possible customer touchpoints – digital or physical – to identify if all stages are linked and, if not, how to better integrate systems and teams to ensure the customer journey is not weakened or ended prematurely. This is unified commerce and it holds the key to success for retailers.
Reacting to industry threats with a project
The growing influence of internet retail sales has demanded that all retail businesses develop a strong online presence. As a result, this necessitates having a reliable e-commerce platform. But we have witnessed some businesses attempt to roll-out ambitious digital commerce projects to little avail.
Why? Because despite the strong level of investment and willingness to adopt emerging technologies in the retail sector, budgetary constraints and capacity limitations are a concern, and not all retailers have the technical capability to connect disparate business processes and systems together.
And therein lies the first critical problem of rolling out a digital commerce project – it is the word “project”. Projects are dangerously slow and, in terms of digital, are all too commonly driven by fear and the perceived need for businesses to show themselves as innovative. The harshest of critics simply label such projects as guesswork.
A unified approach is what businesses need
Additionally, the dependencies introduced during a programme of works to implement new digital channels can create negative siloing and a domino effect on day-to-day business activity, reducing the potential to seize opportunity. There needs to be a change in internal thinking away from the methodology and into business as usual.
Instead of looking to omnichannel, retailers must start to consider a unified commerce approach as the next logical step for their business – one that prevents huge “rip and replace” projects in favour of integrating and streamlining existing business systems and processes through the easy deployment of APIs and, if necessary, the cloud.
Consistent, high level customer service across all platforms – the key revenue driver
Businesses that fail to deliver a consistently high level of service across the customer’s preferred platform – whichever the platform – will struggle to improve revenue growth and brand loyalty. The customer experience needs to be highly personalised and seamless – if a customer switching between platforms loses their selected discounts or is shown a different set of offers, the customer journey is at risk of being disrupted.
"Projects are dangerously slow and, in terms of digital, are all too commonly driven by fear and the perceived need for businesses to show themselves as innovative. The harshest of critics simply label such projects as guesswork"
That means a commerce system that is reactive as well as proactive
But retailers need to do more than this to be successful. They must be able to quickly react to market opportunities – and threats – to better serve customers. They need to prepare for unexpected scenarios: is there a major demand for seasonal products due to unpredictably warm weather? Is there a market gap that urgently needs filling – and if your products can fill this gap, can you promote this fast enough?
Think like your customers
The businesses that are going in the right direction are those which think like their customers and understand their needs. They can do this by building complete personas of their customers. However, although this is a good customer experience exercise, there is a chance that it remains just that – an exercise which all too often ends with a wall covered in high level customer type CVs.
To execute and realise success faster, businesses need to work with “personas in context” which evolve and are frequently re-tested. It is this continual integrated thinking between digital, trading/merchandising and customer service teams which enables the capability to both react and proact to influencers and market condition. The aim of accurate customer personalisation at “point in time” creates its own journey, upon which every business should embark.
Enter unified commerce
To meet customer expectations, retailers must look further than the now almost ‘traditional’ omnichannel approach and move towards unified commerce. This will leverage existing systems and processes at every level and department of the business to ensure any customer engagement results in a consistent experience each time.
This is by no means a disruptive approach for a retailer. A wider unified commerce approach considers the suitability of existing systems throughout the business and integrates them using simple APIs. By connecting systems spanning e-commerce, CRM, inventory management and PoS, employees are presented with full visibility across a business and can avoid a disconnect between individual departments.
Tracking customer interactions this way provides a single version of truth for employees and management, allowing them to identify browsing and purchasing trends and provide the more personalised recommendations customers enjoy. At business level, this approach helps retailers avoid errors and duplicated efforts across departments – resulting in significant time and cost savings.
Do more with data and utilise information management
At the heart of the unified commerce approach is the need to undergo business-wide “de-siloing”. Data may be gathered at every available opportunity – but beyond this, is it being sorted, filtered, stored and analysed? If it’s not, you won’t have access to accurate insights in real-time, and won’t get a complete centralised view.
Businesses must know that product information is up-to-date on every platform, and that the latest offers and promotions are visible and correctly applied at the point of sale. Consistent communication throughout all departments is required to ensure assets, campaigns and offers are accurate across all possible channels and points of entry. It is key that businesses harness a Product Information Management solution to gather, manage and feed product data into ERP and e-commerce systems as needed.
We have seen the benefits of this first hand. One of our longstanding e-commerce clients is an online business that successfully transitioned from being a vitamins retailer to a health and wellness provider. Product information, branding and marketing assets all had to be updated accordingly – and this could only be achieved by ensuring all systems and channels were linked and updated with accurate content.
Unified commerce is how retailers can reap the rewards of new technologies
It should be remembered that this transformation is not just exclusive to the largest of retailers. A SaaS deployment model has the capability to limit the costs and maintenance time that come with deploying different e-commerce solutions, so businesses of all sizes can transform their processes.
Looking further ahead, emerging technologies such as AI will have greater presence in the retail industry, but, before then, unified commerce should be seen as the next stage for retailers ahead of existing omnichannel strategies. By adopting a considered approach and connecting every department and current systems, businesses can succeed in delivering their customers a consistent, quality experience across every channel.