The Digital Store is In Reach: How to Join the Revolution

A revolution in shopping is undeniably underway. With the meteoric rise of mobile devices, ecommerce has morphed from being an alternative channel to an omnipresent connection between brands and consumers.

According to Forrester’s U.S. Cross-Channel Sales Forecast, 2014 to 2018, more than half of all retail transactions are now affected by the Web, driving merchants to seek ways to connect their brands’ offerings and deliver relevant and unified experiences.

A key aspect of this quest is integrating digital offerings into the physical store. Close to 70% of consumers are already using their mobile devices to access online content in-store.. To facilitate consumers’ quest for information and seamless service, merchants must make unprecedented investments in store staff and technology, and upgrade key online features and content to satisfy shoppers’ growing expectations.

Digital store initiatives, by their very nature, require cooperation and investment across multiple internal divisions – from store operations to fulfillment to social media and marketing.  It’s essential for merchants to lay the groundwork throughout their organizations and to earn buy-in from the executives who can effect high-level change.

In particular, businesses must agree to:

Embrace, don’t fear, online shopping in-store – empowered store shoppers buy more, not less.

The specter of “showrooming” – using physical stores to touch and try products before going online to purchase the items from lower-cost brands such as Amazon – haunts many a merchant. But even with the allure of bargain-basement prices, the majority of showroomers go on to buy products in the physical store they’re currently visiting. 

The opportunity is ripe for merchants to build the brand identity and credibility that can outweigh price considerations. As a result, merchants should signal to in-store shoppers early and often that additional resources are available online, from further product information to store locations – and even consider providing the technology to support access to those resources.

Be aware of privacy concerns – merchants must stay on the right side of the line between relevance and creepiness.

Consumers are of two minds about technologies such as beaconing that track their shopping behavior online and in stores. On the one hand, fully 78% of shoppers claim they’re willing to have in-store purchases factored into marketing messages across all touchpoints, and more than a third report being frustrated at retailers’ failures to take into account in-store purchases. But in reality, shoppers seem uncomfortable with activities being too closely tracked. Close to half of consumers say they would stop shopping altogether at a retailer that tracked their in-store location using their cell phones.

It’s best to err on the side of caution when it comes to data collection and to weigh carefully the benefits of any cutting-edge tracking against potential negative publicity or customer loss. Transparency should be the norm, and merchants should prioritize what data they need to track key metrics, versus “nice to have” information that might be interesting, but provide no actionable insights.

Store associates should be central to digital store strategy — If there’s a single antidote to the potential plague of lost sales due to showrooming, it’s the store associate. They can play a crucial role by connecting online and offline resources in one-on-one interactions that bring the human element to bear on the shopping experience. Armed with mobile devices to access brand content, products and customer order histories, sales associates can potentially deliver personalized recommendations  point of sale technologies can enable swift transactions to close the sale.

If this vision of empowered, digitally-savvy store associates seems far from reality, it’s time to adjust – because consumers increasingly expect store staff to act as mediators to the wealth of online information available about brands and products.

When technology researcher Forrester asked respondents what store associates equipped with mobile devices should ideally be able to do for them they wanted price checks, inventory location across outlets, the ability to reserve for pick up, detailed product information and technical specs and finally the ability to complete transactions in situ.

Key Digital Store Fundamentals

To achieve a level of cohesion that allows empowered shoppers to access brand resources seamlessly dissolving the divide between online and offline experiences, merchants must go beyond retrofitting their stores with gadgets; they must make significant changes to their online as well as offline offerings. Investing in the capability to synch back-end systems may seem a long way from a price check standing in the aisles, but such deep transparency is essential to delivering accurate and timely information across touchpoints.

Best practices require merchants to lay strong foundations by focusing on two key areas of product selection and customer service.

Product selection – Consumers expect to be able to access the full breadth and depth of a brand’s product offering, regardless of where they are physically and what screens they use. Shoppers want to be able to order online and ship to store, order online and pick up in store, reserve online and view inventory online. A completely transparent view of the brand’s entire inventory gives shoppers the maximum flexibility.

Customer service – Put the focus on intelligent, proactive service across touchpoints.

In a world where Amazon-style online self-service is the norm, personal customer service is increasingly a brand differentiator. According to the Harvard Business Review, satisfactory resolution of customer service inquiries lead 92% of shoppers to continue their relationship with the brand.

The role of the store associate is central to boosting customer service prowess. Store associates should be equipped with the customer service tools and information that can link their knowledge with customers’ individual needs and product preferences. As with inventory transparency, the required investment crosses touchpoints to ensure that brands can deliver unified and proactive service wherever shoppers seek it: at the store, call center, online chat representatives, and social media specialists.

By investing in these digital store fundamentals, merchants can serve shoppers the brand resources they need at crucial decision points along the path to purchase.

Conclusion

The transformation of retail outlets into digital stores is a significant undertaking, but a necessary one. But by focusing investments on seamless delivery of brand content and customer service, merchants can deliver the cross-touchpoint experiences shoppers seek without breaking the bank. The resulting mix of personal service and ubiquitous access to products has the potential not only to revolutionize shopping, but to drive long-lasting sales growth and brand loyalty.

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