Live From ACCM: Power Forum Ponders the Multichannel Mystique

May 21, 2008 4:58 AM  By

Orlando, FL – Multichannel merchants face a number of challenges these days – a slowing economy, rising shipping and mailing costs, and the increasing complexity of creating synergies between catalog, Web and store, to name a few.

Yet the panel discussion during Monday’s Power Forum at the ACCM was punctuated by rays of optimism that retailers are going to get through these tough times – providing of course, that they make the right business moves, offer superior customer service and, perhaps more than anything, learn to harness the power Internet as their primary selling tool.

Melissa Dowling, editor-in-chief of Multichannel Merchant, kicked things off by asking why multichannel customers are more valuable than single channel customers.

Panelist Lauren Freedman, president of the E-tailing Group, said that online customer are more demanding: “They’re hungry for information – and they do a lot of research in advance,” she said. “But I think it’s also really important to realize that time savings and convenience are very important to these customers,” she added. “They want to make sure they can do it quick – and that it’s top of mind.”

Panelist Terry Flynn, president of the Gibraltar Group, said there are two sides to this “chicken or the egg” question. “First, there’s the story of channels of entry, and more ways for people to buy, but then there’s the story of the channels for marketing,” he said. “When you have more channels, you have more ways of marketing to your customers.”

“If you have a postal address and an email address and a phone number, those will become the most valuable customers because you can speak with them in so many different ways,” he said. “That’s what creates enhanced value for the customer. It gives you the ability to make the most out of that relationship.”

Flynn told the crowd of about 500 attendees that “there’s really no such thing as a non-multichannel customer anymore – and that’s a notion that we all need to get used to.”

Speaking to how the Web has changed the in-store experience, panelist Steve Leveen, CEO of Levenger, said sometimes customers come into his stores and immediately take the sales clerk over to a monitor “so they can show the clerk on the Website what they’re really looking for.”

“So it’s a collaborative process–and one which the customer has usually already started online,” he said. He added that very often customers which begin the process online leave the store more satisfied, “and with the promise of doing more business online later.”

Panelist Milton Pappas, executive vice president of corporate marketing and e-commerce for multititle mailer Redcats USA, said his company’s numbers show that their multichannel customers spend more with them. “And we know that the more channels they use, the more they spend with us,” he said.

But getting more customers to use multiple channels is a major challenge because it requires merchants to send “consistent messages across all channels.”

So where does the print catalog fit in with today’s multichannel world?

“The catalog has really evolved over time – it is now the main vehicle for driving traffic to the Web,” Pappas said. “And it’s really imperative that when you create versions of your catalog, you’re thinking multichannel. You have to remember that customers are going to visit your site – and you have to make it as easy as possible for them to find the items they’re looking for and make a purchase.”

Pappas added that merchants also need to personalize the online shopping experience and take advantage of the opportunity to show repeat customers other products that they might be interested in. By integrating their ecommerce systems with their CRM, they can achieve a level of Website intelligence which enables items to be displayed based on a customer’s past buying patterns. By the same token, catalog orders also need to be tracked so that past purchases can be reflected on the Website.

Freedman said although people were saying ten years ago that one day “there would be no catalogs or stores,” due to the advent of the Internet, “the catalog has played a bigger role in this new multichannel world than anyone ever predicted.”

“The tough question now is, how much to invest in your catalog – how many pages should it be – and how can you better target those names who will buy from you,” she said. “But them I’m also struck by some Web brands that see the catalog as the fastest way to drive traffic to the Website. So I think the marriage of the two is really where the power lies.”

Flynn said it has been interesting to see how the Web has resulted in mailings working in “a new and more targeted way.” He said many merchants are now using their Website results to decide “who gets a mailing – and what kind.” Post cards and smaller pieces of mail are making a come back because of this, he said.

So what should print catalogers be doing to cater to multichannel customers, especially in this age of experiential marketing?

Leveen said he thinks “versioning is increasingly important – especially given the postage increase we were hit with last year.”

“As a result, many catalogers are versioning – they’re mailing slim-jims, for example – because of the postal efficiencies to be gained,” he said. “So I think versioning is going to become more important – especially if you have the ability to segment you multichannel customers from your single channel customers.”