When consumers are better at buying than retailers are at selling, something clearly has to change, according to Craig Sears-Black, Managing Director for Manhattan Associates. Today's savvy omni-channel shopper knows exactly how to navigate each retailer's website; which companies offer a good click & collect service; and which provide a better returns experience or multiple delivery options.
However, these same shoppers still love the social aspect of an in-store experience and the chance to see and feel items. Unfortunately though, often, the online customer experience is not reflected in-store and it is in these circumstances that the sales assistant plays a crucial role in saving the sale.
Sadly, too often the sales assistant is tied to the till and without any real information beyond inventory statistics and store location details, lacks the tools, information and skills required to match customer expectations, let alone exceed them.
So if retailers want to deliver an exceptional, frictionless customer experience they need to embrace a smarter approach that explores the science behind linking the offline and online experience. It is time to empower sales assistants with at least the same, if not more, information already available to customers online or face the inevitable consequences.
With cross-channel shopping now accounting for a large proportion of total retail revenue, the sticking plaster solutions deployed over the past decade are fast unravelling. And one of the biggest problems is being revealed within the retail store - hardly surprising given years of under investment in both staff and technology.
Retailers are, perhaps somewhat belatedly, recognising that in an omni-channel model the store is a fundamental component of the overall experience. The store is not simply another way of fulfilling online orders via click & collect. Although that is a key role, it is also a chance to cross-sell and up-sell, increase customer lifetime value and build stronger customer relationships.
There is, however, no point encouraging customers back in store if the experience is not good enough. And the unfortunate reality is that for most consumers the quality of that experience simply doesn't match up to expectations. So what has to change?
Within this omni-channel model the role of the store assistant is becoming critical. The fact that mobile toting consumers have more information than the assistants has become widely recognised. But what is the longer term implication of this divergence between store assistant and consumer knowledge, especially in the increasingly important click & collect scenario?
Of course, if everything goes smoothly and the customer simply collects the item, likes it and goes away happy, it's all good. When a problem arises - if the customer doesn't like this product and wants to swap it for another, for example - the whole situation gets far more complicated and a retailer's lack of end to end omni-channel support becomes patently clear. Today, for example, just a handful of retailers can offer a single swipe option in this situation, requiring instead customers to embark upon a complex mix of cancelled and new transactions. Not so good.
Consumers want a frictionless experience. And that means buying online, collecting in-store, swapping that purchase for a product of different value or spending vouchers to buy something a little more expensive - all in one transaction. It also means an in-store experience that includes pertinent recommendations - a pair of shoes to go with the dress bought last week or a cashmere throw to balance the cushions being collected from store. Today, just a few - some of the world's most innovative retailers - have the tools, technologies and processes in place, which enable their sales assistants to deliver that quality of experience.
It is becoming imperative to empower the sales assistant with, at the very least, the same information already available to the consumer. But that should be just the start. The entire experience should be different and personalised. And, in order to provide this, the sales assistant needs to have the right tools, knowledge, attitude, confidence and level of authority to deliver a great in-store experience.
So what does that mean in practice? There should be no need for the sales assistant to ever leave the customer's side - no sliding back to the returns desk to undertake a transaction or back to the till to check stock. This should be a seamless and personal experience that combines inventory, product and customer information to present the sales assistant with a range of customer specific options, such as reallocating stock from a nearby store or offering free delivery - all to ensure the sale is saved and that the customer leaves satisfied - even without the specific product they entered the store to buy.
Of course to get this right requires more than the essential visibility and availability of product across the network. There's a profit implication behind every fulfilment decision made, meaning the retailer needs to think about not just optimising the customer experience but ensuring the execution of the fulfilment process isn't just done at any cost. Should loyal customers have free click & collect? What is the financial implication of offering to transfer a product from one store to the next, that afternoon - while the customer enjoys a free coffee in a nearby caf?
With the right level of insight, the opportunities to differentiate the in-store experience are clear, but retailers need to understand and optimise based on a range of continually evolving criteria - from product age to distribution cost and customer value. Considering that the vast majority of retailers today cannot even determine the cost of click & collect in real-time, it is clear that there is work to be done.
After years of in-store under investment and a devaluation of the store experience, retailers are entering a new era of personalised customer service. Achieving this new vision however, will require a significant transformation and four essential pillars of information: complete visibility of customer orders, purchase history and preferences in one place; up to date product file, including shipping and location costs; and a single, real-time view of inventory, network-wide. With these key components in place, retailers can begin to explore other opportunities for differentiation and improving the customer experience - from the adoption of single swipe transactions to express click & collect and a seamless returns process.
"This is a hugely exciting time for retailers and there is no doubt the retail store of the future will look very different. No tills, no queues - customers will either opt to self-serve via kiosks or be served by highly motivated and skilled roaming staff armed with in-depth information about a customer's order history and loyalty status and empowered to make decisions that will reflect both customer value and profit opportunity," concluded Sears-Black. "Clearly, achieving this new model is far from straightforward - but it will rapidly become essential. This is not simply about gaining customers. It is about retaining share and profitability. It is about, in the end, staying in business. With the need to evolve an already existing omni-channel approach and the desire to grow as a business at the same time, the capabilities and knowledge gap between store staff and consumers is widening. And the stakes are only getting higher - doing nothing is simply no longer an option."