Guest Column | February 11, 2019

The Retail Revolution Is Here: 5 Omnichannel Plays Retailers Must Improve To Stay Competitive

By Chris Sheehan, Applause

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In an age where consumers expect to shop anywhere at any time, it’s essential for retailers to create a seamless experience across all channels. Yet there remains a gap between customer expectations and performance, and retailers often don’t know there’s a problem until it shows up on their bottom line. Despite investments in new technologies and processes, omni-channel experiences leave much to be desired with insufficient inventory visibility, consumer delays and the inability to expedite transactions and fulfillment across channels.

Retailers not only need a strategy, but a means to continually evaluate, test, and refine their omni-channel experience across all channels. Here are the five key areas in which they can improve the omni-channel experience.

Buy Online, Pick-Up In Store

While “click and collect” is a bedrock foundation in omni-channel retail, many retailers struggle to implement the practice. In a 2017 Consumer Survey by JDA Software, roughly three-quarters of retail managers reported difficulties implementing Buy Online Pickup In-Store (BOPIS), mainly due to the inability to accurately track inventory. Another JDA Software survey revealed nearly a quarter said store staff took too long or were unable to find the shopper’s order in their store system. Retailers must ensure they have inventory visibility and trained staff to make BOPIS fast, efficient and convenient.

Endless Aisle

As consumers can now browse and order anything from their smartphones, retailers must have access to online inventories in their stores. A survey by iVend Retail found nearly 70 percent of consumers who left a store empty-handed either couldn’t find what they were looking for, or the store simply didn’t have what they needed. Many retailers are implementing the “endless aisle” concept with kiosks, staff-held tablets, or consumer apps, but few are curating the experience with personalized recommendations. When done right, personalized recommendations can help retailers enhance the endless aisle experience with flawless technology.

Buy Online, Ship To Store

Enabling consumers to ship online orders to the store offers another convenient fulfillment option. It also enables retailers to lower costs by consolidating shipments, and to upsell when the consumer comes to pick up the item.

Yet buy online ship to store presents many of the same challenges as BOPIS. To make it work, stores must maintain separate systems to receive, manage and place items destined for store shelves and those to be picked up by customers.

Buy Online, Ship From Store

Retailers can lose millions annually due to out-of-stock items. Enabling consumers to see and purchase inventory across all stores can save sales when the product isn’t available at the store near them. It’s especially useful in apparel, and J.C. Penney, Gap, and Zara have all implemented ship from store options in recent years with great results.

Yet last mile delivery can come with high costs and complexities, and most stores aren’t set up to operate an on-site fulfillment center. Retailers can improve the ship from store experience by improving inventory visibility, training staff, and creating fulfillment space in the store.

Buy Online, Return In Store

Offering the ability to return online purchases to a nearby store is critical. A report by retail industry software provider Navar noted half of shoppers now actively consider return policies and options before buying. Buy Online Return In Store (BORIS) can reduce shipping costs for the retailer and offers the potential for more sales when the consumer comes to the store.

The challenge is it adds to the volume and complexity of returns a store must process. To make the most of it, retailers must implement new systems, space, and the staffing to accept, process, and distribute items to the appropriate locations.

As software is often at the heart of how brands engage consumers, digital experiences must work flawlessly in the omni-channel environment. To make it as smooth as possible, retailers need to continually test and measure customer feedback on omni-channel experiences under real-world scenarios. This helps to identify functional issues, evaluate the ease of use and improve performance.

About The AuthorChris Sheehan, Applause

As VP of Enterprise Customer Success at Applause, Chris is responsible for developing and executing the company's retention and expansion programs for North America Enterprise customers. Prior to his role in Customer Success, Chris led Applause's long-term Product Strategy team. He currently serves on the boards of Xconomy and CWE and has led many investments in the Boston area as a software VC.