As most retailers will freely admit, one of the more difficult aspects of pleasing customers is keeping up with their constantly changing desires. Consumers can be fickle; a brand or product that sold faster than retailers could stock their shelves last week may gather dust this week. Customers who were once reluctant to make purchases online have become increasingly more comfortable with the process. Shoppers who could not imagine using a mobile phone to place an order a decade ago are now conducting research, comparing pricing and purchasing items with their mobile devices.
Advances in technology seem to occur at breakneck speed. The numerous new technologies can be confusing to many retailers, especially those who have been traditional brick-and-mortar operations. Some of them fail to see the importance of offering customers a shopping experience that spans all of the different channels that are currently available. Too often, the lack of technology becomes a major weakness in their operations, while their competitors who embrace the new advances gain an increasing share of the market.
Using Technology to Create an Omni-channel Customer Experience
The phrase "omni-channel experience" is one that has become popular in recent years. In the context in which it is commonly used, the phrase describes a unified shopping experience that encompasses a variety of technological tools. Although it has not been too many years since having a website with a shopping cart and payment gateway was considered "high-tech," that is no longer enough. Today's customers want to be able to access a site from their smart devices, which means that they want to use their tablets and smartphones as well as their laptops.
However, customers want much more than just a responsive website. They want in-store kiosks, marketing campaigns that are personalized just for them and merchants who can anticipate their needs. They want the convenience of shopping online merged with the immediate gratification of making an in-store purchase.
Furthermore -- and perhaps most importantly -- customers want everything consistent and seamlessly integrated. They do not want to be made aware that there are different channels involved in their shopping experience. As far as they are concerned, no matter how they access information or make a purchase, everything is related to the merchant -- meaning that retailers who do not provide a true omni-channel experience risk alienating customers.
How Technology can Help
Some issues, such as responsive websites and mobile access, have already been discussed in terms of providing customers with an omni-channel experience. However, modern technology has much to offer merchants in terms of marketing strategies, store design and building a loyal customer base.
- Data: Merchants cannot effectively determine what customers want without collecting and analyzing data. How many times do customers visit a store before making a purchase? How many customers make repeat purchases? When they walk into a physical store, do the majority turn left or right? What is the average time shoppers spend on the website or in the brick-and-mortar store?
- Service: The more that a merchant knows about his customers, the easier it is to offer personal, customized service. Suppose that store personnel could be automatically alerted when a high-value customer steps into the store. Imagine a sales representative who could access a customer's purchase history and make recommendations that coincide with the customer's established preferences.
- Profitability: Most merchants know that a computerized inventory can help keep an accurate record of stock and reduce unexplained shrinkage. However, technology can help improve profitability in other ways as well. For example, training time for new employees can be reduced -- instead of having to spend two to four weeks learning about products from an experienced employee, a new hire could be given access to a database of all product specifications to be used while serving customers. Staffing levels can be maintained at optimum, based on previous data.
- Marketing: Targeted campaigns can be initiated to reduce the cost of marketing. Measuring the effectiveness of each campaign is also simplified.
Adaptation is critical to the survival of any species in the wild. It is no less important for retailers. New technology must be harnessed and applied to be competitive in today's global economy.