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The human side of omnichannel retailing


Omnichannel commerce is exposing organizations as "legacy channel impaired." Customers don’t talk about and don’t care about channels. Customers care about engagement, information, value, product and service. Channels are a frame we’ve used to organize around and operate in an increasingly disruptive environment. What started as a fear of cannibalization has evolved into an opportunity for augmentation, as digital and physical convergence accelerates across categories and formats. Yet the roles, responsibilities and skills needed to sustain success in this brave new commerce world have not kept pace.

We’ve seen marketing increasingly converge with technology and we’ve seen logistics increasingly converge with customer service. This is all happening as we focus on picking individual customer orders side by side with loading full-trucks and tuning forecasts, assortments and offers to handle an increasing number of unique omni-channel baskets. Yet in no other domain is organizational disruption occurring and reinvention required than at store-level, where the digital meets the physical in front of the customer and associates interact directly with fully empowered and fully technology-enabled customers.

Today, online sales account for around 8 percent of purchases overall in the U.S. and growing, but over 1/3rd of in-store purchases are being influenced by online activities and this percentage is expected to reach nearly 60 percent in coming years. Many retailers are reporting a 30 percent average increase in spend from omni-channel customers in-store compared to single-channel customers. What does this mean? It means that channels are going, going, nearly gone and commerce is taking their place. Multiple touch-points, hetero-generous customer journeys, transparency, information and competition are all driving this complexity and creating operational challenges in the ways we serve our customers in the last foot of retail: the store.

There is a critical need to deliver differentiated in-store service to ensure customers engage and transact the way they wish, which could be a BOPUS (buy-online-and-pick-up-in-store) pickup, an online return (of a product not carried locally) or a multiple of other options. While this increased complexity delivers more opportunity for guided selling, it has also created an enormous burden on in-store associates.

With the customer essentially taking over the store, processes become complicated. This also means the customer actually is the store, which is anytime, anywhere and any device. The implications are enterprise-wide and while we have the technologies to succeed in a world of inter-connected consumers, the domains we’ve spent so much time optimizing have become an albatross inhibiting our ability to seize the opportunity. In successfully balancing the equation of people, process, technology and strategy, the organization, training and people aspects of operations across the enterprise and particularly in-store, need more attention. Immediately.

The customer journey is no longer a simple left-to-right process flow. Customers enter, interact and exit from discovery to comparison to purchase back to discovery and on and on like never before. In the last few years, anywhere-anytime commerce has turned traditional single- and multi-channel retailing upside down. Customers often enter stores knowing more about competitors, substitutable products and pricing than the associates. Use cases like BOPUS or BORIS (buy-online-and-return-in-store) are commonplace. Yet, other than a nod of encouragement and a few distance learning courses, how have we enabled in-store associates to best handle this?

Store associates need to be armed with the skills and capabilities to show shoppers real-time offers that are generated on the spot by their marketing department, to function effectively as "call centers on two feet" and free from fixed stations so they can best enhance and complete the customer’s journey. The years spent developing in-store training programs for associates are just a precursor of what’s needed to support an omni-customer today – who’s ordered online and is coming in for consultation or pickup or who may be returning an online item which doesn’t exist in that store’s assortment. Customers today require service at every touch point, be it pre-sale discovery, in-stream order orchestration and support or post-sale follow-up.

Moore’s law is 50 years old this year. And whereas Gordon E. Moore’s iconic observation, later refined, that computing power will double every couple of years has changed the world, our organizations haven’t kept pace; we’re still playing catch-up with the consumerization of technology and we’re going to see even more changes in organizational structures, roles, responsibilities and rewards as we continue to pivot our business models from channel-based to truly consumer-centric.

So what is the answer? Invest in the human touch. Each associate can significantly contribute to a digitally enriched customer journey for your brand. They help make it real. Your ability to create a uniform and engaging customer experience across all touch-points is proved or disproved in the store, in the last foot of retail. Regard touch-points as products in and of themselves as some leading retailers do. As form follows function, organize around them to ensure you’re maximizing your contacts with the customer. In-store associates handle, enhance or inhibit a customer experience based on their ability to meet the customer on the customer’s terms, in ‘the customer’s store’; and provide informed, immediate and relevant assistance.

Consider learning programs that enhance interpersonal skills training and broaden the focus of in-store associates beyond traditional roles as their customers have now broadened their focus beyond theirs. Investigate gaming technologies that turn rudimentary and mundane activities into goal-oriented desired outcomes, deeper product awareness, and customer service excellence.

In-store personnel represent a retailer’s ability to deliver end-to-end on its brand promises. As we continue to pivot towards channel-less, commerce-based engagement with our customers, let’s keep in mind that the best technologies, strategies and business processes are for naught unless we have our skills, behaviors and organizational structures aligned to deliver.

David Stover is head of B2C Omni-Channel Commerce, Solution Management, at hybris, an SAP company that provides omnichannel customer engagement and commerce solutions. Dave can be reached at [email protected].

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