Untapped Potential in Digital


It all happened so fast. Smartphones with internet access, then tablets, then showrooming— all while traditional retailers scrambled to align their e-commerce channels with their stores. While individual brands have made significant advances, the concept of seamless multichannel retail remains ahead of its actuality. The potential, however, is exciting for business.


It all happened so fast. Smartphones with internet access, then tablets, then showrooming— all while traditional retailers scrambled to align their e-commerce channels with their stores. While individual brands have made significant advances, the concept of seamless multichannel retail remains ahead of its actuality. The potential, however, is exciting for business.

Catching up to customer expectations

The coming year will find the majority of retailers focusing on e-commerce site optimization and increased conversions. That means redesigning the online experience to be more responsive, making checkout simpler and integrating the online channel into the store for improved inventory control and customer service.

The mobile channel complicates the picture. Putting the means for endless research in the palm of the consumer’s hand reduces conversion almost as often as it lifts sales. Numbers indicate consumers truly value showrooming; that is, the ability to inspect merchandise in the store—particularly consumer electronics—with intent to buy wherever the price is lowest, which is often online.

Aware that mobile sales are small but growing rapidly, and that touchscreen tablets will soon dominate as consumers’ favorite mobile shopping device, retailers are mobilizing to address the larger issues around digital: Where and how does it fit into the organization? How can development teams be reorganized and silos lowered to accommodate a multichannel approach? How will the brand’s culture change in response?

Companies in search of growth can take their cue from consumer expectations. Bring the online shopping experience into the brick and mortar store. Give shoppers the “endless aisle” ability to search online for more versions of what they’ve found in the store; the option to pay with credit card, PayPal or wire money; a choice of home delivery or carrying a shopping bag. Bring personal service back. Studies continue to show that brands that invest in trained and motivated store associates command higher margins and greater loyalty. Online training centers reduce the cost of developing personnel.

Personalize the shopping experience. Too often, digital channels are used for coupons and promotions, making consumers feel spammed. People have demonstrated their willingness to share personal information for better service. Provide store associates access to customer profile and account history in the store, in the manner pioneered by Amazon, so they can make specific and thoughtful recommendations, offer previews and create customized events for the best customers. Enable customers to create digital “closets,” where purchased product is presented on digital shelves, informing future purchases and ready to be shared with social networks.

Assist, inspire, engage and personalize

Smart and innovative examples of integrated digital touchpoints are dotted through the retail landscape. Top brands, such as U.S.-based luxury department store Nordstrom, are trying to do away with checkout counters in favor of mobile POS. Two U.S. retailers using digital to make highly personalized recommendations to customers: mass and grocery leader Target knows its customers so well it can alert them to replace their Brita filter; and DIY giant Lowe’s keeps track of a customer’s paint colors and shares tips specific to their current home improvement project. Leading grocers have eliminated waiting lines at deli counters by allowing shoppers to place orders via touch-screen; a text alert tells them when the order is ready to pick up.

As effective as these tactics are, they are only scratching the surface of digital’s potential. With tablets fast becoming the mobile shopping tool of choice, the future looks ripe for integrated digital product catalogs. Websites are all about a three-to-six-minute search-review-buy function. But the glossy, interactive, branded aesthetic of digital catalogs from companies like Zara Home, Nordstrom and The Home Depot engage shoppers for an average of 30 minutes or more. The richness of the medium brings it closer to the experience of real-world shopping while also providing the retailer with an opportunity to communicate its purpose to the world.

More of a brand engagement and loyalty-building tool than a sales channel, digital catalog success is measured by the amount of time spent browsing and the actions taken within the app. Combined with an opt-in, store associates can be prepped to show the customer the products they’ve been browsing once they arrive in the store. These apps also produce the data that can be used on multiple levels to optimize experience and marketing efforts.

Near field communications (NFC) present another opportunity to improve the shopping experience. This contactless, Wi-Fi-style tech already resides in many smartphones, and will soon make it possible for retailers to strike up a “conversation between gadgets” for payment, preferences, and other actions that improve service. Seeing it only as an outlet for couponing sells the technology short. It has the potential to be used as a continuous feed of data, tracking the shopper journey through the store and measuring amounts of time spent in a category, alerting store associates to the possibility of a profitable sale.

While retailers continue to evolve, recasting their organizations to deliver digital’s promise, for great brands the basic goal remains constant: know your customer and anticipate their needs so you can drive demand and create desire.