​Bricks and clicks: Balancing digital and physical to win the retail game

Online shopping might be attracting more buyers, but bricks-and-mortar retailers are uniting technology with physical experiences in new ways with growing success

Don’t lose sight of the customer when you scale

For growing brands, experts agree retailers need to leverage technology to connect closely with their customers both offline and online - and this should not be lost when they start to scale.

“Just take a look what your smaller, more nimble competitors are doing both in a product offer perspective but also how they communicate to customers one-on-one via social media and the like rather than via mass media,” owner of online jewellery brand Lord Coconut, Mark Boldiston, says. “Customers like a connection to the store and the people behind the store. Billabong and Quicksilver had this down pat when they started out, linking closely to the surfers. But they lost the plot when they became too big and ceased speaking to their customers one-on-one.”

According to Boldiston, the rise of ecommerce is only a small reason why some of the larger retailers are being squeezed out of the game.

“Traditional retailers need to tell a compelling story, cease being on constant sale, invest in the sales staff more, personalise social media, stop underestimating the internationals, don't take customer loyalty for granted and just stop being everything to everyone,” he adds.

It’s not all about technology

In an era of rapid technological change, it’s tempting to look to technology first to enliven brand experiences, but don’t let the latest technology dictate how you tackle a problem, MD of experience design agency Imagination, Ant Gowthorp, says.

“My biggest piece of advice would be to seek out external expertise to help you better define and activate your brand purpose,” he says. “There are whole businesses made up of people who strategise, design and build brand experiences. They know how to ask their clients the right questions, take them on a journey of discovery, open their eyes to new possibilities and deliver them something that solves a strategic problem.

"Starting with the problem is the most important part. Begin with the problem, come up with an unbiased strategic or tactical solution, and then use technology to deliver that solution. There’s no sense starting with the tech because it will limit how you tackle the problem you’re trying to solve. You can bend technology to deliver a solution, but it gets tricky to bend a solution to fit the technology.”

MD of customer experience agency MullenLowe Profero, Chris Henderson, says there is much more to keeping a retailer alive than just providing a better online experience.

“To my knowledge, most of the retailers who’ve struggled recently had an ecommerce element as well as a bricks-and-mortar element,” he says. “When that’s the case, it’s worth reflecting on whether the overarching brand is meeting consumers' emotional needs.”

“You need to ask: Does the brand reflect their identity? What collective belonging does it represent? Is a higher purpose being communicated? A brand is the summation of its purpose, identity, products and services and the customer journey – if one of the elements contradicts the other there will be a negative impact to the business.”

Henderson suggests retailers start by truly understanding their customers in order to match their emotional wants with rational needs.

“Secondly, retailers should understand that a good customer experience is the result of dozens of touchpoints operating in-sync, as opposed to in silos,” he advises. “The cumulative sum of several tiny 'surprise and delights' will often drive more value than the big silver bullet, like an ecommerce platform.

“And technology and creativity can be toothless until you’ve nailed the first two points. Nearly every retailer has an ecommerce platform, and the news of some Australian retailers continuing to struggle should prove that simply offering what your competitors are also doing is not a guaranteed pathway to success.”

Going forward, Henderson suggests Australian brands should grab onto whatever customer data they have and begin developing it into business intelligence.

“Strong customer insights and good council from specialists can allow brands to tackle problems from the 'bottom up', rather than simply attacking a problem from a single perspective or 'top-down',” he adds. “This approach helps answer big questions like - do you have a problem with the user experience and conversion of your platform? Or is there a discrepancy between the objectives of your strategy and the needs of your consumers?”

Ultimately, when you understand your customers’ needs and expectations, you know what they want in their everyday interactions with you as a retailer, adds Holla Agency’s CX consultant, Alex Allwood.

“It's going back to the basics and I talk about basics in that it's understanding your customer,” Allwood says. “And that's about going out and seriously asking customers what they're thinking and feeling really interacting with the brand.

“But it's also putting initiatives in place so the broader organisation gets the customer understanding as well. And that means that you will have greater empathy across the business for the customer. And so designing for unmet needs is where your competitive advantage lies as well – like Amazon which is a great case study for businesses to refer back to as a truly customer-centric company.”

Author of Good to Great CX, Isabella Villani, points to the vital and indissoluble link between CX and EX (Employee Experience) in order to survive today’s competitive landscape.

“The Apples, Amazons and Facebooks of this world initially injected a lot of creativity into forging brands that offer customers a consistent, distinctive experience with a clear value proposition they can respond to,” she explains. “Then, they have sustained their distinctiveness by attracting, nurturing, training and retaining excellent staff.

“Companies everywhere are finding that link between CX and EX - you can’t have one without the other. Successful companies understand and embrace the importance of EX as the key foundation to enabling CX. The impact is exponential in a retail environment where the majority of staff are customer facing, and culture is more evident to customers.”

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CMOAustralia, or check us out on Google+:google.com/+CmoAu

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