Christmas and other gift-giving winter holidays are getting closer and this year is expected to see more online shopping than ever before. Will this holiday shopping season be a sign of things to come - culminating in the end of the humble Main Street? As online technology and product delivery mechanisms improve, will we become a nation that only shop via screens, staying in and waiting for our goods to be delivered?
The way we research and buy online may be changing significantly, but Main Street USA can still play a major part in this development. Technology will ultimately enhance and rejuvenate brick-and-mortar shopping, creating a more interactive and enhanced shopping experience.
Econsultancy's Multichannel Retail Survey claims just 14 percent of people surveyed believe that retailers do not need to operate across the various channels. What retailers and brands need to do is promote their technology and channels effectively, or else risk losing profits to those who are.
Technology gives brick-and-mortar retailers the chance to extend their sales reach beyond their store. As consumers look for the easiest and cheapest shopping solutions, retailers need to utilize all their creative powers of engagement to fend off the competition and get holiday shoppers into their stores and onto their ecommerce and m-commerce sites.
By distributing products effectively, and making them more accessible in ecommerce channels, retailers can make the shopping experience simple and, if executed properly, fun.
However, merely making this technology available is no longer good enough. Marketers need to become adept at making channel-specific offers and promoting them successfully, improving channel adoption by word of mouth.
They also need to educate the consumer in 'how' to engage with them across the channels, making sure that any problems that could lead to abandoned transactions are resolved. This work needs to be analysed and tied in with effective contact and CRM mechanisms.
The idea of having someone 'in-house' to deal specifically with content and how best to market and promote it across all channels is a good start, as retailers that can consistently personalise content to consumers via different methods will generate incremental sales.
Mobile's influence on shopping is well-documented, but according to research from the IAB, only 40 percent of major brands have an optimized mobile website, which during the holidays can make all the difference when people are shopping on the go.
Websites that aren't compatible with Smartphones frustrate potential customers, take longer to load and ultimately drive people elsewhere. If retailers don't have an m-commerce site, they should still embrace the power of mobile with an optimized information page detailing nearby stores, holiday hours, etc. Having a presence on social media also generates free advertising each time a customer shares a retailer's update. Both of these can increase traffic both online and in-store.
Fashion retailer Pretty Green, set up by singer Liam Gallagher, is embracing mobile and has adopted Mobile Money Networks' (MMN) Simple Tap payment method to make customers' lives easier. Once registered, customers can buy items securely and have them delivered to their home address with just one simple screen tap.
Pretty Green incorporated this concept after its mobile traffic rose almost 200 percent in less than a year. As MMN's mobile checkout is much easier than using an ecommerce checkout on a mobile, customers are less likely to abandon the transaction halfway through.
The fact that a fictitious meerkat has more than 50,000 Twitter followers shows that social media can be a powerful influencing tool. Many stores are beginning to recognize the combined power of social, local and mobile (SoLoMo), offering free in-store Wi-Fi so that customers can 'check in', read product reviews, compare prices, find offers and share pictures before making a purchase.
Inviting customer interaction generates a buzz around the merchandise and, if combined with mobile and local targeting, should extend the longevity of brick-and-mortar stores. Retailers should utilize social media popularity as a clever way to reach smartphone users with offers and vouchers, particularly during the holiday season when people are looking for good deals.
According to TradeDoubler, 32 percent of smartphone owners search for coupons each month, so retailers can improve the shopper experience by targeting customers with deals before they look elsewhere.
Vouchercloud and Foursquare use geo-technology to discover a customer's location and target them with specific offers from local retailers, which according to TradeDoubler, almost 60 percent of people are happy to receive. If customers are given an incentive, such as discounts or promotions, when they 'check in' to a store on their mobile, store traffic increases and retailers can see linkage from an online to offline conversion.
Today's retailers have access to huge amounts of customer data, but very few make the most of it. Businesses that engage with their customers, offering targeted discounts based on previous purchases, recent tweets and current location, are destined to succeed. Retailers who are yet to embrace SoLoMo and are doing nothing to enhance the customer journey are likely to lose sales to their mobile-savvy competitors.
Although holiday shopping is often regarded as a national pastime, the convenience of online does threaten brick-and-mortars and retailers need to do more to convince customers to leave their devices and make the journey into their stores.
Marks and Spencer is one retailer that's using the latest technology to provide an interactive in-store experience. High-definition screens advertise the latest trends, sales assistants use iPads and creative use of data feeds provide personalized product recommendation.
The new Burberry store on Regent Street in London integrates digital technology to create an exciting customer experience. Here too iPads are aplenty and, when approached with an item, the store mirrors transform to show the piece on the catwalk.
Although some features in these interactive stores are more for show, others have genuine practical uses. Interactive mirrors show customers how they look in several different garments and suggest matching items and accessories to complete the outfit.
By combining technology with practicality, retailers will ensure that customers have a reason to come into the store, rather than ordering everything online from the comfort of their sofa.
Of course, busy people often do order online for convenience, but as we are all out and about, home delivery can be inconvenient. Providing a click-and-collect service lets customers pick up items ordered online from their local store. According to Econsultancy's report How the Internet can save the High Street, 80 percent of people surveyed had reserved items online to collect in store, showing its popularity. Click and collect also gets e-shoppers into stores where they may be tempted by other last-minute gifts, driving incremental sales.
Several retailers have reversed this concept and created an Internet caf‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬©-cum-store. House of Fraser.com stores provide free coffee and access to their online inventory. Customers cannot take any products home, but clothes can be tried on and purchased online in-store and delivered the following day to the customer's home or local store.
In India, Asian Paints use their Colour Store, not to sell, but to educate their customers. Visitors to the store can take part in colour workshops, create their own paint shade combinations and receive decorating advice from in-store staff, before purchasing their chosen paint online.
Apart from offering customers useful skills and a convenient way to shop, these 'stores' help to enhance brand reputation and customer feeling by promoting themselves as a company that doesn't just focus on sales, but is dedicated to providing an excellent customer experience. They also provide consumers with the convenience of delivery on-demand, rather than the unhappy task of having to lug bags around all day.
As the Internet continues to dominate our lives and smartphone popularity increases, the simple Main Street retailer needs to move with the times and investigate additional channels to boost sales and maintain the customer experience.
When choosing which channels to target, retailers should consider the long-term advantages and retail benefits of each one. Retailers can now find out not just who their customers are, but also where they are and how to engage with them. All this data that customers are willingly providing should be exploited to get their attention.
Customers expect a good shopping experience in-store and online, so with multichannel retail the connections need to be smooth and consistent. According to Hitachi Consulting UK, more than 80 percent of customers will leave a store if the product they want is out of stock, especially in the run up to Christmas, so it is essential that store products are available online so that the sale can still be made even if the customer cannot take the item home that day.
Amazon and Tesco remain two of the few retailers that have an integrated desktop and mobile commerce site. Products added to the customer's basket on a laptop will also appear in their basket on a smartphone, making it easy for people to continue their shopping on the move.
The main thing that retailers need to remember is that customers expect a good overall experience. Customer service now needs to extend from having polite sales assistants, to responding quickly to a tweet and providing a simple online checkout process. By keeping this in mind, retailers will be able to seamlessly adopt, not just multichannel retailing, but omnichannel retailing.