In response to consumer expectations in this increasingly connected world, retailers are pursuing omnichannel strategies that aim to provide customers with a seamless shopping experience at every touchpoint.

The majority of retailers in the UK are just starting the omnichannel journey, but, 131-year-old Marks and Spencer is up there with the likes of Apple and Burberry, ahead of IT darling John Lewis, according to retail technology expert Dan Hartveld.

Giving customers a uniform experience whether they are shopping in-store, by telephone or online from a desktop or mobile device, is not easy for many companies.

Especially those with legacy, disparate IT systems that have been added to the business over time.

The key, says Hartveld, is to start by looking for the quick wins.

Hartveld, the chief technology officer at enterprise retail technology firm Red Ant, says that a common problem for retailers is that a customer can go into a shop and know more about the products on sale than the staff do.

“That’s a big problem in retail at the moment - how to marry the two up.”

Traditionally, retailers will have very distinct business areas. In the physical store, they will have retail operations and visual merchandising teams. On the IT side, there are also silos. For example, they might have one team to deal with the website, ecommerce and product reviews, and another team that deals with stock systems and point-of-sale systems on the shop floor.

Much of Red Ant’s initial work with clients - its customers include Topshop, Joules and Mastercard - is therefore about breaking down these silos, to resolve this disconnect.

“A lot of the time, we’ll talk to the ecommerce team, and they’ll have very little contact with their IT team, or with the retail operations team who deal with the in-store staff. So a lot of what we aim to do is to get them to talk to each other, because customers are expecting the facilities they have online when they walk into a shop,” Hartveld explains.

Breaking down the silos is not easy. There can be some resistance to working more collaboratively, but Hartveld says it’s more about each different division having different business priorities, rather than being against working together.

“All teams recognise the need for technology on some level, but every team has different business priorities,” he says.

“We found [the best thing to do] was to pick something that gives you business gains very quickly, and roll that out in store. It may be just getting product information in-store can be a big challenge for some people.”

Where are UK retailers on this omnichannel journey?

Hartveld claims that just five percent of retailers could be called ‘early adopters’ on this journey to breaking down barriers and just having the detailed product information in the stores. He names Apple as a “really early adopter”, as customers can go into an Apple store, look at product information in the shop, and if they have an app, can purchase the product on their phones while they’re there.

Luxury fashion company Burberry is another early adopter, and even Marks and Spencer - which set up a digital innovation hub in 2013 - is starting to bring product information into the store on iPads, Hartveld says.

About 10 to 20 percent of retailers are starting to roll out click and collect, have mobile apps and ecommerce. They’re also thinking about location technology and how to enhance the mobile app while customers are in stores.

But, says Hartveld, they are lacking a connection between all three real estates. This is why John Lewis - often considered in the IT industry as technologically forward - would fall into this bracket, below Marks and Spencer, he says.

“I’d put John Lewis in the middle bracket. John Lewis does a lot more tactical experiments, but Marks and Spencer thinks about it as a whole. For example, they think about how their wine recommendation service fits into their iPhone app.”

Bridging the gap between online and offline

The majority of retailers in the UK - between 50 percent and 70 percent - have an ecommerce site but are only looking at launching a mobile app and services like click and collect, Hartveld says.

For some retailers, like John Lewis, Marks and Spencer, Debenhams and most recently, SportsDirect, offering a click and collect service may be the quickest “big win” that helps to break down the barriers between online and the store.

However, while it seems like a simple service to offer from a consumer point of view - they place an order online and click for it to be delivered in their most convenient store - behind the stories is a different story.

“The system that controls the stock management of the store and take the payment for the purchase, has been purchased and maintained by the operations team that manages the bricks and mortar store. It will be entirely disconnected from the ecommerce team, which has its own warehouse, own stock control system for its warehouse and IT systems,” Hartveld explains.

“Up until that functional requirement [to offer click and collect], they never needed to and wouldn’t speak to one another. Their marketing teams might talk to one another sometimes.”

Ecommerce and retail operations teams will also have very separate visions, skills and expertise, Hartveld says.

“Retail operations have been doing that for 150 years, and their skills will be around getting sales through the door, giving great customer service. Ecommerce will be very much around what does the site look like? How does it convert? What do the analytics tell you?”

However, Hartveld says that the barriers are starting to come down, which means both sides offering a better customer experience. For example, customers will appreciate the convenience of collecting something they ordered online in store, instead of having to wait for it to be delivered.

Meanwhile, the retailer benefits from having more customers coming into the store and buying other items they see in-store. At the same time, stores will start to benefit from ecommerce if they have access to things like reviews, customer information and analytics.

As a starting point, a retailer could simply give in-store staff a tablet device, like an iPad, that is connected to the ecommerce system and has access to the retailer’s website.

“When we go into retailers, we often tell them that’s the easiest or first thing you can do.”

This means that, for example, a customer could bring an item they bought online to return in store. Although they wouldn’t be able to return it through the usual in-store process, the shop can still take the item and generate a return order through the ecommerce system. This is instead of making the customer go home and do it online themselves.

“The next thing is to make that process really slick and easy to do, so that staff can do it in two taps. As a staff member, they’re a trusted party, so you can empower them, make them feel good, so that they give great customer service and increase sales,” says Hartveld.

The mobile app disconnect

Breaking down barriers and connecting up systems is also a necessary first step for retailers exploring mobile strategies, Hartveld says. Red Ant specialises in helping retailers develop mobile apps, and helped to rebrand Topshop’s mobile app, for example.

“[The challenge to developing a good mobile app] tends to be systems not talking to one another, systems being very different,” he says.

“Typically, at the start, we focus on just connecting the ecommerce systems. The barrier to mobile is getting that information from the ecommerce systems to the mobile platforms. This involves understanding how Apple iOS works and how that compares to Android. There are also questions around, do we make two independent native apps, or do we do a hybrid app that works over both?”

There’s not a “magic bullet” solution to the decision.

Hartveld explains: “It’s easier to make a good native app, iPhone or Android, but more difficult to maintain in the long term because you’ve got two separate platforms and two very specialised skills bases - you need an Apple iOS developer and an Android developer. If you’re a bigger brand, that’s easier to do.”

In contrast, a hybrid app is easier to maintain, keep upgrading and change, but is more difficult to make well, he says.

“A lot of retailers have gone down that route and ended up with something not really better than a mobile website and not really gaining anything.”

For a mobile app to be truly beneficial to retailers, it needs to enable them to take advantage of features like having a customer who is always logged on, as well as being easy and quick to use.

“With a native app, you can have features where the user is already logged in and you can have one-touch checkout, because it knows all about the user already. It keeps their basket, it’s very fast, you can browse product information, really hi-res imagery and it feels much more tactile.”

Web apps are often not like that, Hartveld says.

“They’re much more like websites and you have to wait for the page to load. The best apps are ones that are a combination of the two, we found.

“The stuff you change very frequently, for example campaign things, are on the web app. Stuff that you don’t change frequently, where you want to have a solid experience or you want to be logged in all the time, are on the native app.”

Image credit: Marks and Spencer