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.”