Posts tagged: Cross-Channel

The iPad: A Retail Revolution?

There I was standing in line at the Apple store at 8:30 on the morning on April 3, waiting to pick up a brand new iPad. My mission? Check out this new device to see how retailers might use it to get ahead. Yeah, OK, and I really wanted one for myself, too. But I was legitimately interested in playing with it to determine good retail uses. And I definitely think there are some potentially revolutionary ways retailers can take advantage of the iPad.

Yes, it’s really something profoundly different

Understanding the value of the iPad starts with understanding why it is truly different than anything we’ve seen previously. Many of the attributes you might use to describe it have existed previously, but it’s the combination of those attributes that truly represents the revolution. The fact that it’s self-contained, light weight, and unburdened by a keyboard and a mouse means that it’s easy to hold and carry around. And it’s easy to share with others. It turns on instantly, and the battery lasts for a long time. The touch screen interface feels natural and intuitive. The apps it can run are powerful and capable of more functionality than most web pages. The combination of these attributes provides a powerful platform for retailers to leverage.

Here are just three ways retailers can leverage the power of the iPad:

Take catalogs to the promised land
For years, we’ve had visions of using technology to take catalogs to a new level. But online versions of our print catalogs just haven’t really taken off. Sure, we’ve added hyperlinks to make them interactive, and some have even incorporated multimedia elements, but the online versions really haven’t bested the old fashion print version. I believe a main contributor to the lack of the online catalog’s success is the fact that it’s just not comfortable and cozy to flip though an online catalog. Viewing on a computer screen using a keyboard and a mouse is not comfortable and convenient. The extra benefits of the interactive nature lose out to the lack of comfort in browsing.

But the iPad brings the comfort. It’s easy to sit on the couch and flip through pages with your fingers. It feels pretty natural. It doesn’t get hot, and it’s easy to just turn it off when little Suzy needs help with her homework and instantly turn it back on later with a single press of a button. Interactivity and personalization are possible with an internet connected device, of course, so catalogs created for the iPad can be extremely relevant, fun and informative. And they provide a direct connection to purchase capabilities. It’s really a beautiful thing. I believe catalogs that take advantage of these capabilities will be a huge hit with consumers.

Sales floor assistant
Part of the dream of true cross channel integration is the ability to bring the advantages of technology into the physical store in a way that can improve the shopping experience for our customers. Initially, some retailers used kiosks or POS-to-web integrations to provide these experiences. Lately, we’ve had lots of discussions about providing these capabilities to the mobile phones our customers carry with them into the store.

With the iPad, a sales associate can carry with her all the product data, the customer data, and the recommendations available online. Because the device is so easily shareable, she can easily pull up recommendations and hand them to the customer. She can show the customer how the brown lounge chair he’s viewing in the store would look in the red color that’s available via special order and place that special order on the spot. Or she can play a demonstration video of the food processor that struck the customer’s interest and easily show customer reviews. The possibilities are endless.

Virtual planogram and visual merchandising guide
Many retailers are still creating giant visual merchandising and planogram books, printing and binding them, and snail mailing them out to each store. It’s a costly process and not very flexible or efficient. Last minute changes mean reprints or sloppy additions to the original book.

With iPads at each store, we can send full color, highly customizable guides that are custom made for each store, if desired. They will be easy to carry to the racks, and they can even have built in check boxes to help track when the work is done. Efficiencies abound.

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Of course, there could be s significant capital investment to stock each store with set of iPads, and some of the consumer catalog capabilities I mentioned will not bear much fruit until the iPad is more common — or until the inevitable stream of competitive products hits the market and reduces costs. But there’s little doubt these types of devices will become fairly ubiquitous. And when they do, the retailers who are ready take advantage of the capabilities will be the retailers who come out ahead.

What do you think? Do these ideas seem nutty? What ideas do you have?


Social, mobile and other bright, shiny objects

It’s official. Social media and mobile commerce are this year’s bright, shiny objects. I recently attended a couple of industry conferences where those two topics dominated the agendas, and the trade mags and email newsletters are full of articles on everything social and mobile.

Heck, I’ve also written a white paper and blogged about social media.

Don’t get me wrong. I think social and mobile are important opportunities for us to improve our businesses. I just don’t think we should focus on them to the exclusion of some of the core aspects of our sites and businesses that still need a lot of work.

The level of our success with any of these new technologies is going to be limited by the effectiveness of our core site capabilities and constrained by any internal organizational challenges we might have.

Here are some topics I’d love to see get a little more press and conference content time:

  • Usability
    From my vantage point at ForeSee Results, where I can see customer perceptions at many different retailers, it’s clear that our sites have not come close to solving all of our usability issues. In fact, I’ll go as far as saying improving usability is the #1 way to increase conversion. I’m currently reading a book called “The Design of Everyday Things” by Don Norman. The book was written in the ’80s (I think) so there’s no mention of websites. Instead, he talks a lot about the design of doors, faucets and other everyday objects and, most interestingly, the psychology of we humans who interact with these things. The principles he discusses are absolutely relevant to web page design. Other books, such as “Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug and anything by Jakob Nielsen are also great sources of knowledge. I’d sure love to see us cover these types of topics a little more in our conferences and trade mags. Also, how do different retailers approach find and solve usability issues? In the end, if the experiences we create aren’t usable our social and mobile strategies won’t reach their potential.
  • Organizational structure
    How often do we come back from a conference with great new ideas about implementing some new strategies (say, a new social media or mobile commerce strategy) only to run into competing agendas, lack of resources or organizational bureaucracies? Discussing and writing about organizational structure doesn’t have the panache of social media or other exciting new frontiers, but there’s little doubt in my mind that the structure of our organizations can make or break the success of our businesses. When we were first setting up the organization for the new Borders.com, we spent a LOT of time studying the structures of other companies learning about the pros and the cons from those who lived through different schemes. It was hugely useful and more interesting than you might think. Mark Fodor, CEO of Cross View, just wrote an excellent piece for Online Strategies magazine that discussed the hurdles involved in going cross-channel and included a very good discussion about the need for mindset shifts. I’d love to see these topics further explored in interactive environments at industry conferences.
  • Incentives
    Books like Freakonomics make strong cases for the fact that incentives drive our behaviors. I’d love to hear how other companies set up their internal incentive structures. And there are multiple types of incentives. Certainly, there are financial incentives that come in the form of bonuses. But there are also the sometimes more powerful social incentives. What gets talked about all the time? How do those topics of discussion influence people’s behaviors? How do all those incentives align with the needs generated by new strategies to maximize the power of social media or mobile commerce?
  • Data/analytics storytelling
    We have so much data available to us, and we all talk about being data driven. But how do we get the most from that data? How do we use that data to form our strategies, support our strategies and communicate our strategies. John Lovett of Web Analytics Desmystified wrote an excellent piece on telling stories with data recently. There are also several great blogs on analytics like MineThatData, Occam’s Razor, and the aforementioned Web Analytics Demystified. I’d love to see more discussions in trade mags and conferences about how to get the most from our data, both in analyzing it and relating the findings to others.
  • International expansion
    We used to talk a lot about international, but it doesn’t seem to be a big topic lately. Yet the opportunities to grow our businesses internationally are immense. So, too, are the challenges. Jim Okamura and Maris Daugherty at the JC Williams Group wrote an absolutely excellent white paper late last year on the prizes and perils of international expansion. Jim did have a breakout session at last year’s Shop.org Annual Summit, but I’d love to see more discussion from retailers who have gone or are going international to learn more. Or it would also be good to hear from those who simply ship internationally or those who have decided to stay domestic to learn more about their decision making processes.
  • Leadership
    Leading lots of people and convincing big, disparate groups to do new things is hard. I just read the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Dan and Chip Heath. There are some amazing tips in that book about implementing change in organizations (and in other parts of life, for that matter). I would love to see more discussion of these types of leadership topics that help us all implement the changes we know we need to make to take advantage of new opportunities like social media and mobile commerce.

I know a lot of these topics are more business basics than retail or e-commerce specific. But the reality is we need to be our absolute best at these business basics in order to implement any of our new ideas and strategies. I personally always enjoy talking to other retailers about some of these basics, and I certainly never tire of reading books that expand my horizons. I’d love to see more about these topics in our conferences and trade mags.

But these are just my opinions. I’d really love to know what you think. As a member of the executive content committee for Shop.org, I’m actually in a position to influence some of the excellent content that my good friend Larry Joseloff regularly puts together. But I’d love to know if you agree or not before I start banging the drum. Would you mind dropping me a quick comment or an email letting me know if you agree or disagree. A simple “Right on” if you agree or a “You’re nuts” if you don’t is plenty sufficient; although, I certainly appreciate your expanded thoughts if you’d like to share them.

Please, let me know what you think of my little rant.


The Case to Cross It Up

For any retailer with more than one channel, becoming cross-channel is a critically important way to fully leverage its assets to provide a greater experience to its customers, which ultimately leads to more customer retention, brand loyalty and, of course, sales and profits.

In an effort to highlight and tackle the issues associated with implementing cross channel strategies, Kasey Lobaugh of Deloitte Consulting and Jim Bengier of Sterling Commerce pulled together a Cross Channel Retail Consortium of retail thought leaders that included executives from a cross section of retailers as well as some industry analysts, vendors and yours truly for a day of discussion this past Sunday on the strategy, tactics and challenges of implementing effective retail cross channel experiences for our customers.

Before I delve deeper into my thoughts on the day, it’s probably worth defining “cross channel.” Many times, “multi-channel” and “cross-channel” are used interchangeably, but I don’t think they’re the same thing at all. “Multi-channel” is simply operating in more than one channel while “cross-channel” is leveraging the strengths of each channel to create an overall customer experience that is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s 1+1=3.

Sounds great, right? So, why aren’t more retailers doing it?

Three basic themes emerged from the group:

  1. Lack of executive and board level understanding of the value of customers transacting in multiple channels (and, conversely, the negative affects that occur when customers are prevented from interacting with a brand across channels)
  2. Lack of incentives for various employees, from executive to front line staff, to encourage shopping across channels
  3. IT systems limitations

So, let’s tackle these issues one-by-one.

1. Lack of executive and board level understanding of the value of creating cross channel experiences

The group agreed that getting the buy-in of the CEO is critical. No one believed, and I certainly agree, that a strategy as all-encompassing as creating a cross channel experience has any chance at success without the CEO actively driving it. So, just get the CEO to support it. Easy, right? Not so much.

In my experience, the best way to convince a CEO of the value of any strategy is to show him or her how it will maximize profits. One retailer in the room was able to show the value of customers shopping in multiple channels pretty easily by tracking customer transactions in all channels through a loyalty program. Others were able to do the same in various degrees, but the general concern was the potentially high cost of discounts provided in exchange for such information. (I have lots to say about loyalty programs, but I’ll save that for another post). Janet Sherlock of AMR Research extolled the virtues of emailed receipts as an environmentally attractive and altogether less costly alternative option to harness ID’d transactions. I find that proposal extremely intriguing.

While transactions tell us about customers who completed transactions in each channel, they don’t tell us about customers who researched online to buy in store or customers who took a look at products in store before buying online, and the group longed for an industry standard metric that could be used to assess the amount of sales influenced by the another channel.

Another driver of CEO support is attention to the issue from the Board. One retailer said all it took was a bad experience by one 17-year-old granddaughter of a Board member to get the issue front and center. Funny how life is, isn’t it? Who could imagine that one young girl’s frustration can drive a strategic shift in a major national retailer? But maybe the lesson here is about the importance of getting decision makers’ heads out of the financial spreadsheets and into real-life experiences to help them understand how their companies are (or are not) serving their customers.

2. Lack of incentives for various employees to encourage shopping across channels

One retailer described the challenges of focusing on customer experience at a retailer that is driven by “an imperialist merchant organization.” (There was no way I could write this piece without including that quote.) Merchants, by their nature, tend to care a lot more about product than customers. But in the end, they’re generally heavily driven by sales, margin and turn metrics. There are many cross channel strategies can be implemented to help merchants drive these key metrics.

For example, the web has many selling capabilities that are nearly impossible to achieve in store because of physical constraints. Customer reviews are extremely popular online and customers regularly report using them to make purchase decisions (both online and in store); however, they are very difficult to make available in a physical environment. Some retailers are making them available via in-store kiosks, but the kiosks are a large capital investment to make if they’re not already available. But just about everyone’s got a computer in his or her pocket or purse these days. Let’s make more use of mobile phone technology to give people access to customer reviews, recommendations, wish lists, gift registries, etc. in store while they’re standing in front of the products.

There are also advantages in stores than can be leveraged online. Many retailers have incredible experts in their stores. How can those experts build content that can be used by customers and other employees alike to improve the shopping experience? How about security? Should retailers start to look for ways to accept payment in their stores for web orders when customers aren’t comfortable paying online? Believe it or not, there are still a lot of customers out there who aren’t comfortable using a credit card online, and in this economy there are more and more customers who aren’t comfortable or aren’t able to use credit cards period. But they’re still interested in buying from us, and we should find every way we can to help them do so.

3. IT systems limitations

There’s no question that IT legacy systems cause us a lot of trouble when we try to integrate our customer experiences. But I also wonder how many times we fall back too easily on such an excuse. I’ve written about my Tree Stump Theory previously, and it’s certainly prevalent in this case. We have a lot of compelling reasons why systems prevent us from implementing such key capabilities as the ability to accept returns of online purchases in store. But guess what? Our customers don’t know those reasons, and even if they did, they don’t care. While many retailers have found ways around the returns issues, just as many still have not. Either way, the case to prioritize such efforts should rely on some of the same techniques described above to make compelling cases to the CEO and the incent imperialist merchants.

Pure play retailers, and especially Amazon, continue to grow at rapid rates by pulling more and more market share. Multi-channel retailers have assets in their stores that pure plays don’t, but it’s going to take implementing true cross channel strategies to leverage those assets in a competitively advantageous way. Let’s cross it up!

What cross-channel strategies have you implemented or are considering implementing? What are the barriers to cross-channel in your organization?

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons



The Case for an E-Commerce IT Org Change

As multi-channel retailers move more and more towards implementing cross-channel strategies, organizational structures need to change to support those new strategies. I am a huge proponent of breaking up most e-commerce silo  organizations and integrating online and in-store marketing and merchandising teams to ensure a common vision and voice across channels. For IT, though, I actually recommend the opposite approach. I believe technology  professionals who work full time (or near full-time) on the e-commerce site should report directly to the head of e-commerce.

While at a high level is seems like technology should have the same kind of continuity as marketing and merchandising, I believe a close look tells a different story.

Here’s why e-commerce IT is significantly different from traditional IT:

In e-commerce, the business is technology

Traditionally, IT creates tools that help employees be more productive and efficient. However, in e-commerce, IT is actually creating software designed to generate revenue. E-commerce “stores” are really self-service software  applications designed to help customers perform a service — in this case it’s to buy the products and services we sell.  Intuit has Quicken; Microsoft has Word and Excel; retailers have our e-commerce sites. We really need to think about  our sites more as software products and organize our teams in a product management type of structure.

Also, a particular pet peeve of mine is when IT folks refer to those in other functions of the company as “the business.”  Just that reference alone insinuates that IT is not a crucial part of the overall business and creates a separation that  frequently leaves IT coming across as second class citizens, which they are not. While I’ve never liked “the business”  reference in any circumstance, it’s doubly bad in e-commerce where success absolutely depends on technology team  members actively working as part of the business.

Self-service applications require a different mindset

Working on an e-commerce application that is designed to be used directly by customers requires a very different  mindset than what is typically required when working on applications that support employees. Even when the  underlying technology is similar, the mindset required is substantially different. New employee applications usually  come with training programs and manuals. Moreover, employees are ultimately forced to use the app; they get used to it and get incrementally better at using it over time through daily usage. Customers, however, don’t get the benefit of manuals and training programs. They’re on their own. And if the experience doesn’t satisfy them, they give up and the sale is lost.

Site functionality and customer experience are major components of the e-commerce business strategy

The website application is a key differentiator for the business, and customer experience is hugely driven by site functionality. While functions other than technology certainly contribute to an e-commerce site’s success or failure, there can be little doubt that the quality of the technology is a massive contributing factor.

E-commerce is 100% dependent on technology to be open for business.

While technology is critical in all areas of the business, most retailers have offline contingencies for stores so they can  continue to make sales even if the system is down. Websites obviously don’t have an offline mode.

Web businesses are still immature and need considerable agility and flexibility to mature as quickly as possible

For many absolutely legitimate reasons, most IT organizations at multi-channel retailers have significant (and some might say onerous) processes in place to manage technology requests and roadmap prioritization. Because requests for technology improvements come from all corners of the company, it’s important for CIOs to ensure they are spending their resources on work that is thoroughly vetted and likely to generate the highest return on investment for the company. But given the absolute dependence of the e-commerce business on technology, typical IT prioritization and allocation processes are too slow for e-commerce businesses that need to be able to adjust quickly to issues that arise with customer experience.

The e-commerce competitive marketplace innovates far quicker than the brick & mortar marketplace

The CEO of a pure-play e-commerce company is in basically the same role as the head of e-commerce at a multi-channel retailer. If for no other reason than there is no alternative, the CIO of a pure-play reports to the CEO. This reporting structure gives the pure-play leader a leg up in agility and the ability to react to customer needs. In a multi-channel retailer, the CIO must split time between many functions of the business, and I find e-commerce often gets time allocated in a ratio roughly equal to its financial contribution to the business. While such an allocation is understandable given everything on a busy CIO’s plate, I believe this lessened focus can lead to stunted growth and lost ground to competitors such as Amazon who are more devoted to improving their software application and increasing their customers’ satisfaction with their site customer experience.

I believe if a head of e-commerce is to be truly held accountable for the success of the site, he or she should have  appropriate authority over such a major contributor to the success of the site.

So why should the head of e-commerce have authority over e-commerce IT and not e-commerce marketing and merchandising?

To me, it’s all about what faces the customer and what doesn’t. A brand should be clear to its customers about who it is and what it stands for, so continuity in marketing and merchandising trumps silo control over those aspects of the business. Site functionality has no parallels in other parts of the organization. Since it is both unique and customer facing, I believe the head of the online channel should maintain the authority to develop and execute the technical strategy for his or her business unit when it directly affects the customer relationship.

I’ll add this final point: I’ve lived through many different org structures surrounding e-commerce IT, and the only times I’ve found the pros to outweigh the cons of an org structure have been when e-commerce IT was part of the e-commerce operation and reporting to the head of e-commerce.

What do you think? Am I completely misguided? What structures have you seen work and not work? What structure do you think is ideal?

Predicting the Future of Retail

The world is changing incredibly fast — maybe faster than ever — primarily due to rapid technology innovations. If our business models don’t keep pace, we’ll quickly be left behind. Since I believe that defending the status quo is what kills companies, thriving and surviving requires somewhat accurately predicting the future. So I thought I’d take a few moments to predict the three advances I think will most affect retail in the next 15 years.

I’ll start with an easy one:

1. Just about everyone will be connected at high speeds at all times

Heck, we’re almost there now. Technologies like WiMax and its successors will be incredibly prevalent in 2024. Furthermore, screen size will no longer be an issue. Innovative technologies like OLED will allow for large foldable and rollable screens that can be neatly tucked into devices the size of ballpoint pens. But it won’t just be mobile devices that are connected. Our cars, our clothes, our sunglasses, our appliances and just about everything else will be connected. Everyone will have exactly the information they need at any given time immediately accessible at any point in time.

2. Video communications advances will make today’s office spaces almost extinct

This one is where I’ve met with the most dissent when I’ve discussed it with people. I think we’ll all have wall-sized screens in our homes that allow us to have life-sized video conversations with people, and that technology will allow us to telecommute in massive numbers. So many people will telecommute that offices as we know them today will no longer make sense. Our co-workers will be spread throughout the globe, yet our communications with them will come close to the same quality we have today with someone in the same office.

The normal argument I hear against this prediction is that nothing can take the place of the types of in-person conversations we have today. That may be true, but maybe we don’t need that level of quality for the vast majority of our office conversations. We’ve proven over and over throughout the years that we’ll trade quality for convenience. In communications alone, we’ve traded phone conversations for what used to be in-person conversations. We’ve also more recently traded the higher sound quality and reliability of land line phones for the lesser sound quality and lesser reliability of mobile phones. Texting has replaced email for many, and even instant messaging has frequently substituted for in-person conversations. I’ve seen people IM each other even though they’re sitting in directly adjacent cubicles where they could have easily just spoken in normal voice.

I’ve used current versions of video conferencing that are pretty impressive. I once attended a meeting at Google’s Ann Arbor office where we met with people in Google’s Mountain View office via video conference. After a couple of minutes adjustment, I felt like we were in the same room. We were even drawing on the white boards for each other.

This particular technological advance will also be driven by environmental concerns and continuously rising prices of fuel. The “world is flat” phenomenon may also be a significant contributing factor as companies will be able to leverage their use of these technologies to hire the best talent available regardless of physical location.

3. Supply chain advances will make same-day delivery commonplace

One of the most often cited advantages of physical retail over e-commerce is the immediate gratification available at a local store. This advantage will not hold for long. I can just about guarantee someone at Amazon is currently trying to find a way to deliver most of their goods to almost anyone in the same day. They’re actually already doing it for some items in some cities today. And they’re not alone. The auto parts retailers have long been able to deliver parts to commercial garages within an hour. In fact, I can imagine the types of distribution networks built by auto parts stores becoming a model for many retailers. Supply chain professionals are some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met.
They are constantly finding new efficiencies in their processes, and I have no doubt they will be able to solve the issues associated with same day delivery.

Do these predictions sound crazy?

If so, think back 15 years to 1994. Hardly anyone had mobile phones or emails. Amazon didn’t exist, nor for all practical purposes did e-commerce. Those of us who connected to the internet did so on dial-up modems at 56k speeds. We’ve come a long way in the last 15 years, and I don’t see any sign of us slowing down for the future.

So, what does this mean for retail?

Many of today’s current physical store advantages are going to be neutralized, so multi-channel retailers are going to have to significantly change their business models. Furthermore, the commonplace usage of video conferencing will likely cause population shifts and cause the need to shift real estate strategies. I can see some people migrating towards urban environments to satisfy their needs for more personal interaction in their social lives, and I can see others going the opposite direction and moving to rural environments to satisfy their needs for more solitude and outdoor living. Suburbs as we know them today will have less appeal and may see significant population decreases.

As I think is already the case today, the retailers who create the best customer experiences across all channels are best positioned to thrive in the future. As retail becomes increasingly self-service via customers’ constant connections to retailers and to each other and to general information everywhere, it’s going to be the retailers who get customers the right information in the right way at the right time and with the best overall customer experience who will garner the most loyalty among customers.

Retailers with physical stores may consider leveraging those physical stores as distribution warehouses while maintaining selling spaces that are in many ways showrooms. Retailers will need to consider whether or not distribution and delivery should be outsourced or become core capabilities. Will sales associates and delivery drivers become one in the same? Will sales assistance occur both via video conferencing and via direct discussion on a customer’s doorstep? Is that crazy from a customer’s perspective or incredibly convenient?

I believe the retailers who best leverage their cross-channel capabilities today will be best positioned for this brave new world. And those who attempt to protect the status quo will face pressures from all fronts.

There are lots of other things that could happen in the next 15 years that are potentially even more radical than anything I’ve predicted here. But one thing’s for sure: there can be no doubt the retail landscape 15 years from now will be very different from what we see today.

What do you think of my predictions? Even more importantly, what are your predictions? How do you think retailers should react?

Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell


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