'Keep calm and carry on' – we've all seen this popular war time slogan re-emerge on all manner of merchandise in the last few years. I suspect many retailers out there in the furniture, department store and other sectors may well be telling themselves this on a daily basis as they deal with IT systems which are splitting at the seams. Workarounds are in place, there are things retailers need to add which they cannot and the basics – such as pushing product and stock figures to other sales channels – take longer than they should, usually require duplication of data and are clunky.

There are lots of reasons why retailers are putting up with inefficient and ineffective systems – budget cuts, concerns about disruption, uncertainty about how to define their multichannel system requirements and simply having too many other projects on the go are very common examples. All the while the expectations of the customer are moving ahead of the multichannel capabilities of many retailers as technology has already given consumers the tools they need for competitive and well-researched retail purchases.

Essentially multichannel is the term given to a set of consumer behaviours and expectations which have emerged rapidly in just the last few years. This pace of change has left many retailers floundering and playing catch up, with the possibility of those who fail to really respond to this new consumer behaviour becoming irrelevant.

The difficulty for retailers lies in the fact that achieving multichannel success requires connecting head office systems which manage stock, forecasting, range planning, warehousing, accounting and CRM functions with in-store EPoS and online eCommerce and mobile. On the first look, this appears to be a daunting process requiring a lot of technical knowledge; however the reality is much simpler. Modern systems are based on ease of implementation and use that are similar to the processes used by the same consumers they need to connect with.

Don’t miss out

For retailers with physical stores, who pride themselves on their service and product knowledge, multichannel is a massive opportunity which must not be missed. There is no future in continuing to carry the overhead of physical retail premises unless it can be leveraged and made available to online consumers.

Let’s just imagine a typical customer, looking for a new piece of furniture, or a statement picture for their house. John is 42 years old, lives in a large town, works full-time and commutes for 45 minutes per day. He has a busy life – work, family, friends, travel – and there is always plenty going on.

John wants to support his town as he values the high street, so he buys his meat whenever possible from the local butcher on a Saturday morning. However, John is also always popping into the supermarket on the way home from work to pick up things they need. The bottom line is John values convenience more than price (within reason!).

Whenever John makes larger purchases he wants to make well-informed buying decisions without too much hassle. He researches products online – at home, on the train, at work – and is already used to buying online, but he may want to check out the "big purchases" first – see it, touch it, get a sense of its quality, sit on it and so forth.

Herein lays the real advantage that physical retailers and destination retailers have over their online-only competitors, but many are not yet making the most of it.

The consumer may decide to pop into a store and buy it there; after all they know the business and have a measure of trust. By visiting the store they’ve found out more about the product and the sales assistant was really helpful showing them the different options, however it’s really quite a big purchase and they don’t want to make up their minds just yet. The sale has not yet been secured.

Imagine if the sales assistant could provide that potential customer with a quote or unique reference number which could be used to buy the product from the website once they’ve had time to decide. It saves them another trip into town after all, which is useful as next week is looking pretty hectic and they are away on the weekend.

Filling the gaps

If systems enabled the retailer to do this, the consumer would feel special and the sales assistant knows that their efforts on the shop floor will be recognised if the person they’ve spent time with later buys via a different channel. All the retailers needed to do is have the same product option they selected in store available online.

Retailers must also have a strong delivery offer for them. Many furniture items, of course, will not be in stock so the website must provide accurate detail of when the customer can expect the item. For smaller items – curtains, rugs, pictures, even a chair – they might buy it online and opt to collect it from store. Good multichannel can provide them with this convenient and popular option.

Once the retailer has the order and knows the customer is coming in to collect their item, it’s a great opportunity to line up one or two complementary products or ‘add-ons’ that they might appreciate – all part of the great customer service  offer that can offered in-store.

This is just one example of how a destination retailer can extend its value to customers by becoming multichannel. However, in order to become relevant to the modern consumer in this way and fully seize the opportunity that multichannel presents, existing systems, processes and culture need to be adapted.

We believe that furniture and department stores should be looking to invest in the systems required to become multichannel. There are a number of operational benefits which will drive competitive advantage if they fully connect store and back office retail management systems with their eCommerce website and other online channels.

Article enquires: Ray Buckler ray.buckler@retaildna.co.uk  0783 117 8686