Eye on eCommerce: Accenture's retail boss on why the store isn't dead

Despite consulting on digital retail for a living, Jill Standish, senior managing director for retail at Accenture, isn't ready to say goodbye to stores yet.

"I have a strong passion for stores," she tells Essential Retail. "It is how retail started years and years ago, where people used to know the shop owner and could recommend, suggest and give great customer service. Then the internet and online shopping happened and now there are loads of articles asking if the store is dead and will customers just order from their sofa? I fundamentally believe that won't happen."

Standish said there's a reason people love to go shopping, be that for inspiration and advice, trying on clothes or a renaissance with friends. "I hope that comes back and I see retailers paying attention to that, how they can train employees differently to make sure the experience is fun and lively, and not just packed with inventory. It has to be a fun place to be while marrying that experience with what's going on with the website."

She also said retailers have finally got to grips with the fact they have to be online. "Retailers have gotten over it – they used to think that because online was only 10% of their business, it was a side business and they needed to pay attention to stores. Now we're seeing the internet is growing so fast, they have to pay attention and have to integrate to make it more seamless."

Recommercing and showrooming

But while she hopes customers will still continue their Saturday shopping traditions on the high street, she admits customers are changing and so are their attitudes to shopping. She pointed to the new trend of access instead of ownership, with companies such as Rent The Runway and Poshmark offering customers the option to borrow luxury items for a fraction of the cost. For a little over $100, customers can access three items a month, and return and get replacements if they wish.

"It's the notion of borrowing and you keep changing your closet," she says. "And how that's affecting luxury, this idea of reuse and recommercing is a big deal."

She says she is educating retailers about the impact of these start-up websites: "Do you realise your brand is showing up here and for a fraction of the cost users can get hold of a semi-used handbag – your competition isn't coming from another retailer, but other consumers who are leveraging the PayPal model," she explains.

"It's probably only a tiny trend in the industry today, and a fraction in terms of competition, but it's these emerging things that are fun to watch."

Another trend impacting the high street which has been around considerably longer than recommerce is showrooming. And Standish thinks this one is here to stay.

"Retailers have got to figure out a way if their customers are on their Wi-Fi, why not try to control the experience?"

She suggests launching welcome messages when customers connect to Wi-Fi and providing options to discover and purchase goods. She notes how this is commonplace in travel and hospitality, where you log onto a hotel's Wi-Fi and receive a welcome message with vacation ideas.

"People will be launching their browser while shopping, so how do you leverage that?"

She also says if customers are in a luxury retailer comparing prices on Amazon, the full brand experience will be completely different. "If you order from Amazon Fashion, it comes in brown box, but if you order the same goods from a high-end retailer, customers expect it to come with tissue paper and perhaps a love note from the store manager. So I think that's the challenge: how do retailers have their brand experience involved when they're not controlling it?"

Inventory and fulfilment

Flexible fulfilment is one way retailers can save the in-store sale from online competitors, especially as customers favour Amazon's flexible and speedy delivery options above all else.

"Customers expect stores to be able to order out-of-stock items – but that kind of thing is not happening," she says. "It's about training the store personnel to 'save the sale', how can you train them to embrace the internet when there are still stores out there who pick up the phone and call around to find a product? It's sad, but true, that they don't have visibility of inventory."

She says end of day processing, where PoS systems send details of the day's sales to HQ overnight, are no longer good enough in today's digital world. "Every time a cash register rings it should send a notification somewhere that the item is no longer in stock."

Standish explains: "Retailers are trying really hard to invest in technology to show you inventory when you're online, but unfortunately customers don't care, they just expect, and these expectations are higher than the retailer can deliver."

She said it is the "plague" of in-house custom development which has led retailers to a tricky situation where they find it difficult to modernise their systems. "A lot of retailers took out technology and modified their business so it was special and unique, and customised the solution over time, but it's hard to keep it up to date," she explains. "But IT doesn't make you special – it's about how fast you can adapt and how quickly you can change and treat you customers."

Cloud and the democratisation of IT, she believes, will allow retailers to have the same abilities when it comes to inventory and back-end systems, with regular updates from the cloud. "Then you're allowed to go and specialise in other things – let's not custom develop to the point where we can't support it long term."

"Get over it"

She uses the notion of how consumers update their smartphones today. "We wake up every morning and three or four times a year, we get an update and your whole phones gets upgraded – why can't the systems in retail have the same process as consumers dealing with their phones? Their smartphone background and screen saver stays the same, but the way things work change when you update – retailers kind of need to get over it."

Standish uses this phrase "get over it" several times during the interview to demonstrate how retailers are not adapting quickly enough. "The fact we're becoming better users of IT as human beings and getting used to digital, retail has to figure out that their employees will adapt, if things change over night, so what, you're phone changes over night, so what?!"

Using an example of a large cosmetics retailer, she describes how a PoS upgrade sent management into a state of panic, with weeks of planning for robust staff training on how to use the new systems.

"But they realised because the PoS user interface was so much like a phone, employees didn't need training," she says. "We're getting better as people to adopt technology and we get over ourselves when things change. If retailers are going to adopt a lot of technology, they have to get over themselves."

News update: Earlier this week, Accenture announced it has entered into an agreement to acquire retail-focused global strategy consulting firm Kurt Salmon, a subsidiary of Management Consulting Group. The acquisition is seen as a way of expanding Accenture Strategy’s capabilities in delivering end-to-end strategy consulting services to top retailers and private equity firms in a world disrupted by digital.

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