As IT experts, you may not know which brands are in or out or which are this year's best sellers or out-and-out failures. But you certainly are adept at finding, integrating, and supporting the systems your company's inventory experts can use to make sure they have plenty of this year's hot items and none of the failures -- whether shoppers prefer your company's online or physical store.
Despite the growing evidence of the importance of integrating the two worlds, many retailers continue to operate their e-commerce and brick-and-mortar stores separately, straining company resources, IT infrastructure, and shoppers' patience. In fact, half of today's retailers have incomplete or no integration between their physical and online stores, according to a report released this month by Edgell Communications (registration required).
Why is that important? As the branding consulting firm Interbrand wrote in the introduction to its annual Best Retail Brands report:
Perhaps the biggest challenge for a more agile brand is keeping all the brand touchpoints connected and aligned with the home store, where the entire brand offering is available. Additionally, maintaining the expected level of customer service, which in today's competitive landscape becomes exponentially more critical in helping every shopper interaction lead to brand adoption.
IT is the cable that connects the virtual and physical worlds. Though some shoppers may interact solely with one side or the other, many more will glide between them, perhaps searching online and picking up at the local store, buying online and returning to a brick-and-mortar site, or showrooming -- coming to the store to compare prices but opening themselves to the opportunity to buy from one of your sites.
There's no doubt retailers would love to leverage the relationship between a store in, say, one part of Manhattan and one six blocks away, but most are not taking the same approach with their online operations. A measly 25 percent of respondents to an Edgell Communications survey offer a fully integrated store and online presence, including product mix and pricing. As a result, shoppers could find one price online and another in the store, or they could locate a product on the Internet but not at their local shop. Edgell also found that one-fourth of retailer Websites are not e-commerce-enabled. Envision the frustration of shoppers who, upon finding an item they want, cannot actually buy it.
Enter IT. With their knowledge of e-commerce, collaboration, inventory, and accounting solutions, technologists are the logical intersection between online and physical stores. If midsized companies don't have in-house expertise, plenty of solution providers that specialize in retail are available for consultation on these projects.
These experts already have c-level mindshare. After all, 80 percent of respondents to the Edgell survey said sharing inventory online is important. Nevertheless, only 15 percent do it. Eighty-three percent are concerned about the new and growing trend of showrooming. But many are lethargic about acting on their concerns; only 12 percent have built a strategy to address this, and 4 percent consider themselves well equipped today.
These strategies include in-store matching of online prices, in-store pickup for online orders, providing consistent cross-channel experiences, giving the sales force real-time information, exclusive in-store products, reducing the number of showrooming-prone products, offering more in-store promotions, and preventing barcode scanning. Yet many of these tactics require a level of integration that doesn't exist at many retailers today.
IT can become retail heroes. They have the tools and the knowledge. They just need a green light to integrate the virtual and physical worlds.
— Alison Diana , ThinkerNet Editor, Internet Evolution