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Cross channel retailing at a crossroads

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy July 9, 2013
Are we using the wrong approach when considering how to address end customer needs in retail? Paula Rosenblum provides an interesting perspective that informs how we should think - and in more than a single category.

paula rosenblum
Paula Rosenblum

We've started to talk about 'omni-channel marketing' as part of a broader exploration of technologies that improve the customer experience. If you are among the cognoscenti then it's a term that will be familiar. If you're not, if you're a regular tech buyer, then you might have little clue what it means. That's the implied conclusion retail analyst Paula Rosenblum reached when discussing a forthcoming article on Forbes. She rightly noted that:

...I have to adjust my writing style and topic choices to suit a more general audience. I can’t assume they’re tech people, and I can’t assume they’re retailers either. And while I’m very aware when I’m lapsing into “geek,” it turns out I’m far less conscious of retailer insider terms and notions.

Style matters when addressing different audiences but Ms Rosenblum points up a much deeper set of issues:

The consumer really doesn’t care about our problems She expects consistency, not a science project when she wants to go shopping. While I’m empathetic about lack of clarity on specific skus, we’re probably better served not showing ANY in-store inventory in a particular category if we can’t show ALL item in-store inventory (or at least a “call to check” note). We don’t get any credit for showing “some numbers” since they may not be the numbers the customer wants.

The shopper really doesn’t think about channels at all. There’s been a lot of “in-house” debate about that both between the RSR partners and between the partners and our clients. But that one line from my friend Joyce told the tale. “What IS cross-channel retailing?” Oops.

I think the “treasure hunt” metaphor is getting tired. The argument used by retailers who differentiate on-line from in-store inventory is that it’s a customer “treasure hunt”, and customers like it. I’m not buying it anymore. Treasure-hunting is a hobby and consumers don’t have time to play. If H&M can afford to show their products on-line, so can any retailer (grocers excluded). I’ll guarantee very few have lower price points.

Right now I get the sense that we are at a moment in time that presents technology vendors and the specialist user types they represent with a crossroads. This seems especially true in retail.

To one side is a new way to address customer need, to the other is a continuation of the same 'stuff' being delivered only prettier, slicker, easier to consume. Ms Rosenblum is not saying so explicitly but what I hear her saying is that vendors and specialists need to do a better job of understanding what end customers really need. She concludes:

So, for the purpose of general conversation, I’m retiring terms like cross-channel, omni-channel, any channel, converged channel and any other term that customers won’t understand. We’re retailers. We sell stuff. And we’ll have it wherever and whenever you want to buy it. That’s what retailers do. Shopper expectations are high… we’ll have to meet them.

Amen to that. The same goes for all categories of software. I'm just not sure which vendors 'get' this perceived inflection point and which choose to ignore it. Today I see far too many of the established vendors looking over their shoulders at competitive threats and reacting instead of remembering what got them to where they are today.

Innovation on its own is not enough. My view is the time has come to stop talking about customer experience in buzzword bingo terms.  Instead, I'd prefer to see retailers and tech vendors do much morte to understand what customer experience means in an 'always on' environment, expressed in a no nonsense way.

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