staring at a cellphone outside a row of stores
Retail is more challenging than ever before, but there are tools for retailers to use that help them deliver omnichannel customer experiences PHOTO: Conor Lawless

Retail is complicated these days. Consumers expect to be able to find anything via their smartphones, which has put enormous pressure on retailers to deliver a seamless omnichannel experience. The technical challenge is immense, and it’s still a work in progress for most retailers.

With all of the complexity, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s actually important. So I have put together a road map of what could be considered “table stakes” for modern omnichannel retailing.

First, it’s important not to forget that brick-and-mortar stores still represent the dominant channel. Ecommerce gets all the press, but according to the Census Bureau at the Department of Commerce 91 percent of retail spending in the U.S. is still going through traditional stores. That’s not an excuse to ignore digital channels, but it’s a reminder that it’s worth recognizing that the most likely path to purchase is “research online, buy offline,” rather than pure ecommerce. And according to Google, shoppers spend about 15 hours or more per week researching goods online prior to making purchases.

Let’s explore some of the key technologies that brick-and-mortar retailers can use to improve the customer experience across all channels:

Get the Basics Right

The most common consumer searches are for store locations and opening hours. Almost all major retailers have this one covered by now, but it’s surprising how many midtier and small retailers still fall down on this very basic point.

For those still catching up in this area, services like Yext are an efficient way to publish and update basic store information on all of the key listings and directories at once. It’s the simplest possible way to use digital channels to drive more physical store traffic.

Local Inventory Information

The next most critical piece of information that people search for online is local inventory availability, and many retailers do not do a good job of providing accurate inventory information online. Think of a consumer who goes to Google and searches for “product XYZ near me.” The vast majority of the time, the search results show ecommerce sites that sell the product, not local stores.

By failing to provide local inventory information online, brick-and-mortar retailers aren't leveraging their key advantage over pure ecommerce players. Given a choice of ecommerce options, most consumers opt for Amazon. But a local purchase option can give traditional retailers the edge.

The challenge of unearthing inventory data from legacy IT systems has made it difficult for retailers to provide timely local inventory information, but companies such as Pointy now provide a simple way around that. Pointy offers a tool that gives brick-and-mortar retailers an effective way to display their inventory online in a way that is optimized for local search. Google’s Local Inventory Ads program is another useful way to get relevant information in front of consumers, albeit on a cost-per-click basis.

Marketing Attribution

Thanks to the surge in online-influenced sales, many multichannel retailers faced a problem: how to track in-store purchases made via the “research online, buy offline” method and attribute them to online marketing.

Until recently, retailers have relied on basic approaches, using unique vouchers and coupons or even exit surveys to track the steps shoppers take in the ever-increasing number of omnichannel sales. But this is starting to change as data giants like Facebook and Google have created offline conversion tracking tools that allow brick-and-mortar stores to bridge the gap.

Facebook’s Offline Conversions API helps retailers understand which online events happened as a result of Facebook ads. The technology allows store owners to gauge event volume, match rate and attributed events. It can be complex to implement, but it is worth the effort for large spenders.

For its part, Google offers a store visit conversion service and other conversion tracking tools to help retailers see how AdWords spending influences store visits. The program is currently available only to larger retailers and is also limited to certain advertisers only, however it is a powerful tool for those who have access to it.

In-Store Engagement

Store visits are as much about the experience as the purchase. In-store analytics companies like RetailNext offer key tools in this area, helping combine in-store and online data sources to allow retailers to understand shopper behavior and increase engagement with personalized offerings and recommendations.

Those systems can be very complex, but there are many simpler tools for tracking shopper behavior. For example, Dor provides a very simple and self-contained people-counting system that even small retailers can use. And Zenreach provides smaller retailers with the tools to collect customer contact details quickly and then re-engage with shoppers via personalized messages.

Incremental Gains

Regardless of where you are on the omnichannel road map, start with the basics and work your way up. Is your store information available and accurate? Is local inventory information accessible? Can you measure marketing impact? These are all still challenging projects, but a new generation of retail technology vendors offer tools that simplify things considerably, even compared to 12 months ago. The customer experience stack is now something that any retailer should be able to deploy quite rapidly.