jumping over a puddle
PHOTO: Luke Stackpoole

Traditional retailers have gone through a rough patch recently. Some of our most beloved stores have closed or are in the process of closing their doors forever. As is the case in any industrial evolution, the strong will survive. 

In retail, the strong are those that took steps toward building solid and cohesive digital strategies over the past decade. The brands that were either born in the digital era or those without bureaucracies that prevent them from moving into digital are generally the survivors.

Brick-and-Mortar Stores Play a Key Role

Retailers who have managed to modernize likely find themselves in good shape. Amazon bought Whole Foods for a reason, and experts are speculating that it might buy another brick-and-mortar retail chain for the same reason: people like the convenience of ecommerce but also still like to shop in person. People like to try on clothes or see how big furniture actually is before they buy it. But more often, people just like to be able to return items without the inconvenience of putting them in packages and shipping them.

However, brick-and-mortar stores are more than just a convenience for customers, they’re also a major convenience for marketers. Retailers with both a brick-and-mortar stores and a strong digital presence have an advantage over companies with only a web presence: they can communicate directly with customers who are in their stores, which means they are better able than online-only operations to market to those customers in real time.

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What Is Real-Time Communication?

Real-time communication is exactly what it sounds like: communicating right here and right now, whether in person or via an electronic medium. Most companies have made the transition to real-time communications fairly easily. Look at Slack or Skype, for example: People communicate within companies via those channels all the time.

For marketers, the ability to communicate in real time with external customers is crucial, but frankly, it’s not something many of them have been very good at.

Real-time communication is already prevalent in the customer experience (CX) world. (Of course, the phone has been around for years and it’s a real-time communication tool.) It has been common practice for customer service reps to use instant messaging for quite a while, and companies have monitored social media for years to get a sense of whether their customers are satisfied or not. But for marketers, real-time messaging has been fairly elusive.

The Retailing Advantage

Compared with businesses in other industries — enterprise software sales, for example — retailers with brick-and-mortar operations are in an excellent position to take advantage of real-time marketing. But they also have a pressing need to communicate in real time. When a potential customer finds out about a sale after the sale is over, it’s bad for both the customer and the company: the customer loses an opportunity to save money, and the company loses an opportunity for revenue.

Retailers with both brick-and-mortar and online operations have the advantage of being able to market to customers not just in real time, but also in person — when they are actually in the store. Imagine that power. For example, beacon technology allows retailers to turn shoppers’ mobile devices into sales instruments at a moment when those shoppers are most likely to be at the decision stage.

The pharamacy Rite Aid has deployed beacon technology in more than 4,600 stores nationwide. It is able to offer coupons and announce sales items just before the moment of purchase. If someone comes into buy some headache medicine and finds out that bottles of water are on sale to wash it down, that’s a valuable marketing message.

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Real-Time Communications Matters in Ecommerce Too

Now that many people have devices such as Google Home or Amazon’s Alexa in their houses, retailers can communicate to customers in real time while they’re sitting at home. People with smart home devices have literally paid for the technology that retailers can use to market to them in real time. Again, this is a boon for retailers: companies in other industries still have no business intruding on potential customer’s private life. Remember my point above: Business people procuring software for their companies generally don’t want vendors to contact them at home during off-hours. But they may be perfectly happy to hear a message from Pizza Hut while they’re in their kitchens on Friday night.

With Alexa being integrated into cars and combined with GPS technology, drivers can receive alerts about discounts at coffee shops, fast food restaurants or other businesses they happen to be driving by. And that’s another example of the importance of having both brick-and-mortar and ecommerce operations.

Retailers that are at the point of being able to take advantage of real-time communication likely already have the solid digital infrastructure that’s necessary for success. But there’s more to it than technology. The ability to use the technology is the starting point, but retail marketers also have to be able to use data to ascertain what to communicate to whom and when.