Multi-Channel Inventory and Customer Loyalty

For the last 13 years or so multi-channel user experience and loyalty has been the foundation of my company. Back in the day, it was both scary and revolutionary to tell companies that in-store pickup of web orders was a good idea. People were afraid that one channel would take away customers from another channel. My old columns on this topic, which I termed “Channibalism,” seem almost quaint when read 10 years later. Of course, now we have lots of evidence to show that people want to interact with your brand over whatever channel is convenient for them, and they want to do this over any device or through any means that is most convenient.

Before multi-channel (as we know it) became a “thing,” stores were often able to look at their inventory across a number of different storefronts. So, if the store in your town didn’t have the product in stock, they could tell you that the store in the next town over had it. One might say this was one of the earliest forms of multi-channel user experience, if multiple stores count.

This past weekend, however, I went on a wild-goose chase that made me realize some companies still don’t have their acts together when it comes to multi-channel (or even multi-store) user experience. Long story short, we are building a small home gym in our summer house. After a lot of research, we figured out roughly what we wanted to buy and the two major stores that sell them: Sports Authority and Dick’s Sporting Goods. Neither company’s website let’s you view store inventory, so we took a trip to the local stores in our town to see what we liked.

Neither store had what we wanted, but we knew from past experience that each store carries different merchandise (or at least some things tend to be in stock in certain stores and not others), so we trekked around Long Island to literally 10 different stores between the two changes.

It turned out that Dick’s Sporting Goods had exactly what we wanted on the showroom floor of one of its stores that was about an hour away from us. We had been to all of them between that store and our house. But they didn’t have either item in stock, and they don’t sell floor models for some reason. However, the kind gentleman helping us was able to pull up all the nearby stores’ inventories and told us that a store 30 minutes away (in the other direction) had both units in stock. In fact, they had multiple units of each, so they definitely had them.

We went to this other store and got there just before it was closing (having started our journey fairly early in the morning) only to find that this store didn’t have either unit in stock, even though inventory was showing three units in stock for each product we wanted.

While certainly a first-world problem, this inventory issue reminded me of how challenging multi-channel user experiences can be. So many of our clients throughout the years have raised this very concern about real-time inventorying in stores. They can’t always be 100 percent sure that the product is really there. My life is spent on the front end of these problems, not usually on the back end. I don’t blame Dick’s Sporting Goods for not being able to make sure its inventory systems are more accurate. I understand how this is a difficult thing to do on so many levels. And I certainly understand why now neither company has store availability on their websites.

But so many other companies have seemingly solved this problem. Best Buy is a great example of a company that has nailed (to the best of my knowledge) real-time online inventory. In this day and age, multi-channel consumers are very smart and expect a lot. If Best Buy knows how many units of a product it has in stock, why can’t Dick’s Sporting Goods, or your store?

When a company simply doesn’t have the technical infrastructure in place to make it possible, I could at least say, “Well, it would be really expensive for them to do this.” But the salesman on the floor had a mobile device that scanned a barcode and then listed inventory across every local store. So it’s not that the technology doesn’t exist to make this possible. There is a breakdown somewhere else in the system. I assume it’s a human breakdown.

That means the real question is this: if you’ve spent a ton of money to make multi-channel user experiences (such as real-time cross-store inventorying) possible, have you also spent the time required to tighten up the procedures that will ensure these tools have accurate information?

While the technology is the foundation for systems like this, the old “garbage in, garbage out” rule still applies. If you don’t have the right procedures to make sure these systems have good data, you’ve wasted a lot of money in tech and your users are no closer to being loyal to your brand.

Thoughts, comments, questions? Let me know!

Until next time…

Image on home page via Shutterstock.

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