Talk to Each Other Already!

I live and work in Manhattan — possibly the consumer capital of the world. I could walk a couple of blocks and get the most exotic smelly cheeses, the hottest fashions or the whizziest electronics.

I’m online most of the day. So, why is it that I have to schlep all the way out to Queens this weekend to compile a list of items that’ll be purchased online or in Texas?

It’s because multi-channel marketers have yet to solve one of the most pressing dilemmas in the industry — unifying databases, providing consistent customer service and presenting a single face to the world, rather than a cobbled-together collage of pasted-together images. Consumers expect it. Companies’ brands will suffer if their data remains silo’d.

The problem goes hand-in-hand with another issue marketers have been tackling of late: how to integrate Internet advertising efforts with the rest of a traditional company’s marketing and CRM initiatives. After all, the best way to see if these cross-channel marketing strategies are working is to see whether people are buying. Not just online buying, but in the store and over the phone. If you want traditional advertisers among your clients, you need to deal with traditional retailers’ headaches.

The event that’s highlighted the situation for me has been my effort to sign up for wedding registries. (Yes, I’m getting married in October. Yippee!) Given I’m in New York, my fiancé is from Scotland and the wedding will be in Texas, I went to trusted, brand-name retailers with broadly-distributed U.S. bricks-and-mortar outlets and an online presence: Macy’s, REI, Williams-Sonoma and Target. These are the pros, right? Well… in my experience, the industry isn’t quite there yet.

As Forrester Research retail analyst James Crawford puts it, “There’s a long way to go before you can truly say that there’s a seamless customer experience between the Web and in stores.”

There are several reasons seamless customer experience is desirable. If you “know” who your customer is across all channels, you can leverage online purchase data offline, and vice versa. That knowledge may even help you hold on to those very valuable multi-channel buyers. A European Forrester study found consumers who bought across multiple channels spent 30 percent more than those who only bought on one channel. Failing to integrate their brand experience can mean missed opportunities.

In my case, my fiancé and I, (maid of honor in tow), went to an REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.) store to dutifully record our registry items. We should have known trouble was ahead when we were given a piece of paper on a clipboard and asked to write down item names and the SKUs. Once finished, we handed it in and told the clerk the items should be added to our established online registry. No go. REI does have an online registry. REI has an in-store registry. Never the twain shall meet (at least, not before our wedding). It’s like REI is two different stores, despite the shared brand name.

What’s the problem? According to Crawford, in-store technology that seriously lags behind that available online, and infrastructure to link the experiences together is lacking. “The technology in the stores is four to seven years old,” he said. “It’s a whole different world than what you have online.”

The irony is that Minneapolis-based Target Corp. (whose store I’ll trudge an hour to reach this weekend) is an example of a company that really “gets” online/offline integration. I can establish a “Club Wedd” registry online (where it’s splashily displayed on the Web site), and I can edit the registry online, but I can’t add items to that registry online. I don’t get it. I probably never will, as a Target spokesperson told me policy is to decline to speak to trade publications.

On other fronts, Target is a pioneer. It’s long had wedding and baby registry kiosks in stores, and has “trained” shoppers to check prices themselves by going to a station where they can scan SKUs with a little device. More recently, the store announced a smart card initiative aimed at linking online and offline experiences. As Crawford describes it, the idea is to take online purchase and clickstream data and use that to generate the most appropriate offer for an individual. That consumer could download the offer to her Visa smart card, which she’d use to redeem it in-store. Target plans to have 40,000 card-readers in stores this summer.

Front pages this week highlighted another test case of online/offline integration: the merger of Sears and Land’s End. Both have established themselves as leaders on the Internet, but in very different ways. Sears has tied its site into its inventory system, so buyers of large items, like washing machines, can make sure a certain model is available in their local store. They can pick it up or have it delivered. Land’s End has made more of its Web site, investing in virtual model technology and integrating it well with its catalog business. How the two integrate and leverage their customer data will speak volumes about the possibilities — and pitfalls — of online/offline integration.

As for my wedding… we’ll probably just end up returning the multiple espresso machines we’ll end up getting — each pulled up from an individually silo’d database.

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