Will Retail Sync with E-tail for Holiday Season?

It’s Q4 and all’s going to plan. You’re ready to launch your company’s online holiday experience and are counting on the Web to deliver your most profitable quarter ever. Before you launch, ask yourself: Is everything up to speed? Will retail sync with e-tail?

Marketers are smarter than ever when it comes to online merchandising and retailing. Software packages perform real-time analyses of browsers and buyers. If browsers leave, there are ways to get them back. But for all your online sophistication, there’s a good chance your retail sales force — the physical faces of your brand — may not be as sophisticated.

It’s frustrating to walk into a retail store and feels like you’ve taken a trip back in time. Misplaced signage, uninformed salespeople, and poor merchandising are among the problems encountered when consumers try to convert an online experience into a physical retail transaction. There’s a smaller long-term risk to a bad online experience because visitors can just click away and dismiss their wasted minutes on your site. When people travel out of their way to visit your store, wait for help, then end up disappointed, they get frustrated. This leads to negative word of mouth.

Though I’m not a retail expert, I’m disappointed with today’s state of retail. Here are some tips I’d like to share.

Merchandise Your Home Page

Long-time retailers know how to move inventory. Physical merchandising is the key to retail sales and increasing the average units per transaction. The big boys have built systems and processes to communicate with in-store staff to sell products based on atmospherics, their weekly free-standing insert (FSI), and other advertising programs. Still, the Web’s flexibility allows us to change our virtual floor space even quicker than what can be done in-store — and it’s addictive. If one product outsells another, just change its priority on the home page with a few clicks. This is obviously easier than sending a memo to 2,000 retail managers, asking them to move snowblowers to the store’s front. Inside a store, it’s physically impossible to mimic the Web’s speed. But it doesn’t take much to make retail stores aware of what’s happening online.

Share What You Know With Store Managers

Consider creating and sharing daily metrics that suggest what people are likely to want in retail stores based on online consumer browsing patterns. You may already have tools to get a sense of a browser’s location, enabling you to determine the differences between shoppers in balmy Phoenix and those in cold Minneapolis.

Rethink Your Employee Training

Social media has given customers who’ve done their product research a chance to step ahead of your retail expert. Someone who has taken the time to research a product is likely to be equally, if not more, informed than a part-time retail employee.

It makes me insane when a store employee refuses to believe what I saw on a company’s Web site. At a mobile phone store recently, an employee insisted the company would never carry the BlackBerry Pearl. Yet that week, multiple pages on the same company’s Web site said the product was available. Such a disconnect is condescending, rude, and a waste of a shopper’s time. It may be too much to ask employees to visit the company’s Web site every day to learn about new product releases, but some alternative strategies could be adopted, such as:

  • Set up a rewards program for employees who learn more about retail operations. Develop online contests and quizzes that test Web site comprehension, and reward employees for their research with enhanced employee benefits, such as greater in-store discounts.
  • Enable in-store access to the company’s Web site. Stores are increasingly adding computers to their retail floor, but most computers are limited to stock checking. Why not open them up a bit, and allow the employees to view your company site? In the case of the employee/customer conflict, there’s a better chance of resolving a dispute and retaining the customer.
  • I’m by no means a retail process expert. And I’m sure these issues are subject to ongoing analysis and improvement. But these problems can be magnified during holiday shopping stress, and they’re only going to worsen as retailers add floor staff to accommodate the holiday shopping rush.

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