Is The Store Associate a Dead Job?

For a very long time the store associate has been at the heart of brick and mortar stores. Store associates would greet customers, respond to queries, help find products and generally help customers with their purchases.

However, the emergence of digital tools and especially smartphones has rendered store associates almost obsolete.

In a recent study by MillwardBrown that focused on customers purchasing athletic footwear we can see just how useful a store associate is these days.

Of those that chose to shop in store, only 12% listed the sales person as one of the reason to purchase offline. Most (88%) chose to try on the product before purchasing.

It’s not just sports shoes. A study by Deloitte Digital shows that customers would rather receive help from an interactive kiosk or their own smartphone rather than a store associate.

As you can see above the willingness to use a smartphone rather than discuss with a sales associate is almost double. Even an impersonal unmanned device such as an interactive kiosk would fare better than a store associate.

So if you were to combine this data with the fact that most of the sales in global retail will be influenced by digital by 2017 the conclusion is simple. The store associate is a soon to be dead job. If you were planning a career in this area, you’d better jump ship.

Digital Influence in Omnichannel Retail

Is Brick and Mortar commerce dead? Absolutely not. Is eCommerce the most important sales channel in the future? Irrelevant. Neither online or offline sales really matter in the big picture. What matters is how customers shop and how much has digital changed the way retailers do business.

recent Deloitte study outlines just how much digital is impacting retail.

Over 36% of 2013 overall sales in US have been influenced by digital and the trend continues to grow. By 2017 over 80% of all retail sales will be influenced by digital.

In terms of cash that places the digital influence in the real of trillions of dollars. In US alone, where the study was performed, that meant $1.1 trillion in sales were influenced by digital. If we were to extend this figure to the global retail sales in 2017 as estimated by eMarketer that amounts to a whoopping … wait for it …

$20 trillion in sales. That’s the amount in sales that may be influenced by digital in 2017.

However debatable this figure may be, the digital influence is something that is truly amazing and outright revolutionary.

But that’s not all. Don’t think digital influence means ecommerce. Definitely not. Two facts stand out in the Deloitte study:

1. The increase in digital influence has been triggered by smartphones

Smartphones are the main cause in the increased digital influence. Mobile phones now account for $593 billion in sales (19% of the 36% of all sales influenced by digital).

What’s even more interesting is that users are not more mobile-savvy. Only 25% of the increase in smartphone usage is caused by an increase in comfort and sophistication in smartphone usage. 75% of the increase in smartphone usage is due to an increased adoption.

Long story short: there are more smartphones, not smarter users.

2. Brick and mortar shopping is definitely not dying. Unless it has to.

94% of all retail sales still happen in the confines of a physical store. Wait, what?

It seems that what’s causing retailers problems is failure to engage customers on all channels. Customers are pre-buying (shopping) on ecommerce sites but they pick-up, try on and eventually buy a lot of things in the physical store.

The trick here is getting the big picture right. Use different customer journey points and engage digitally in a relevant way. Customers may shop online and get an assortment ready but they want to get to that assortment in the physical store and than buy. Just placing discounts in the mobile app doesn’t work. Each part in the shopping experience has to be customized to that particular medium and need.

In conclusion: digital is not ecommerce and digital influence is definitely not limited to the online store. Those who fail to connect the dots and engage their customers on all channels will not be a part of tomorrow’s retail.

The Anatomy of Pick Up Lockers

As online and offline commerce are getting closer to each other and customers schedules are getting more and more crowded, pick up lockers seem to become more useful and popular.

They are versatile, easy to use and something customers need from omnichannel retailers. So let’s dig in and see how they work and who should use them.

What is a Pick Up Locker?

First off – what is a pick up locker? Simply put it is an area of lockers where retailers can drop off merchandise and customers can pick it up. Amazon has been a pioneer in this field, with Amazon Lockers opening up the gates to a new type of fulfillment.

The pick up lockers work by assigning a specific location to packages and sending pick up codes to customers. The customers can than go to their designated pick up location, enter the security code and grab their packages.

After Amazon has built their first experimental pick up lockers, others soon followed.

Some of those that developed their own systems of pick up (and ship) lockers are 3PL companies. For example FedEx and UPS have developed quite advanced pick up and drop off locations. UPS has named theirs “Access Points” and they’re building a network able to sustain growing demand.

FedEx has developed a network of “Ship&Get Self Service Lockers“. With their lockers one can drop off items for shipment or receive packages.

Both are growing really fast and soon others will follow suit. Even startups have ventured in this area with some highlights being Swapbox, an Y Combinator startup and Bufferbox, a company that was recently acquired by Google.

So yes, they are popular but how do they work, especially from a retailer point of view?

How could large retailers implement pick up locker systems?

One very specific use case for the pick-up locker system would be large retail chains. For example Walmart announced last year their Grab & Go lockers following their Site to Store Self Service Lockers experiment.

Apart from the internal fulfillment challenges, retailers need to focus on some key aspects regarding the development and implementation of such pick up locker systems:

1. Security

For obvious reasons there needs to be a secure access to shipped goods. To do so each drop off will have to issue a security code that can be decrypted and accessed with the private code the customer will receive.

The systems will also have to have fall-back security systems such as video surveillance and locking systems in case of hacking attempts (there will be some).

Security code should work online but also have a fall-back local solution that can work in case internet connection is off.

2. Logistics

The pick-up locker system works with other fulfillment operations and will have to input status data directly into TMS (transport management systems) so shipping personnel could be directed to the correct pick up locker area and the specific pick up locker.

As packages differ in size, specific information regarding the type of lockers that are available should be available in real time so packages are stored correctly.

3. Communication

So far most pick up lockers use alphanumeric codes to help users get accustomed to picking up their packages without any hassle. But these codes pose threats in terms of security. While these codes can always be an option and can be easily sent to any device, with smartphones and smartphone apps on the rise, some other solutions may work even better.

One such option would be QR codes embedded in the retailer’s mobile application. The codes can be generated on the fly based on a secured algorithm that neither exposes the code and can also work within the application the customer already uses, thus improving loyalty.

4. Connectivity

With so many developing their own pick-up locker systems, a connectivity protocol should become the norm. With such a protocol FedEx could ship to either Amazon, Walmart or even UPS lockers for example, improving cross-retailer experience and creating economies of scale.

That being said, the development of pick-up locker systems is obviously a bit more complex than these few paragraphs but I wanted to give you a starting point and explore some of the challenges.

What is Omnichannel Retail? Past, present and future.

I’ve put together a slideshare presentation regarding omnichannel retail. It focuses on the events that lead to the adoption of omnichannel, the challenges and several ideas that will help you understand the concept.

Demand Sensing is a $1.1 Trillion Opportunity for Retailers

Consumer demand is the one thing that can decide whether a retailer is successful or not. Of course, there is a whole field of marketing studies to determine how we can influence consumers to purchase. But a really important aspect of how good retailers fare in the market is their ability to “sense” demand, not just influence it.

In a recent study, IHL Group claims Overstocks and Out-of-Stocks cost retailers almost $1.1 trillion world-wide. To put it in perspective, that figure is the size of Australia’s GDP.

What that means is that Overstocks and Out-of-stocks, collectively defined as Inventory Distortion, are a problem that cost retailers world-wide 7.5% of their gross revenue.

The most important overstock causes

The figures translate into poor performance, decreased customer satisfaction, decreased sales and increased costs of inventory warehousing and inventory spoilage. Basically there are two really simple outcomes:

  • Either retailers stock up on too much inventory which turns to increased warehousing costs and spoiled products.
  • …Or they don’t and they miss on sales opportunities

Either way, one thing is for sure: Inventory Distortion leads to poor retail performance.

How do you solve Inventory Distortion? (Not exactly) Simple: Demand Sensing

Demand Sensing is a concept and set of technologies that make use of analytical and prediction models to estimate … well … demand. Imagine a retailer that runs a network of 10 stores, one online store and has a mobile app that drives sales also, along side a call center.

Said retailer probably has an inventory management system, an warehouse management system, a sales reporting tool and probably some type of integration with suppliers and manufacturers.

Let’s imagine this retailer selling a type of red shirts that is available in one of the 10 stores and that inventory is not available online. If a customer will visit 3 of the stores in search of that particular red shirt and then search for it online and still not find it, it will probably consider it to be out of stock and the retailer would lose a sale opportunity.

You probably see where the problem lies: even though the product was available, it was not available to the customer and opportunities were lost. The same thing goes for products that are not exposed to the customers, or they are, say, unreachable on the shelf or unfindable on the web store if the search engine is not fit for the job.

The opposite situation, where demand is not correctly estimated and out-of-stocks become a reality, are just as bad as sales opportunities are lost.

The solution lies in gathering enough data across all sales channels, compiling this data and using models to predict demand. That easier said than done because …

To make demand sensing a reality, inventory transparency has to be achieved

As you are reading a blog on omnichannel retail, the term was bound to appear somewhere along the line. So here it is. You can’t have Demand Sensing without a connected sales operation and inventory transparency. All inventory sources have to be connected and data should be generally available. So should sales data across channels.

The picture below shows an example of omnichannel supply chain, one where all the operational pieces work together and share data. When such a structure is implemented, demand is easily “sensed” and estimated and thus inventory distortion can decrease.

So now we have the data. Implementing omnichannel retail can lead do a better demand sensing and therefore improve inventory distortion, a small glitch in the global retail system costing “only” $1.1 trillion.

What is Pretail and How Does It Impact Retail?

Ever thought what happens behind the curtains before a new product hits the shelf? Or what makes customers decide they love product A but definitely hate product B, although they are almost identical? Or what makes great products … well … great?

Many have and there is no clear answer to these questions. What works when Apple launches a music player may not work when Microsoft does it (Remember Zune?). There are many variables involved and no matter the size of your R&D budget, sometimes things are not going to go right.

But there’s only one way to see if the product is really fit for the market. That way used to be simple and a bit risky. Teams including marketing, product development, engineering and manufacturing experts would dream, design and build products. They would test the products on selected customer groups and if the results would look good, they would push the product to the market.

However even involving budgets, experts, consumer insights and marketing bucks, sometimes products flop.

Jamstick is a “portable guitar that teaches you to play”. It asked for $50.000 in crowd-funding. It received $792.000. Jamstick is a pretail success.

Two things changed this: crowd-sourcing and crowd-founding. Together they’ve formed a type of customer experience previously unknown: the pretail.

Testing the waters with crowd-sourcing and crowd-founding

In the past, teams were involved in trying to guess what customers would want. Now we can just go ahead and ask the them.

Pretailing is a term describing any activity introducing customers to brands or products, before the retail process. It assumes that using crowd-founding sites such as Kickstarter, inventors and innovators can test their concept before involving big budgets. Essentially they are asking potential buyers to invest their dollar-power in their product.

This, in turn, creates an experience previously unknown to the consumer. The consumer is effectively buying into a vision. Pretailing creates a new type of sales channel that works before the product is even manufactured. Unlike traditional retail, this type of commerce can shed light on what the market wants at any given time.

Pluck is a simple egg-separator and it was invented by Mark Fusco, a Quirky member.

Online stores such as QuirkyThreadless or Japan-based Muji have one thing in common. They use their communities to find the right ideas and products to design and develop. Quirky is focused on inventing cool gadgets, Threadless leverages its designer community to create t-shirts and Muji sells home&deco products designed by the consumers.

They all engage in pretailing. By tapping into the collective minds of their communities they can ask for the type of products most customers would purchase. Before they manufacture and sell, they ask what to manufacture and sell. This in turn creates a sense of belonging to the community for the customer. For the retailer, it decreases the risk of manufacturing and stocking up on lousy products.

Crowd-founding is another way of tapping into the market and pretailing. We all know Kickstarter but other, more product-oriented crowd founding platforms fare even better for this concept.

CrowdSupply and OutGrow.me are just two places where you can see what customers have backed before manufacturing. The products we can see there range from open source toothbrushes to one-wheel skateboards.

The results are amazing. With unlimited creativity comes an unlimited supply of innovation. And by tapping into a large market of early-adopters, only the products that are really fit for distribution get funded and survive.

Crowdfunding exploded after 2011.

Big retailers have picked up on the trend and are now using pretailing to test new products and improve their logistics to fit the estimated demand. Apple, for example is one of the companies that showcases products before they are available in retail stores, interacting with developers and customers to improve the experience.

Pretailing is a thing of the crowds

Beyond the crowd-founding and crowd-sourcing, pretailing can come from anything involving large numbers of potential customers. By tapping into online traces, retailers can get insights on potentially succesful products.

Pretailing can start with a simple research with Google Trends. It can be an analysis on the search trends on your own web store.

Who would have known? Apparently there is a growing demand for egg separators.

It can just as well be an overview of the most popular trends on Instagram. For example Crane & Canopy releases new high quality duvets basing their decisions on Pinterest and social media trends.

The conclusion is that in this highly competitive market, retailers need to engage their customers before they start the retail process. Pretailing means tapping into the wisdom of the crowds and extracting the perfect products before competitors do. It is not only a matter of product development but a matter of understanding the customer and providing the best experience on the market.

Econsultancy / Adobe Report: Omnichannel will become a reality in 2015

Adobe and Econsultancy recently released their 2015 Digital Trends report and data shows some really interesting insights. The report is a result of interviewing almost 6000 marketing, digital and ecommerce professionals. The general consensus is that marketing is moving fast and content, personalization, mobile and omnichannel will be key aspects to maintaining a relevant connection to consumers.

Among other facts, the report shows an emergent need to understand customers journeys across multiple channels and a need to insure consistency across these channels. 97% of all respondents pointed to having a clear understanding of customer journeys across channels as being either very important or quite important. Content consistency across channels is also a key priority for 96% of all respondents. 66% of marketing, digital and ecommerce professionals list content consistency as being very important and 30% list it as quite important.

Because omnichannel success is usually a result of strategy and team effort, the report shows training teams in new techniques, channels and disciplines is very important and quite important for 95% of the professionals surveyed.

Personalization, Big Data and Multi-channel campaigns – very exciting in 5 years time

As the customer is getting more and more empowered by digital technology, results show that some aspects of marketing and retailing will become highly popular in the next 5 years. The most exciting for those surveyed are:

  1. personalization: ensuring a relevant message to the customer in terms of marketing campaigns and content
  2. big data: by using large volumes of data campaign management and marketing can be more relevant and results more personal
  3. multi-channel campaign management: addressing campaign consistency across channels seems to be a very exciting opportunity for professionals, but not really feasible right now. While 12% listed this option as very exciting in 5 years, only 7% listed it as very exiting in 2015. This probably has to do with the fact that although professionals and senior management understand the need for multi and omnichannel campaigns, there are few successful use cases that can be used as a threshold right now.

Overall, the report paints a very optimistic picture for omnichannel followers and professionals. 67% of those surveyed agree that omnichannel personalization will become a reality in 2015. 

You can download the full report at here

The Omnichannel Supply Chain

For a very long time, retailers used a linear approach to the supply chain. It meant that merchandise flowed in just one direction. Products would move between the manufacturer, the wholesaler, the retailer and onto the sales channel. This sales channel meant the brick and mortar store, in all its variations, for a very long time.

With the internet revolution came the concept of eCommerce, where customers would place the orders on an internet store front and they would receive it at home. Medium and large retailers used the same method of silo-management to the online store.

The “silo” approach meant that each new sales channel would be treated as a separate silo, independent from the other stores. That worked for the previous concept of brick and mortar stores, so it had to work for the ecommerce approach, too, right?

Not quite. The concept of having an online store work as a separate operation doesn’t fit the profile for the new consumer. The fact is that there are very few exclusive online shoppers. People like to spend time in stores, touching merchandise, they spend time on social media, get informed, place calls to ask for info and generally live in a complex world that mixes online and offline experiences.

Customers demand new options from retailers, things such as “buy online, pick-up in store”, “order in store, receive at home” – just some of the many challenges retailers face right now, trying to connect with the new consumer.

To go from being a retailer to being an omnichannel retailer, companies need to step up their game. And it’s not just marketing or hardly operational shopping programs. Customers demand a real change in the way they are engaged. Companies such as Macy’s have invested in creating experiences that handle multiple journey maps for their customers and the results are satisfying.

To achieve this, retailers need to adopt an omnichannel supply chain. The biggest difference between this type of approach and the previous is the fact that it is omni-directional. Whereas the classic supply chain was mostly linear, flowing from one place (manufacturer) to the other (customer), the omnichannel supply chain flows across many boundaries.

To achieve relevance in the omnichannel age, retailers need to be ready to handle:

  • cross-channel inventory transparency
  • a multitude of customer journeys (ex.: customer places a call in the call center, gets informed, places the order online, picks and pays for the order in a brick and mortar store)
  • new manufacturing demands and technologies (mass-customized merchandise, 3D printing, work in process real-time information)
  • information flow within the company and outside the company (with wholesale partners or manufacturers)

The omnichannel supply chain is not easy to achieve. Medium and large companies are caught up in a web of systems and processes that may have worked 10 or 20 years ago but they are now obsolete. The linear approach to supply chain management and marketing is really not their best bet. The change in consumer behavior is irreversible and the omnichannel supply chain is one of the most important changes in today’s retail.

Staples Opens Marketplace, takes aim at Amazon

The second largest online retailer, Staples, announced the launch of its inhouse developed marketplace, Staples Exchange.

staples-store

Previously, the company used Commercehub’s marketplace technology to connect its vendors to its Ecommerce sales channels. With this new development there are two big things happening:

The number of products available on Staples has increased dramatically
The number of products available on Staples has increased dramatically

The first and most important, Staples moves technology development in house. This is a clear sign the company is shifting from a brick-and-mortar centric strategy to a technology centric strategy.

Staples has also reduced store space in the previous year on one hand and has invested in technology services its offering to its partners.

With its legacy store network already in place, growing online sales and the new marketplace, Staples can compete with Amazon on an omnichannel level. Its vendors can now access its online sales channels but with future improvements, their products will be probably ordered offline as well.

The second biggest change is in Staples’ logistics strategy. So far the company relied heavily on its own fulfillment centers. Now orders are increasingly shipped by vendors through drop shipping. This is the most efficient way for Staples to increase its product count and it seems to be working: Staples increased its product count from 30 000 in 2012 to 200 000 in 2013 to a whooping 1.5 million SKUs in 2014, according to Internet Retailer.

As Internet Retailer reports, Staples is still curating the vendors’ offers but it will soon switch to a fully integrated platform in 2015. Even now the new tool allows vendors to receive orders, see real-time alerts, access analytics data and manage inventory, without the cost Commercehub’s technology implied.

Do Consumers Like Waiting for Online Purchases to Arrive?

Maybe drones are not such a great idea
Maybe drones are not such a great idea

Could waiting for online orders to arrive actually be a pleasant experience? What about all those next day delivery and in-store pick-up features retailers brag about? What is the point in that?

Apparently not only is it pleasant but it may sometimes be more fun than buying products in store. The anticipation of orders arriving at our doors keep us on our toes. As a recent Razorfish report mentions, 76% of American consumers and 72% of UK consumers are more excited when their order is delivered at home than when they buy it in store.

Let’s stop for a moment and really look at these numbers: 3 out of 4 customers in the US, UK, Brazil and China would rather wait for purchases than receiving them right away.

This are amazing findings. It shows that instant gratification may no longer be the optimum trigger in marketing messages. It also means that what we thought was a liability for online sales is actually an asset, if used properly.

Building anticipation and delivering items on time is making customers happier than receiving it right away.

The distinction between online and offline is already irrelevant thanks to the smartphone

The smartphone is increasingly important in omnichannel retail. Source.
The smartphone is increasingly important in omnichannel retail. Source.

But don’t think that customers have lost their interest for offline OR online purchases. The channels have started blending with the help of smartphones. The same study reveals that:

1. Digital has a major impact on the retailer’s brand: Almost all those interviewed responded that a bad web store negatively impacts their opinion on the brand. 84% of consumers in Brazil, 92% in China, 73% in US and 79% in the UK are turned off by lousy digital experiences.

2. Customer journeys are not delivering what the customer wants: a cross-channel experience that works. Retailers are not yet delivering on the omnichannel promise. This leads to frustration and a growing gap between what the consumer wants and what the retailer delivers.

3. There is a huge difference between Gen Xers and Millennials, in terms of shopping. That difference lies in how much they rely on their smartphones. Millennials use their phones at least twice as much as Gen Xers when shopping offline (see figure above).