The Future High Streets Forum and multichannel retailing

By Tony Heyworth

The Future High Streets Forum was created to advise the UK government on the challenges facing high streets and help develop practical policies to enable town centres to adapt and change – its members include executives from John Lewis Partnership, Costa Coffee and Tesco. While the first meeting did not cover the impact of the internet, it did focus on the progress of recommendations put forward by 2011’s Mary Portas Review, an independent review into the future of the UK’s high streets – crucially, one of Mary Portas’ key findings suggested ‘new technological developments now mean that the internet is one of the key threats to retail on our high streets’.

However, while ecommerce and digital are often referenced in negative terms regarding their detrimental impact on the high street, the growth of the internet and the explosion of mobile access could in fact present a far more positive opportunity for brands. What impact would a completely integrated retail experience, that brings online and offline together, have on reshaping the high street?

There are already early signs of the positive effect it is having. While suggestions have been made that 2013 will be the year that physical stores start to assume more of a secondary supporting role to ecommerce channels, online and offline channels are already becoming blurred. Research from LivePerson revealed that 78% of shoppers research online before even stepping foot in a shop to buy, and 25% of shoppers conduct further research in the physical store on their mobile device. Retailers need to shape their future ecommerce strategies around integrating the customer experience across multiple channels.

Carpetright is one UK high street retailer that is using multichannel to underpin its future ecommerce strategy, attributing its recent success to its use of digital media. Customers expect convenience, choice and value for money both on and off the high street. If they are not satisfied, they can and will turn elsewhere. Supporting customers at every stage of their shopping experience – from browsing to purchasing – is therefore vital, whether in-store or online to reduce check-out abandonment.

Here are some tips to turn the internet from a threat into part of an integrated customer engagement strategy:

Deliver customer support in real-time

Customers are able to access help immediately in-store – and this level of real-time support should be replicated across all channels to provide a consistent level of service. Using a chat solution for your online channels, which provides this instantaneously will help your customers throughout the purchasing process: 71% of global online consumers expect to be able to access help within five minutes, and 1 in 6 see access to real-time as a key differentiator when choosing one website over another.

Provide expertise in-store and online

It’s not always cost effective to provide specialist and knowledgeable expertise covering every possible product or service physically in every store. However, expert assistance can be provided to customers and staff in store by using a service such as Live Chat. Retailers can centralise resources and ‘parachute’ experts into any store in real-time as and when needed, providing human-assisted support to customers regardless of channel. Additional capacity can also be provided to stretched departments, and customers can source answers to their questions both on-the-go using their mobile phone, or by using in-store kiosks. Store staff can use the service themselves to get their own and customers’ questions answered via store Live Chat apps.

Stay engaged via mobile and combat showrooming

Mobile is a key channel, with 1 in 4 shoppers researching on their mobile while in a physical store. Though its importance is undoubtedly growing (it’s been predicted that by 2017 revenue from mobile will account for €19bn), retailers have been slow to make the most of it. In fact, showrooming – the act of consumers looking for goods on the high street, comparing products online on mobile devices while in the physical store, then buying online – has been perceived as a threat. It’s natural to see why: would-be buyers can compare the price while in-store and go elsewhere if it’s not to their liking.

However, if retailers embrace the concept, there a number of potential benefits and showrooming can become an extension of your multichannel strategy. To engage with these customers and simplify the purchasing process, you need to extend the in-store experience to a mobile device. This is done by using a mobile chat solution which manages the risk of variable signals so that a chat can withstand any location issues that may arise. Moreover, it’s essential to remember that mobile customers will be on the move and, as a result, are likely to be seeking answers to more time-urgent questions. By implementing an app which can identify mobile customers, agents will be able to prioritise them and get these questions answered more efficiently. The Australian home improvement chain, Masters, has gone even further by incorporating both Live Chat services and instant price comparisons into its iPhone app.

The growth of digital doesn’t spell the end of the high street – it can enhance the physical store experience, and help to drive sales. As the physical and virtual worlds continue to blur, the key is to develop an effective multichannel strategy. Delivering consistent and effective customer service to each channel will reduce checkout abandonment and increase customer loyalty. The winners on the high street of the future will reshape themselves for the better, not the worse.

About the author

Tony Heyworth is International Marketing Director at LivePerson.

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