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BRP: Agility, Innovation Key to Making Multichannel Work

The borders of the retail landscape are blurring more than ever. Moving from a company’s brick-and-mortar store to its online marketplace to its Instagram page, today’s consumers expect a seamless, unshackled experience that allows them to browse, buy, and receive their goods not just whenever but wherever, as well.

Slowly but surely, the world of commerce is beginning to catch on to this multichannel approach. Increasingly, retailers are working toward offering consumers the ability to continue their shopping journey across channels. According to a new report by Boston Retail Partners (BRP), a retail management consulting firm based in Massachusetts, of the 500 top retailers in North America the company polled, half are planning to offer this “start anywhere, finish anywhere” capability within five years, up from 3 percent today.

Indeed the push to unify online and offline channels has already begun: Roughly 27 percent of respondents have implemented the ability to “buy anywhere, ship anywhere,” up from 16 percent last year, BRP said.

Time, increasingly commodified, is equally of the essence. With customers demanding the same instant gratification they get from shopping at a physical store, retailers are looking to mix and match various delivery options to compete with the rapid turnarounds of services such as Amazon Prime and Google Express.

The result is a patchwork of more than half-a-dozen choices, including in-store pickup, reserve/hold in store, curbside pickup, locker pickup, same-day delivery, delivery via a third-party service such as Uber, and even drone delivery.

Removing friction

The burgeoning ranks of online shoppers has led to a corresponding uptick in retailers offering same-day delivery—51 percent of retailers now include it, up from 16 percent last year, BRP said.

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Expediting shipments to online customers could provide an additional bulwark against Amazon’s creeping market share. It might even help transition the phenomenon of “showrooming”—that is, when shoppers browse products in physical stores, then buy them from e-tailers like Amazon for less—from an obstacle to a feature.

“Same-day delivery will become the norm within the next few years,” BRP wrote in the 2017 Digital Commerce Survey. “Buy online, pick-up in the store (BOPIS) is really just an interim step as retailers work towards the ideal of same-day delivery to compete against the Amazon model. Enterprising retailers understand that this can enable the storefront to operate more like a showroom and change how retailers and customers view the traditional store.”

Similarly, consumers want to be spoiled for choice when it comes to returns. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they allow shoppers to buy an item in one store and return it to another, or return something they purchased online at a physical location.

This type of cross-pollination is beginning to occur even where connections aren’t immediately apparent. Thanks to a deal Amazon struck with Kohl’s, customers of the Internet giant will be able to return items at 82 stores in Los Angeles and Chicago starting in October. They’ll also be able to pick up and return items at self-service lockers in select Whole Foods Markets, which the Internet giant purchased for $13.7 billion in August.

For e-tailers with little to no physical footprints—think Everlane, Outside Voices, and Eloquii—a startup called Happy Returns is building a network of in-person “Return Bars” in mall chains like Simon and Westfield.

Getting creative

More than half—54 percent—of retailers called creating a consistent brand experience across channels a “top priority.” Such a “channel-agnostic” topography would require a harmonious omnichannel fulfillment process that can tackle everything from storing inventory to processing shipments on time.

With smartphone use on the rise, and a global population that resides as much online as off, retailers must be able to juggle these “additional complexities…as part of their overall fulfillment strategies,” BRP said.

One solution, BRP suggested, is to leverage the spate of store shutterings and transition these physical stores into full-fledged distribution centers.

This would “allow retailers to lower their overall enterprise in-stock inventory levels and reduce shipping costs, all while offering customers faster shipping or the opportunity to pick up their orders at a store to avoid shipping charges,” BRP said.

Self-driving trucks may be another option in the future. With food dispatchers such as DoorDash and Domino’s already testing the waters, autonomous delivery may be available sooner than we expect.

“Imagine Amazon sending a self-driving truck out with your order. As the truck arrives in your driveway you receive a text with the combination to a locker on the truck with your order,” BRP said. “You can decide right then if you want it. If not, send it back with the truck.”

And never underestimate the ability of human ingenuity to shift the needle. BRP cited Walmart’s use of its employees to drop off online orders on their way home from work as one such example.

Naturally, strong leadership is key. Almost half of the organizations BRP surveyed said they are plucking their store, web, and mobile operations from their individual silos and creating a single “unified commerce vision,” one overseen by a head of retail or chief customer officer who is responsible for the overall shopping journey.

This alignment, BRP said, will allow the overall organization to be more “nimble and innovative” as companies work toward a coherent, multichannel customer experience.

“It is critical to remember that the customer relationship is with the brand, not individual channels or departments,” BRP added. “Satisfying the customer’s expectations requires a cohesive organizational structure, aligned goals, and effective performance metrics and goals.”