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Retailers online and offline need to be problem solvers to succeed

The retail industry is transforming, we are told. With such a wealth of digital technologies to choose from, and with online brands stealing the lunches from traditional store owners, the element of panic being felt across retailers is, perhaps, unsurprising.

But even while purveyors of goods and services struggle to adapt, they are perhaps missing a fundamental point: that this isn’t about them. Retail Shopping — buying stuff — should not be so hard, but right now, it is.

At the base of any consumer transaction lies the notion of a value exchange. This isn’t just about the money — consumers will pay more in return for greater convenience, reduced risk and a feeling of affiliation, among other criteria.

Add these up and consumers will generally then choose whatever option yields the shortest distance between a perceived need and having that need being met. Advertisers and brands are fully aware of their role in driving that perception.

But too frequently it seems to be forgotten by retailers large and small, from major supermarket chains who find themselves being outflanked by low-cost outlets, to owners of high street establishments, franchised and independent, that sit at their tills wondering why nobody comes in.

The greatest impact has been due to the onslaught of online sellers, which has led to the demise of so many well known names. As we know however, there was no inevitable reason why Blockbuster, Woolworths or any other retailer had to fail.

Other organisations have survived, if not thrived — in the UK John Lewis continues to perform and even Waterstones (a bookseller, of all things) recently turned a modest profit. And I have watched with interest as a local lunch bar, Stacked, has gone from strength to strength.

As so frequently in technology, the problem with retail is defined in terms of what’s going wrong with business models, rather than what needs to go right. The buzzword is ‘omnichannel’, suggesting that retailers need to reach consumers across the variety of mechanisms now available. For us consumers, this is already so last year. We exhibit a form of Orwellian doublethink, going from a “wow” state about something new (such as buying goods via a smartphone, or using click-and-collect) to a “well, of course I’d want to do it that way”.

Keeping up with such fickle behaviours is challenging, but is much easier to understand from the point of view of the consumer. The irony is that, even as retail strategists plan their moves, at the weekends they become the very people they are trying to engage.

In the omnichannel world, sales can just as easily be lost as won. Consider the aforementioned click-and-collect service, which (based on personal experience and that of a colleague), would perhaps be better named click-and-wish-you-hadn’t. On one occasion the product was delivered to a store ready for collection, then returned before it was picked up; on the other occasion it wasn’t actually available but the order was accepted anyway. In both cases the order was cancelled without asking the customer.

If you were the punter, in both cases the chances are you wouldn’t rush to use the same service again. Of course, commentators need to be careful not to treat their personal experiences as fact. But this is retail. Of course it’s personal.

So here’s a thought — rather than looking out of a headquarters window (or even from that upstairs room in the back office of a store), how about looking at the real customer journey? Not from prospect to buyer, but from home, to couch, to shop, to bus, to phone. And back.

In other words, this is not about omnichannel -- that’s a bit like defining DIY as ‘multitool’.  Rather it is about recognising and handling the actual customer state, from needs analysis through to those needs being met.

Retailers are problem solvers, be it dealing with the weekly shop or handling an urgent request for a washing machine part. The ways in which the problem is communicated are mere points on the journey, not the journey itself. Retailers fail to understand this at their peril.

Retailers that recognise this will continue to grow and do well (as long, that is, as people have the inclination and ability to buy what is offered). Those that don’t, however, will continue to miss both their targets and the point.

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Jon Collins

Jon Collins is an analyst and principal advisor at Inter Orbis. He has over 25 years in experience of the tech sector, having worked as an IT manager, software consultant, project manager and training manager among other roles. Jon’s published work covers security, governance, project management but also includes books on music, including works on Rush, Mike Oldfield and Marillion. See More

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