There is a lot of debate around how retail is changing at present and entering a ‘multichannel era’. In the nineties I can remember the prophets of doom suggesting that there would be no more bookshops within a decade because of the success of Amazon, but the real picture has started to become more complex.
It is true that companies known for selling media products are suffering. Music retailers such as HMV and video game specialists Game have both been in the news recently because of their financial problems and so it is clear that the Internet is changing retail, but is online shopping really what customers want?
Not quite, and this is where the multichannel debate gets interesting. Customers would like a blend of online convenience and competitive prices – through tools like price comparison websites – but they also like the experiential nature of shops. Some products just need to be seen and touched before purchase.
But how do retailers manage these various channels within the same brand? Imagine if you are a dedicated camera retailer and everyone comes in to look at your products, tries them out, finds the ideal product, makes a note of the model number and then heads home to order it from the cheapest online store. How can you convince the customer to buy from your website rather than the cheapest?
In many cases it is impossible, but it looks like customer service is going to be the key that unlocks a solution to this multichannel puzzle. If that same retailer offered not only great in-store service, but a price guarantee or discount when using their website then it could lock people in and get them to value the service they can then expect from all channels used by that retailer.
Many retailers are still trying to figure out how best to engage across multiple channels, and I’m convinced that the answer will come from the customers – you can’t force a river to flow uphill.
Photo by Haunted by Leonard Cohen licensed under Creative Commons