It’s been boom or bust for retailers over the past few years. The pandemic accelerated consumer growth in online shopping, and brands that were poised to offer a slick, seamless experience reaped rewards with customers returning time and again. A certain global online giant has raised expectations for effortless purchases, minimal clicks, flexible delivery and a hassle-free returns process.
As we transition to a future where in-store is back, but consumer mindsets have changed, both on and offline experiences must be perfect. The goal isn’t just to stand still, it’s to make a profit, that’s why we’re all here.
Recent research found that 88 per cent of CEOs in retail are optimistic sales will rise in 2022. Confidence helps, but what tangible steps can retailers and distributors take to increase profitability?
Understand what your target market wants, when and how, and make sure you’re delivering it
Accept the retail market has changed. Simply assuming you can go back to what you were doing two years ago to the same demographic is naïve. With increased competition, those that are delivering exactly what their customers want, and how they want it, will be the ones reaping rewards. Regular evaluation is vital to stay one step ahead.
Customers are now living in an omnichannel world – purchasing in-store, online, via apps, through social commerce and even via smart speakers. Ensure you understand which of these channels they are using to purchase your products or services. You also need to know if there are options customers want but you don’t offer them – your competitor might. Monitor trends across all touchpoints to avoid falling behind and act swiftly; for example, is your returns process simple, can customers buy now and pay later and is a general marketing email cutting through?
Audit your existing tech
Remember, technology is there to help not hinder. One report found that workplace technology failures could cost UK companies £35 billion per year.
If you’re using multiple platforms – for your CRM, warehouse management, in-store transactions, you’re just making life harder for staff and the consumer. Are the platforms you use current and fit for purpose? Has your CRM been amended so many times it’s a total mess? Consider if you have legacy systems leftover from an old supplier relationship or have computers that use a different operating platform to team’s devices. The audit process may feel like a big undertaking, but it will be worth it.
We’ve all known someone who boasts that once they’ve flown business class, they can’t go back to economy. Apply that to your customers – once they’ve had a seamless retail experience, expectations are lifted, and it’s hard to go back. While it’s not a recent study, Microsoft concluded more than 90 per cent of consumers would consider taking their business elsewhere rather than work with a company that used outdated technology.
Remember to keep teams involved with the evaluation process – they may have valuable insight on what works and what doesn’t from a staff and a customer perspective but may have never felt comfortable sharing feedback.
Consider overhauling your business architecture
The initial input may sting but as soon as you understand how tech is holding you back, and how you can address it, it can be empowering. Contemporary solutions are designed to make communication with customers and distribution processes easier, not more convoluted, and in fact often provide automated solutions to those routine, time-consuming and sometimes daunting tasks.
There are solutions that can bring together many disparate business functions and software on to one cloud-based platform, such as Microsoft Dynamics 365, which has superior AI features that can personalise the user experience. And for the warehousing arena, there’s Oracle NetSuite, which includes intelligent supply allocation features and sophisticated inventory tracking. These elements keep the customer informed at all stages of the buying process and the business informed of pretty much everything, all in real-time. Should you already be thinking ‘but we can’t do without this or that software’, then there are also API solutions, like Jitterbit, that becomes the filling in the ERP and in-house system to ensure all data is integrated.
Invest in training
Not only will fit-for-purpose technology help the bottom line, but it can have a more holistic impact. Staff who are frustrated by inefficient systems will feel their voices are being heard. Their job will be easier due to more user-friendly, intuitive process, which will increase their motivation, leading to greater productivity.
However, where this falls down is if you don’t invest in training. You can’t simply ‘set and forget’. We’re all human, and you may find if staff struggle to use the new system properly they may go back to relying on old methods they feel more comfortable using. There may also be concerns that the new technology is a threat to staff’s job security, so keep communication channels open and ensure any fears are addressed, before motivation is impacted.
Crucially, for the software investment to be worthwhile, all must be on board, so make sure staff have been consulted at every stage of the process, rather than decisions made exclusively by senior leaders. And invest in a comprehensive programme from an expert.
Focus on customer service
Once you have the technology securely integrated, make the most of it! How can you use the new solution to maximum effectiveness? From a CRM perspective, it’s all about personalisation. The system should track all purchase behaviour, open and click rates of all communications activity, and store this together in a central dashboard. Utilise the user-friendly analytical tools to identify customer preferences – don’t keep sending e-communications with the same format/time/content if they aren’t getting the response you want. CRM systems can be smart – it’s not about historical customer behaviour but predicting the future. By knowing what they want, and when, personalisation becomes even more valuable.
Utilising sophisticated technology for your distribution channel is not just about tracking stock, it’s about maximising the customer experience too. What the growth of online shopping has shown us is that people want to know when to expect their purchases, and have little tolerance for inconvenience, inaccuracy or unreliable communications.
The direct commerce sector faces external challenges of which they have no control, by focusing on the elements that can be controlled such as the customer experience and distribution chain, they’ll be in a stronger position to see profit in 2022.
Ian Robertson is the Sales and Marketing Director of BrightBridge, a UK-based technology consultancy offering Oracle NetSuite and Microsoft Dynamics 365 solutions. Ian has over 30 years of experience in ERP and CRM implementations. Prior to forming BrightBridge, Ian worked for a major US IT corporation, where he acquired a depth of knowledge around time-saving efficiencies through technological integration and automation.