The Realities of Unified Commerce in Retail

Unified commerce has been a strong differentiator pretty much since there’s been more than one way to shop. Of course, it hasn’t always been called “unified”, but the idea has persisted – if you get to know your customer, give them the best possible experience every step of the way, you give yourself the best chance to win. Think about a classic example like L.L.Bean. They were providing unified commerce way back when they were just a catalog outfitter with a store in Freeport, Maine.  

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The Realities of Unified Commerce in Retail

Jun 11, 2019

The Realities of Unified Commerce in Retail

Unified commerce has been a strong differentiator pretty much since there’s been more than one way to shop. Of course, it hasn’t always been called “unified”, but the idea has persisted – if you get to know your customer, give them the best possible experience every step of the way, you give yourself the best chance to win. Think about a classic example like L.L.Bean. They were providing unified commerce way back when they were just a catalog outfitter with a store in Freeport, Maine.

You ordered a pair of Bean boots from a beautifully designed and well-written catalog. Of course, you called in your order and the person on the phone was friendly and helpful. Your boots showed up in a well-packaged box, which also happened to contain great marketing communications. Then you wore the heck out those boots. Until, one day, the laces snapped.

Let’s say you were up in Freeport and you had your boots with the broken laces with you. You could stop into the L.L.Bean store and they’d happily set you up with new laces at no charge, with no questions asked. While you were there, you can almost guarantee, they’d have a conversation with you – about the store, your hobbies and sports, and before you know it, you’d be purchasing some new gear. This is unified commerce and when done right, it’s one of the last unique differentiators that can truly drive loyalty.

When it comes to delivering a great customer experience why do most retailers continue to miss the mark? Let’s start with org. structure. Oftentimes, an org chart at a retail company is simply a reflection of its channels (i.e. stores versus website) and communications platforms (broadcast versus digital versus social versus print, etc.).

What this often means is different and competing visions, KPIs, and perhaps, worst of all, bonus structures. And while all that internal competition might be good for the short term, it is not exactly the best environment for “unified” commerce. Typically, cannibalization and inefficient use of budgets come on the tail of these competing visions. Sadly, what’s forgotten is the customer, which in today’s retail environment is a recipe for failure.

Now, let’s assume a retail organization is well organized. Why are so many still slow to optimize and unify the customer experience? A recent study1 conducted by Boston Retail Partners (BRP) shed some light on the gaps and delays as well as what strong retailers are doing.

Are retailers on the road to success or failure?

At a very high level, retailers have good intentions when it comes to unified commerce. 94% indicated that they have implemented or plan to implement a single, unified-commerce platform within three years. On the surface this looks like a great number, but only 18% of those retailers say their commerce solution is implemented and working well. And when BRP did a little digging only 4% indicated that they actually had a true, unified-commerce environment. The remainder say their commerce solutions are implemented but need improvement or are not implemented at all.

When we look at shopper expectations versus retail reality in the BRP Study, the numbers are even more telling. For instance, 79% of consumers said personalized service from a sales associate is important in choosing where to shop and only 53% of retailers said that personalization is a priority. When you consider how much a unified shopping environment can facilitate a personalized shopping experience you begin to wonder if the priorities of retailers are misaligned with consumer expectations. One also wonders whether retailers truly understand the power of unified commerce.

The mobile retail experience disparity.

Another disparity linked to the unified experience can be seen in shopper mobile phone usage versus mobile experience optimization from retailers. According to the BRP Study 63% of consumers use their phones when shopping in stores to compare prices, products, look for coupons, and check availability while just 49% of retailers said that the customer mobile experience is one of their top customer engagement opportunities. This represents a huge opportunity. In most cases, if someone actually leaves their home or place of work and goes to a store, they are prepared to spend money. If 63% of them are on their phones and the retailer is not providing information, relevant offers or content they are looking for, chances are the shopper will go elsewhere. Again, this disparity points to a potentially major gap when it comes to retailers and unified commerce. More importantly, it points to a huge differentiator for the retailers willing to make it work.

Easier is better.

The BRP Study also pointed out how consumers want an easy experience. Take check-out for example. 82% of consumers feel that the ease of checkout and payment is an important factor in choosing where to shop. This includes options like mobile wallets, tap and go and self-check-out, with more than 50% of those surveyed saying they’d choose a retailer with cashier-free checkout. When shoppers experience a great checkout process, they have a benchmark for all other checkout processes. For instance, retailers are using newer, “line-busting” mobile POS solutions in store, right at the moment a buying decision is made, which not only limits wait times, but also allows associates more floor time to interact with customers. Interestingly 30% of retailers are using POS hardware that is at least six years old, and 73% report using POS software that is more than two years old. Unsurprisingly, almost half of retailers surveyed plan to replace their hardware and software within three years. The question is, how many will actually do so and how many will face shifting priorities.

The retailers that focus on these and other customer priorities their priorities are most likely already ahead of, or at pace with, even newer trends. Everything from pop-up shops and self-checkout to recognizing customer preferences everywhere they shop all contribute to the unified shopping experience. In fact, it might be best to just think about it as the customer experience instead of “unified.” That way it’s not about bringing different experiences together and there is no predetermined process. It is simply about what the customer wants and needs at any given time and making it simple and pleasant for them to get it.

1. 2019 POS Survey, Boston Retail Partners, https://brpconsulting.com/download/2019-pos-survey/

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