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How unified commerce is shaping the future of the store

by Nikki Baird: Vice president of strategy at Aptos.
Over the past two years, retailers have had to contend with a massive shift in consumers’ purchase behaviours. And while the pandemic restrictions are starting to fade, shopping expectations – particularly as they relate to fulfilment convenience, online/offline convergence, personalisation and digitalisation – are as heightened as ever.

With new hardened consumer priorities dictating the course for retailers, opportunity knocks for those that forge a path that aligns with modern shopping journeys.

As part of retailers’ efforts towards modernisation, they are taking a hard look at their store estates. While the viability of the store was understandably called into question during the depths of the Covid-19 health crisis, many retailers (both traditional brick-and-mortar and D2C brands) are exiting the pandemic with a fresh perspective on the criticality of having a physical presence:
  • A physical presence that can be used to support ecommerce fulfilment and position inventory closer to the source of demand. 
  • A physical space that can bring their brands to life and serve as a showroom to connect shoppers with products in a way that is not possible online. 
  • A centre that could introduce new service offerings and revenue streams, such as in-store customisation, product repairs and tutorials, ticketed events, resale, and so much more. 
The store experience of 2019 might be extinct, but the store of the future – anchored by unified commerce – is just getting started. 

Here are a few considerations for maximising the potential of the modern store:

Store fulfilment: essential for profitable ecommerce sales

The pandemic flipped fulfilment on its head. We live in a world where dark stores (traditional retail stores that were converted to serve fulfilment operations only) and grey stores (stores that are evenly divided between fulfilment and cash-and-carry operations) are now part of retail’s vernacular and business models. Even the most traditional retail locations devoted to serving foot traffic are offering click and collect, with many of these stores starting to introduce ship-from-store capabilities.

The hybrid store has become immensely strategic to support the boom in ecommerce sales while also helping to meet shoppers’ expectations for ultra-fast pickup and delivery.

And given the well-documented warehouse capacity shortage, the time has never been more right to utilise stores as mini distribution centres.

A significant consideration here is that retailers must overhaul merchandise planning and inventory management, aligned with their store fulfilment strategies. For instance, when it comes to allocating products to stores, retailers must account for what products they expect to leave out of the front of the store, versus the back, and fine-tune their replenishment accordingly.

Digital to physical integration supports personalisation

Online adults use technology to engage with companies now more than before the pandemic started. However, as Forrester research points out, we know that technology often feeds into a hybrid customer experience, across digital and physical touchpoints.

As more customer journeys begin online and store visits become more intentional (e.g. confirming an item’s stock level online prior to visiting the store or placing a click-and-collect order), the importance of converting one-off transactions into long-lasting customer relationships will rely heavily on experience unification across channels.

One of the key barriers to this currently is that when a shopper walks into a store, any interaction or activity that shopper had with the brand online is largely unknown to the in-store staff.

Store associates, who have one of the largest impacts on the overall brand experience, are the ones who typically know the least about the customers they interact with, when compared with the retailer’s marketing, merchandising or ecommerce teams.

Lack of service continuity between ecommerce and stores due to a disconnect with retailers’ own channels is no longer an inconvenience shoppers will overlook.

As retailers start to figure out how to help shoppers seamlessly transition from digital to store and back again, they need to equip store employees with access to relevant customer information so each customer interaction is not a blank slate.

The ability to share customer intelligence across store and digital channels will empower associates to deliver highly targeted and relevant content and offers to shoppers.

The key here is for associates to be trained and technology-enabled in a way that allows them to leverage as much customer information as possible to personalise the interaction and still allows the customer to control how that information is being managed and used by the retailer.

Consumers want digital conveniences in store

When a person thinks of in-store checkout, convenience and flexibility are not the first descriptors that come to mind.

That needs to change.

Retailers need to reimagine the checkout experience and offer more options so consumers can transact on their own terms.

Start by offering the best selection of checkout options that are feasible for your store format and sought after by your customer base. This might include associate-assisted mobile checkout, cashierless self-checkout kiosks, and consumer mobile scan and go from their own mobile devices.

Beyond checkout, retailers can do an overall better job of putting shoppers in control of their in-store experience through enhanced digital technologies, ranging from the ability to explore product information to looking up their loyalty points to seeking human help when they need it.

We’ve also seen innovation in bringing augmented reality into the store, with one example being virtual mirrors in fitting rooms that show a shopper how an outfit would look without physically trying it on.

No matter where retailers start on their journey to bring digitalisation into the store, the important part is to start that journey now. More consumers today think digital first – and that doesn’t stop when they enter a physical space.

Rethinking store commerce for a digital-first world

Building a unified commerce foundation is the retail imperative for 2022, and getting it right will be the test by which retailers are judged. As the clock ticks louder, retailers that revamp their stores for seamless and connected online/offline interactions will be the ones that win the battle for relevance and secure their long-term future. 

Originally published on InternetRetailing
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