Once difficult to explain, digital transformation has been clearly defined by the pandemic. Buying behavior after COVID-19 will still rely heavily on e-commerce, and retailers need to be ready for that.
A strong digital core has increasingly separated retail leaders from the laggards, especially in the COVID economy. Now, with online shopping habits firmly entrenched, it’s clear that omnichannel in retail is an essential strategy as we look forward to a post-pandemic world.
Online shopping was already on the rise pre-COVID and exploded during the pandemic. Accustomed to the convenience of e-commerce during months of lockdowns, many consumers plan to stick with it. In fact, 61% of shoppers intend to keep up their increased online shopping habits according to a joint 2020 global study from SAP and The Economist Intelligence Unit.
Omnichannel in retail is the new reality
Today, shoppers expect options. They might buy online and pick up their items either inside a physical store or outside from curbside delivery for convenience and to maintain social distancing. They also might discover a product inside a store, but wait to buy it online after they get home.
In order to keep customers satisfied, retailers need to integrate these online and offline channels to provide a seamless customer experience. But that’s often easier said than done.
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The Entertainer, the UK’s largest independent toy retailer, offers some lessons in how to get omnichannel in retail right.
Pre-COVID, the retailer worked hard to implement a 30 minute “click and collect” program and an enjoyable online customer experience to augment their in-store experience. Their stores were forced to shutter – not once, but three times since the start of the pandemic – so the company relied on omnichannel agility and an innovative culture to keep customers happy and remain profitable.
Based on The Entertainer’s experience, here’s what’s required for omnichannel success in retail:
- Timely investments
- Integrated fulfillment capabilities
- Be ready for whatever comes next
- Non-stop innovation
- Speed and flexibility
Run, don’t walk: Invest in retail omnichannel
Retailers that haven’t yet developed omnichannel capabilities can’t afford to wait any longer. For The Entertainer, proactive investment before COVID paid dividends.
The retailer has 170 stores in the UK, in addition to 50 in Spain under a subsidiary brand. They needed strong infrastructure that could scale and handle high demand, and deliver an intuitive experience for customers checking out via the website.
The value of the time, effort and money spent retrofitting their online channels became abundantly clear when they had to close their stores at the outset of the pandemic. With customers stuck inside, The Entertainer saw skyrocketing demand online for both delivery and click and collect orders. Their timely online investments made it possible to meet that demand.
Flexible fulfillment is a requirement today. Ship-to-store, ship-from-store, and BOPIS (buy online, pickup in store) options rule the retail experience.
Checking stock was an essential feature of their omnichannel capabilities because they didn’t want shoppers to encounter any “out-of-stock” signs when stores reopened and shoppers felt comfortable returning. Instead, consumers were able to check online to see if the toys they wanted were at their local store. Then, the trip to the store – with masks, hand sanitizer, and maybe children in tow – was all worth it.
Fix fulfillment for omnichannel retail success
In April 2020, The Entertainer had the good problem of doing a typical week’s worth of sales in just one day. It became difficult for them to get packages through warehouses fast enough.
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Fixing fulfillment required the team to increase capacity, make good use of their e-commerce and other direct-to-consumer investments, and use shuttered stores as fulfillment warehouses.
Be ready for anything
Many cities experienced multiple lockdowns over the past year, which at first shocked the retail community to its core. But after the first shutdown, retailers like The Entertainer learned to lean more heavily on their online channels to keep up with demand.
The second round of closures came in November, and the Entertainer had a much smoother transition because they had already shored up store-based fulfillment for online orders the first time around. While the company worked to transition to online effectively, it also had a number of initiatives up its sleeve to improve the customer experience even further.
Don’t stop innovating
During the summer of 2020, The Entertainer made several improvements to their customer engagement strategy. For one, they implemented a new CRM to pull together customer information, understand who customers are and how they shop the store.
This helped the retailer stay in touch with shoppers, establish deeper relationships with them, and drive more new and repeat business. Having a better understanding of what their customers wanted also led them to offer Klarna, an online buy-now-pay-later technology.
Leading consumers into brick and mortar stores begins with creating a seamless customer experience, across all devices and channels.
Another fresh idea that The Entertainer implemented was striking up partnerships with UK department stores that lacked toy offerings. This was a win-win situation in which department stores were able to tap into revenue for a category that has boomed during the pandemic. Meanwhile, The Entertainer extended its reach to new customers without the burden of increased fulfillment responsibilities.
Speed and flexibility are everything
If retail in 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that the best laid plans can go out the window overnight. The only way to be ready for swift changes is to be flexible and fast. The Entertainer wasn’t able to perfectly predict which channels would be popular when, so preparation on all fronts was essential.
The other side is speed. Retailers must be able to quickly innovate, open a new sales channel, launch a brand, or enable a new tactic in order to keep up.
In The Entertainer’s case, they can rely on a strong technology core to improve what’s worked in the past and keep rolling out innovations to encourage shoppers to keep checking in – and checking out – no matter the channel.