Retailers must sharpen their double-edged digital swords

Alex Johns, managing director at Brandnew, considers how retailers can make better use of digital opportunities.

While High Street retailers have developed successful direct-to-consumer online operations, they of course remain committed to expensive premised businesses that must pay their way.

It’s no secret that many are worried at the growing shopper behavioural trend that sees consumers browse and research online, visit a store to see, hold and maybe ask questions about the item they are interested in and then return to the web to purchase.

During the course of this buyer behavioural process, consumers become product committed. The problems come if they are retailer neutral – there is no guarantee that the shopper journey is made with the same retail brand from investigation through to purchase.

In reality the opposite is often true – the rational appeal of web utilities such as price comparison sites and voucher codes are hard to ignore.

In these circumstances retailers must do more. They must do more to become shopper destinations of choice – working harder to create shopping experiences that people value and remember.

And they must do more to make buying in-store as easy and compelling as it is on the web. The past 10 years have been characterised by retailers sharpening their online operations while the in-store offer has become blunt by comparison.

The solution is surely to draw upon the same interactive, enabling digital technologies that encourage so many consumers to start the buying journey online. Retailers must use these technologies to deliver better, more valuable shopper experiences, while in turn providing compelling reasons to make the purchase in-store.

Major advances are presently taking place in mobile and out-of-home digital environments, technologies that could readily be incorporated into in-store or near-store retail estates. The opportunity exists for retailers to build digital frameworks for supplier brands to buy into.

The trouble is that these digital developments are arriving at a faster pace than the ability of retailers to change the way they’ve always done things.

We should be seeing more joined-up, bigger budget thinking. I want a world in which I regularly walk past digital posters bringing products to life. These posters will be bought cost-effectively by day-part, broadcasting perhaps during the early evening as I wait for a train, or maybe during my Saturday downtime.

I’d be able to download a coupon from the poster to my mobile. I’ll know the store is nearby – my phone has told me exactly where. I’d probably go to the store, ’play’ with the actual product in-store, via a digital kiosk or 3D augmented reality.

And then I’d be given another reason to use my discount voucher there and then – maybe something as simple as the convenience of free home delivery the following day.

None of these things are difficult, yet when it comes to integrating digital with mobile retailers default to No far too readily, believing for example (wrongly) that their incumbent systems will need to be changed to cope with mobile vouchers.

To make matters worse, ’trench mentality’ legacies exist in terms of different budget centres for mobile, digital outdoor and retail spaces generally.

This has left a vacuum that is fast being filled by manufacturer brands. Brands are taking the lead, developing fixtures and solutions that they then shoehorn into their retailers of choice.

After some 15 years characterised by a shift in power from manufacturers to retailers it is quite remarkable that retailers are ceding power in this way.

The early brand movers have seen some highly creative applications. Several augmented reality projects have received widespread coverage and location based marketing through Foursquare is also in evidence. Smart phones will be a huge and powerful channel as handset penetration grows, offering apps-based interactive dialogue with consumers.

As time goes by expect more and more of these campaigns to be retailer focused. Unilever is moving early to build its knowledge base – in the US it will be the first consumer company to advertise on iAd, Apple’s new advertising platform.

In an online environment of search, web site interactivity, rich video, peer to peer forums and the rest, our research and information needs are well catered for.

Retailers must use digital and mobile to engage more deeply in out-of-home environments, bringing more people into stores, bringing greater pleasure to the shopping experience when they get there and most important, making it much easier to buy in-store.

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