I recently watched a presentation by Steve Nave, former SVP & General Manager of Walmart.com and in it he raised the concept of the continuous channel as a new frontier for retailers. He talked about rather than seeing retail as a multi channel process, we should be taking a step back to look at the entire brand, letting customers shop the way they want to shop and bringing it all together into one continuous channel. Essentially instead of serving customers through individual channels, we serve them at touch points across channels by optimising the organisations processes and technologies. The picture on the left is a trial advertising program by Tesco in South Korea. In a “virtual store” concept, people could shop with their mobile phones whilst waiting for a train directly from an ambient installation set up to look like a store and have their groceries delivered to their home hours later. This is a great example of allowing shoppers to purchase in new ways, on their terms and across channels.
Traditionally there were only three channels which organisations could utilise to actively generate sales, the stores themselves, direct sales (phone/direct marketing) and printed catalogues. These channels essentially each only had a single touch point within them. This has now all changed with the advent of the internet and the establishment of ecommerce as a legitimate channel. The internet differs from the three traditional channels in that it doesn’t simply create one touch point but a vast array of new ones. It feeds emerging technologies as it expands into mobile, tablet, TVs, instore, cars and not to mention social media. The key thing to note here is that when you think about it, none of these new touch points are actually a new channel in themselves, they are all being fed by the existing internet channel. The opportunity here for retailers is that increasingly everything is becoming a touchpoint with which consumers can transact with your organisation. Whilst this may sound similar to the concept of multi-channel retailing, the difference is in the thinking of how the channels and touch points intersect together and how the organization responds to the customer across them to drive sales.
For this to work, information, and data must flow freely between channels on the customer end and within the business units of the organisation, no silos. Customers more and more expect to be able to shop across channels, for example purchasing an item via mobile and collecting it instore. They need to be able to shop when and how they want to, customers shop with your company as a whole, not with an individual channel. With this in mind we can look at new ways to intersect them. I think whilst it may be very hard to truly get to a point where this is fully achieved but it is a good journey to be on and will help drive retailing into the future.
The Walmart example that Steve discussed is a good one to look at in terms of a big retailer testing out initiatives which cross the channel boundaries. Walmart has implemented the below strategies with their ecommerce platform that go some way to letting the customer shop their way and intersects both instore and internet enabled channels:
Site to Store – customers could purchase products online and have them sent to their local store for collection.
Pick Up Today – customers can view a stores stock online, purchase and put it on hold knowing it’s ready for them when they arrive in store to collect it.
Scheduled Delivery From Store – customers can order something online from a store and schedule the delivery for when they want it to arrive at their home.
These strategies are interesting in not only do they cross the typical “channel” boundaries, but really add utility for the customer.
Looking forward, Steve identified the below future milestones he thought to be criticial to driving the continuous channel strategy going for Walmart:
–Social – not just in a setting up a Facebook page way but really looking at what the intersection is between business and social. They started an initiative called “Walmart Labs” to explore new technology around understanding what people are talking about in social media. With that insight, then as brands we can come to people and be relevant to them and the local community TODAY in new ways. For example we could use the information to influence what store staff talk to customers about when they enter the store, the POS instore, or what new initiatives stores can do for people. It’s about more then just sending emails of a relevant sale to people who have indicated they like blenders on Facebook.
-Mobile – This will help drive the continuous channel as a future for ecommerce. Customers are turning to mobile devices more and more for information when they want it quickly. To help keep pace in this area, Walmart are going so far as acquiring tech company start ups to remain agile and take advantage of the latest advances in technology.
-New Store Models – Can ecommerce begin to help influence store layout? Walmart are now siting the online division at the table when discussing how stores are designed to help bring online into the bricks and mortar channel. For example we don’t necessarily need the store floor space to show all products if we can back it up with online channels. For example you could show just 3 digital cameras in each price point, knowing 300 more are online which we can get to store for someone today, or to their home.
Whilst we won’t see the end of bricks and mortar stores, customers will always have something to do instore, (a point I touched on in my post Why Bricks and Mortar Stores Will Always Have a Role to Play) retailers will need to rethink their operational strategy to keep up with how consumers expect to be able to shop, on their terms, across channels.