Retail optimisation in the age of omnichannel

Following Manhattan Associates’ recent EMEA Exchange Conference in Barcelona, Manufacturing & Logistics IT spoke with the company’s UK managing director, Craig Summers, about the current state of play within omnichannel retail and how it is now more important than ever for retailers and warehouse professionals to be able to serve both brick and mortar and direct-to-customer delivery models equally efficiently.

Craig Summers.

Over the past few years, the competition between traditional brick and mortar retail stores and Internet retailing has become increasingly intense. White e-commerce continues to appeal to consumers due to the convenience of being able to make a purchasing decision online and ordering from a mobile device often with the promise of next-day, or even same-day, delivery, the physical store has to continue to fight its corner, offering customers a level of service that can best secure their ongoing loyalty.

So, what are some of the most important types of technology functionality that in-store retailers and warehouse professionals should be looking to deploy in order to provide a more attractive, personalised in-store experience for the customer while also helping them to compete more effectively with e-commerce? Craig Summers, managing director UK at Manhattan Associates, makes the point that when consumers buy something online from an Internet-based resourse they have ordered from before the retailer is already likely to know who they are, their address details, and have some knowledge of their previous buying habits and preferences. The retailer will also know whether the product is available for us to order at that point in time. “Yet, brick and mortar stores often still struggle with some of those basic principles, even stores we might shop at on a regular basis,” says Summers, adding that it is also harder for these stores to know which specific customers are in-store unless the customers make themselves known to staff.

“So, in the same way that information about the customer is important in the world of online retail – their buying history, what they typically like, if it’s clothing what are their required sizes of the garments and so on – it would be really useful to be able to arm associates in store with the type of technology that could at least allow them to have similar knowledge of a particular customer’s buying habits, whether his or her preferred type of products are in store and where, and, if not, whether they are stored in the back room and can be made available quickly,” he says. “Not being able to do these basic things is pretty shoddy in today's retail world, potentially resulting in lost sales and a damaged reputation.”

The right technology backbone

However, Summers explains that with the right type of technology backbone, in-store retailers can benefit from having a trusted view of their inventory and details of each customer the orders relate to, as well as some valuable information about each customer’s purchasing history. “That's a really powerful way to equip store associates with the most relevant information needed to provide the best service to customers,” he says. “With the right type of inventory visibility, retailers can even make decisions around shipping goods from one outlet to another if it’s out of stock in the local store in order to be able to provide it to a customer quicker. For example, you might not have the item in your store in Southampton, but it might be in your Aberdeen branch. You might consider that it’s worth shipping to your local store in order to get it to your customer by the next day. Alternatively, the right type of IT solution could have a role in pointing out that from a financial perspective that’s not really viable.

“Nevertheless, being better able to make those informed decisions is very useful for the retailer and its customers. You don't want to over-tech your associates in the store but having a mobile phone or tablet with that relevant information on it is not intrusive in today's retail world, particularly if you can get to the point where a customer can check out quicker. That's why understanding your inventory and having that really clear platform with a view of your stock is important.”

Making the investment

Summers reflects that although this type of state-of-the-art software functionality has been proven to offer major benefits for retails, there can still be a hesitancy to invest. “Because we are currently living through a time of uncertainty some people's inclination is to do nothing and not to spend,” he says. “Of course, many retail companies have invested in IT projects in the past and have legacy systems. Some of these projects may have been proven to work well while others may not have worked out so well. If they have had a bad experience in the past, it’s understandable that they are more hesitant about investing in a new system.

“However, if you consider the competition, for example the pure play companies, their whole world often revolves around investing in technology and they are prepared to take some of the braver decisions and the risks to push their business forwards. In today’s world, to do nothing can result in a business running backwards really fast, sometimes without even realising it. You can understand it's difficult when you have a really complex legacy system in place, but nevertheless some serious thought should be given to moving on.

Meeting the challenge of in-store and online sales

Summers also explains that many UK companies’ e-commerce technology decisions were made a number of years ago. “Because of this, some companies are living with far more disjointed processes, even though many companies want to be able to join up the two main models: e-commerce and brick and mortar stores,” he says. “The technology now is much better and much more suitable for modern retailers who need to manage both bulk orders to store and parcel orders to individual customers who order online. For example, Manhattan Associates’ Manhattan Active Omni – a solution engineered for the omnichannel environment and born in the cloud – is able to join up the whole of your online and store infrastructure to make that experience more seamless.”

Part 2 of this interview will be published in next week’s LogisticsIT.com newsletter.

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