Omnichannel Technology - A Holistic Approach to Retail?
As brands and retailers struggle to stay afloat in the chaos caused by Covid19, e-commerce has been a game-changer for some and a lifeline for many. Despite non-essential stores in the UK being granted the right to open their doors over a month ago, footfall continues to be disappointing, at just 50% of what it was a year ago. We clearly can't rely on a bounce back to normal as many had once hoped. Coronavirus fears are likely to remain until there is a vaccine or a truly significant drop in infections, with some experts estimating that the worst effects of the crisis could continue well into the first quarter of 2021.
Many previously brick-and-mortar-only stores are now adding e-commerce options to their arsenal – the Shopify share price alone has more than doubled since February. However, despite a rush to digitalise, the fashion industry has been one of the hardest hit by the crisis – homeworkers are less likely to buy new clothes; special events, vacations and parties have been cancelled; and apparel is often the first cutback consumers make when looking to save on costs. We may be able to survive by using e-commerce options, but in order to once more thrive perhaps it's time to start thinking about e-commerce, not as a separate digital version of our stores for the online customer, but as a vital part of all of our customers' holistic online/offline experience. Consumer habits are changing, and if the high street is to survive, it will need to create an immersive experience that makes the customer's life easy, whether online or off.
Which brings us to omni-channel retail. Most professionals in the e-commerce and retail sectors use this terminology to apply to the practice of listing products across various online marketplaces. But what if we think of it in another way? What if omni-channel or “all channels” referred to every point in which we are in contact with the customer across their retail journey? From a poster on the street, to an advert on Facebook, a visit to our store or a comparison of prices online. Imagine a fully integrated experience in which the customer journey is seamless and pleasurable. In order to achieve this we need new technologies, but fortunately it's not a case of inventing the wheel. There are already a number of futuristic technologies which have been around for some time, although it's only recently that their functionality in the future of retail is being truly explored.
Just a year or so ago, the idea of trying on clothes, shoes or make-up “virtually” seemed like something out of a Blade Runner fantasy. And yet, we're all familiar with the Snapchat filters which gave us instant cat ears, or allowed us to see what we'd look like in 50 years time. The first of these filters came out over 5 years ago, so the technology is certainly not new – and now Snapchat itself has partnered with footwear giants such as Nike and Adidas to allow consumers to try on a pair of virtual shoes before they buy. Zeekit is another industry pioneer, creating a virtual dressing room experience which allows online shoppers to “try on” clothing from home, taking into consideration the specifications of the the product along with the customer's height and body type. Within the beauty industry, Sephora and MAC were some of the first to introduce the Virtual Mirror to selected stores, allowing clients to try out different shades of makeup via an interactive “mirror” before making a purchase. Considered by some to be a gimmick at the time, with recent concerns about hygiene in both beauty and fashion, AR technologies are likely to become a necessity moving forward into a more health conscious future, both at home and in stores.
QR codes are becoming ever more present in our lives. Bars and restaurants are using them to allow customers to download menus or make orders without going to the bar, while in New Zealand stores must display unique QR codes with which customers can trace their movements as part of the Covid Tracking app. Some forward thinking retailers are using the same technology to help bridge the online/offline experience – Lone Design Club in London has been experimenting with window shopping QR codes, allowing customers passing their store to scan the products in their display and order directly online before taking another step. Even as stores open, consumers are likely to be wary of crowds and queueing at tills, but this versatile technology offers them the chance to check the stock in store before they enter, and even scan and pay for items via their phone, thus minimising their time in store and contact with assistants and other shoppers.
Online video conferencing and chat has now become part of our everyday lives, not only at work, but in order to stay in touch with friends and family while separated. It's no longer unusual for friends to watch a film together online while hundreds of miles apart, or have dinner and drinks via Whatsapp. And, thanks to apps such Squadded, online retailers can now recreate the fun of shopping with friends online – with peer advice and encouragement being a tried an tested booster for both sales and customer satisfaction. Many big brands including Asos, Boohoo and Missguided have already adopted the technology, and Chinese consumers (often ahead of the crowd) have embraced the trend with social e-commerce sales in the first quarter of 2020 already eclipsing the whole of 2019.
Another trend which has become hugely popular in China, livestream shopping is the QVC of social media, and it's causing a stir as brands start to take notice. China's leading live commerce platform, Taobao Live, has reported 150% growth year on year over the past 3 years, and the Coronavirus lockdown has only increased its popularity. Popular influencers model products, answer questions & give their opinion while offers and limited stock alerts flash up on screen, and eager viewers can go from like to purchase in a simple click. Influencer marketing is already big business, livestream retail is perhaps the next logical step in the customer journey.
Just a few years ago, most of these technologies would have seemed out of reach, accessible only to the biggest brands with the fattest wallets. But now, with social media platforms incorporating more and more online services into their portfolios, e-commerce SAS providers constantly upping their game, and app designers creating low-cost solutions at an alarming rate, retailers of all sizes can now jump on the omni-channel trend. E-commerce is the future of retail, but it may not be e-commerce as we know it. To paraphrase Squadded's acute observation – Buying is the result, Shopping should be an experience.
Written by Amber Domenech Patey