With customers’ shopping journeys now straddling a myriad of different channels, retailers are dealing with the challenge of integrating these separate routes to market to deliver a seamless customer experience.

This is essential if retailers are to achieve genuine customer engagement. This was a common theme during a panel discussion hosted by K3 Retail at the recent Retail Bulletin Customer Engagement Conference 2018 in central London. It brought together a group of experienced retailers to consider the theme: ‘Connected Retail and Technology – rethinking how to reach and engage with your customers.”

Richard Lewis, design director for experience design at Sainsbury’s, says: “The differentiation between online and in-store is blurred, which makes it complicated for businesses. There is a lot of work in the Sainsbury’s business around experimentation in order to keep up with customer trends and the design team is now involved with this.”

Focusing on customer outcomes

To this end Sainsbury’s has taken the approach of focusing on customer outcomes and using these to determine the decision-making within the company. It has recognised that with today’s cross-channel shopping journeys undertaken by its customers it is essential for retailers to increasingly take the enterprise-wide team approach when implementing major changes.

“We’ve seen more of these teams, with designers embedded in groups of engineers, buyers, marketers and strategists, and when it works then it is all about customer outcomes. Previously people acted in silos but now, regardless of the individuals involved, they are all on-board for these customer outcomes. Whole teams need to listen to the customer,” he explains.

Even for Sainsbury’s, which Lewis says is not naturally a digital business, this new way of working is going well. It is proof that a large company can make the necessary change to being focused on outcomes for the benefit of the customer.

Kate Franklin, former group marketing & omni-channel director at Outdoor & Cycle Concepts (OCC), says that all people across retailers’ businesses need to realise the part they play in the customer experience: “The customer voice needs to be drilled into every level of the organisation. Retailers must try to get people to think of the customer first rather than the process.”

Bringing the channels together

Sainsbury’s is presently working on a number of digitally-driven initiatives including bringing the mobile phone and Nectar together as a way of identifying shoppers regardless of the channel they are using. This is also being used as the platform from which it is experimenting with personalising the shopping experience based on a customers’ previous purchases.

One area of focus is the grocery website: “It is not very personalised but with Nectar it could be. At the moment e-commerce is all about products but if you take a Spotify/Netflix approach then it could become very personal. Things will change over the next few years.”

For Franklin the bringing together of different parts of a business requires organisations to measure the customer experience across all touch-points: “They forget the customer experience is the sum of all parts – it’s the end-to-end experience. It only works when it all works.”

She cites a very successful promotion at OCC where the measured metrics were good but the company did not “talk about all the things that went wrong” in some parts of the shopper journey. “It was all masked by the sales increases but what we found from the feedback was abandoned baskets, late deliveries and various other poor feedback,” says Franklin.

Commitment from the top

Such all-encompassing approaches require board-wide commitment, according to Franklin, who says: “You can’t do change programmes without leadership support so get the CEO to get their customer eyes on. Provide them with some customer feedback and data analytics that the board are not aware of and which makes them sit up.”

Such change programmes are not unusual as all retailers are presently undergoing digital transformations to some extent or other, says Eva Pascoe, digital & strategy director at Bluebella: “Big and small brands are all in transition. All brands are in mega chaos and in the same boat.” A key part of the transformation process is being able to listen to the customer and act of the feedback.

Physical stores drive customer proximity

Despite the mass of data that the online channel brings it is not quite the same as physically dealing with shoppers’ in-store, suggests Pascoe, who can recall the benefits of sometimes working on the shop floor when she was employed at the Arcadia Group. “I could see the customer but with online-only companies like Bluebella and other such brands there are no customers to see,” she says.

Pascoe has therefore recommended these businesses take the route of opening pop-ups, which has proved illuminating in terms of customer engagement and the insight gained: “We did a pop-up at Boxpark and all the customers wanted gift wrapping but we did not have any wrapping service. This demand was not possible to see online. Now 40% of the online business is related to gifting and we changed the warehouse to deal with this.”

This is proof of the ongoing value of the physical store for retailers. Furniture and home-wares business Made also found itself opening units having initially had an online-only model. Julien Callede, co-founder of Made, says they have been beneficial in many ways even though the company “had no idea if they would work” when it opened its first unit on the site of its head office in West London.

Act on the feedback

“Whatever people do with the stores – buy, test the products etcetera, it is all beneficial. And there is also the brand-building they provide,” he says, before agreeing with Pascoe that they also act as effective tools to garner feedback from customers, which is something Callede admits to under-appreciating in the early days of the company.

“We did not look at it but I’m now seeing more and more brands getting feedback. However, I’m not sure if all retailers really act on it. I’m not even sure if we do as much as we could!” he suggests.

The company is presently using this feedback to “build better digital showrooms” and has adopted a trial mentality in order to avoid the syndrome of larger companies where they prevaricate about releasing new solutions: “When you look at new features then as a larger company you end up going so far down the line before actually releasing something that it never gets released.”

Callede also highlights the fact that care has to be taken when measuring the success of new releases because there can often be an issue in terms of how these solutions are actually implemented and it is also vital to ensure that the correct KPIs are being used.