By Mark McGeachan

Retail is changing — fast. But perhaps we’ve now realised those that foretold the end of bricks and mortar retail weren’t quite right rather for the foreseeable future — at least — the physical shop is still very relevant, but needs to exist within a broader consumer shopping experience.

As physical and online retailers expand their presence in Australia competition continues to increase. The web is already a single global shopping mall, and as if this is not enough, successful global retailers are establishing a direct physical presence in the local market – witness TopShop, Zara, Williams Sonoma and H&M.

Customers have become savvier, armed with an arsenal of smart devices such as phones and tablets, coupled with an increasing appetite for — and growing comfort with — online technology. They are today happy to shop across both competitors and channels to get the deal and service levels they want. 

Bricks and mortar retail has the huge advantage of having the physical product available to see, touch and feel, but increasingly are becoming targets for showrooming, which is where a consumer looks at the merchandise in store then use their mobile device to purchase online from a cheaper internet alternative.

A recent US survey found up to 82 per cent of consumers admitted they had showroomed at a bricks and mortar outlet. If this trend continues it could drive considerable changes to the in-store experience. For example, some retailers are now experimenting with ‘try-on’ fees in a move to combat showrooming. Others are empowering store associates to offer on-the-spot price matches against online competitors.

Another approach retailers are taking to mitigate showrooming is focusing on technology that offer customers a seamless path to purchase, spanning whichever channels a particular customer chooses to utilise on their shopping journey. Ultimately this delivers the nirvana of a true omni-channel retail experience, combining channels to support transaction types like, click and collect and reserve and collect, as well as endless-aisle shopping in physical stores. This not only provides for a more pleasurable shopping experience but it also attempts to keep the customer continually engaged with retailer. This however requires retailers to focus on cross-channel returns, offers, and a pricing strategy that supports their channels to market.

As mentioned previously, the arsenal of technology available to retailers continues to grow. They have the ability to track consumers on their shopping journeys via their mobile devices, while at the same time pushing location-based offers to them. However, those same savvy consumers are increasingly becoming defensive about their privacy and after vocal feedback from some customers, Nordstrom, for example, ceased its pilot of WiFi tracking.

Social media is still finding its place in the retail landscape. There is no doubt it has an important role to play, but pure ‘F-commerce’ has so far not been a success for most retailers, whereas using social media to build communities of followers to interact with (and push offers to) has demonstrated value. Social media could almost be viewed as the funnel that can potentially drive social media fans into stores or online with minimal effort. From there it’s up to the imaginative talents of the marketing department and polished sales skills of the in-store sales associates to convert these opportunities into physical sales.

It’s also worth remembering the web is fundamentally a self-service retail environment, so to differentiate stores need to add value by adding service. One of the biggest advantages bricks and mortar stores have over online is direct customer engagement and interaction. The smarter bricks and mortar retailers are attempting to utilise the advancement in technology and look at new ways to take full opportunity and capitalise on this in-store advantage. One tool to aid this is mobile technology that can be put in the hands of sales staff. This can eliminate waiting at counters while capturing customer transactions at the point of decision rather than at point of purchase, such as locking in a sale at the changing rooms.

The way we shop today along with the technology we use may have all dramatically changed over the centuries; however the importance of quality customer service and customer satisfaction has never diminished. It remains a constant benchmark that retailers whether online or bricks and mortar must continue to strive and achieve to stay in business.

Mark McGeachan is the CEO of retail management software provider Island Pacific Australia and New Zealand.