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Retail: Enjoying The Rollercoaster Ride

Frederic Gillant Photo

It’s a rollercoaster ride out there for retailers, often first to feel the effects of fluctuating customer demand. In fact, retail performance figures are used as the canary in the coal mine when it comes to overall economic health – because the correlation with consumer confidence and sentiment is so direct and immediate.

The last three months in Australian retail have been ‘a brutal time’ according to a recent headline in The Courier Mail. We’ve seen some major collapses, particularly with fashion labels. However, at the same time, many retailers are booming.

So why are some retailers flourishing while others are tanking?

Retail has become an incredibly diverse and complex business. Traditional store front businesses are now also operating as online retailers. Fashion labels, sports brands and shoe makers have opened their own outlets, supplying to department stores and speciality outlets as well as selling direct via the web and through other online retailers. In addition to normal office and administrative operations, many of the larger retailers are managing warehouses, multiple stores across one or more countries (in some cases operating as franchises), e-commerce sites, wholesale and catalogue businesses.

Now, I don’t make any claims to be a retail expert, but I’ve heard a lot of common challenges when speaking to our customers in the sector. Ultimately, these retailers want to increase engagement with their customers. That will enable them to provide a better customer experience and respond more quickly to changing customer demand, which are key factors to retail success.

In The Courier Mail article, Rebel’s Managing Director, Erica Berchtold, puts it another way: “You have to understand what (customers) want, when and how and where they want it.”

The fundamental component to customer service and customer engagement is communications, a subject in which I do have expertise!

A good example of great customer engagement is online men’s clothing retailer Bonobos (now shipping to Australia!). Bonobos views customer service as its major differentiator, and advertises its contact details prominently on the home page:

Service the Ninja Way
If you have comments, questions, or issues, our customer service Ninjas are always on call. Need help? Call a Ninja.

Australian winemaker Mollydooker, targeting the US market for it wholesale and direct sales business, also credits customer service as its number one differentiator.

“When people buy our products – whether that’s the customer themselves, a restaurant, distributor or a liquor store – we make a ‘thank you’ call,” explains Mollydooker Wines’ IT Manager Andrew Brown.

Another critical challenge retailers are facing is the move into multiple sales channels and multiple ways of interacting with their customers. Berchtold again noted that “online and bricks and mortar have merged and complement each other rather than being two different channels.”

So, how do retailers manage customer engagement in store, via phone, email, SMS, web and social media? More than that, how can you provide a consistent customer experience across all of these communications channels?

Another clothing retailer, Joules, started out 20 years ago in a tent selling clothes at country fairs in the UK and is now the epitome of a diversified retail business, with wholesale operations, catalogue distribution, an online store delivering to 40 countries worldwide and 60 shop locations, including franchises, across the UK. Multichannel customer communication solutions have enabled Joules to make this diversification a success, explains founder Tom Joule:

“[Our customers] can choose to contact us via their channel of choice, whether that’s via our Facebook account, via email, traditional call or via text if they wish. It provides a much more dynamic customer experience for them.”

Scalability is another factor that retailers need to consider as they grow and diversify. How can you cost effectively implement, manage and operate communications as you roll out new stores or bring on new franchisees? How can you employ a follow-the-sun approach to ensure that you can provide effective customer service in each of the countries you reach? How can you manage peaks in customer demand for your online store during major sales events, like Black Friday or Cyber Monday? Joules, for example, currently takes more than 120,000 customer calls a year.

Finally, as a retailer, how do you collaborate effectively internally – both amongst your own teams and with your suppliers?

Our most successful retail customers, both locally here in Australia and internationally, have solved the communications challenge by taking the following approach to unified communications (UC):

  • Centralising the communications network to ensure simpler, more effective management and operation;
  • Employing voice over IP (VoIP) to reduce telecommunications costs and enhance collaboration in their store locations;
  • Incorporating contact centre capabilities into their UC system to effectively manage and report on customer engagement across multiple channels, ensuring consistent and responsive customer service; and
  • Building in flexibility and scalability to meet the peaks and troughs of customer demand that are so prevalent in the retail sector.

That flexibility and scale can’t be understated. I’ll leave the final word to Adam Wrightson from retail cinema chain Hoyts. Hoyts customers can call in at any time and “get access to session time information” and the phone system “enhances our customer service by allowing us to divert calls to agents wherever they might be … even working from home.”

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