The off-the-shelf retail experience that will keep customers loyal

A report from Forrester Research shows growth for e-commerce in Canada, which may pose a challenge for merchants who fail to optimize their online and offline communications channels

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Recently I was on the hunt for a new pair of running shoes and, after spending a considerable amount of time with a salesperson at a sporting goods store, I found the pair I wanted. But the store only had my size in gleaming white (much like something you’d see worn in a hospital) — not the “watermelon” colour I wanted.

So I left. In today’s retail environment, I have more choices than ever: I can walk over to a competitor’s store, but I can also compare products and prices over my smartphone and order what I want online. And that means lost business — and a lot of wasted time — for the salesperson that helped me find the right shoes.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the “omni-channel,” which provides customers with multiple channels for purchasing goods and services. Ultimately, though, the customer doesn’t care about the channel. I just wanted my watermelon shoes, whether they were in the backroom or shipped to me from another location.

Related: What the ‘omni-channel’ citizen will expect

A new report from Forrester Research shows that online retail in Canada is outpacing growth at traditional stores, and it’s expected to reach $34 billion (that’s 10 per cent of total retail transactions) by 2018.

Forrester attributes this to a number of factors, including the growth of U.S. and international brands opening online stores for Canadians, as well as revamped online stores from Canadian retailers. And, the report says, there’s also growing consumer demand for omni-channel experiences.

This shouldn’t scare off retailers. It’s an opportunity for innovation — and, of course, to make money. It’s not about bricks-and-mortar versus online retail; it’s about providing a seamless experience for customers across multiple channels.

One way to start moving toward this goal is through technologies such as unified communications. Connecting systems so a retailer has a single face to the market is becoming increasingly important, says Henry Dewing, principal analyst with Forrester Research.

A clothing retailer, for example, could set up an IP phone with a scanner in fitting rooms, so a customer could scan an item to see if it’s available in another size or colour. With UC, however, this capability could be extended beyond a single store location, so a salesperson could check inventory across all store locations and even online, and have the product shipped directly to the customer.

A salesperson could also find the right person with the right skills to help a customer in that moment (through, say, video telephony or IM) — no matter where that expert is located.

Cisco, for example, offers a Remote Expert Smart Solution to retail banking customers that allows for virtual face-to-face meetings over high-def video, expanding customers’ accessibility to experts.

This same technology could be used in the retail space, says Dewing. A home décor retailer, for example, could connect a customer looking to remodel their kitchen with a design expert at headquarters. “Video allows you to get greater reach and greater productivity,” he says.

For many retailers, the benefit of UC comes down to hard-dollar savings. By moving to a converged infrastructure, they can reduce networking costs, as well as long-distance charges. But there are additional savings to be had in the form of reduced latency, more effective sales and better customer satisfaction.

It’s important to consider these soft benefits, too — it might be harder to put a dollar figure on them, but they’re becoming essential to merchants who want to get ahead in the quickly changing retail landscape.

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