Sunday 14 March 2010

Is it the end for traditional retail (or the beginning)

starbucks-sml.jpgEver since the first e-commerce site was launched there has been a perceived battle of online and offline retail.

Online retail with it's apparent advantages of economies of scale, the ability to focus on the niche and the low start-up costs. Offline retail with it's higher costs to serve, reduced range (compare a high street book store with Amazon) and limited catchment areas.

But offline retail has one real advantage - it's physical.

I can see, and touch what i'd like to buy. I can compare products next to each other. I can assess size and appearance. This physical connection is not required across all product categories - which is why traditional music shops have struggled - but for many types of product, seeing it in person can be a necessity.

However, the lines are blurring and its less about offline or online shopping and more about convergence (or multi-channel retailing in retail lingo) - and the mobile device in your pocket is enabling this.

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Forrester's e-commerce analyst Sucharita Mulpuru asked the question
"If somebody buys from a mobile device in your store, is that a Web sale or a store sale?"

This is interesting as for many people, one of the issues of buying in a store is actually the costly sales assistant. Yes I need someone to help sort out the actual purchasing of an item, but I'm less inclined to believe they can help me to select the right product - do they have the knowledge - and that they have my best interests at heart - how are they compensated.

The great thing about the integration of online and offline through the mobile device is that I can stand in front of a product in store and access reviews and pricing information instantly. I don't need a sales assistant to tell me why it's a great product, I have access to hundreds of reviews from real people to tell me if its a great product.

One retailer who gets this is Best Buy.

In a recent video they did for the National Retail Federation's 2010 Retail Innovation & Marketing Conference, they demonstrated their view of mobile integration within offline retail.

One thing I particularly liked in this thought piece from Best Buy is the linking of the physical product to online information. This was something I discussed on this blog back in 2008 and it's great to see a retailer with this on their radar.

Another interesting retailer is Starbucks. They have recently partnered with "new kid on the block", social network FourSquare, which they describe as:-
People use foursquare to "check-in", which is a way of telling us your whereabouts. When you check-in someplace, we'll tell your friends where they can find you and recommend places to go & things to do nearby. People check-in at all kind of places - cafes, bars, restaurants, parks, homes, offices.

So basically I can let FourSquare know where I am at any time, and they will let me know if my friends are there as well, plus it will automatically update my other social networks like Twitter and Facebook with my location. However, FourSquare aren't doing this just for fun as their website goes on to say:-
We all have our local hangouts and foursquare keeps tabs on who's the most loyal of all the regulars. If you've been to a place more than anyone else, you'll become "the mayor"... until someone else comes along and steals your title. It may sound a little silly until you see the list of places that are offering freebies to our mayors - free coffees, free ice-cream, free hotel stays - it pays to be a foursquare loyalist and check-in whenever you go!

And there's the magic.

FourSquare get to know where you go and how often - and this is what Starbucks is buying into.

They have partnered with FourSquare to develop a reward programme which recognises people for frequent visits. The rewards at this time are simply a "Barista Badge" (badges are a big thing on FourSquare), but this is just the beginning. Speaking in the New York times Bits blog, Chris Bruzzo, Vice President for Brand, Content and Online at Starbucks says:-
“It’s where the intersection between digital and physical starts to get interesting. Starbucks loves that, because we’re always looking for that intersection, which we think is the evolution of social networks.”

I think this is a very interesting development - whilst it may be the evolution of social networks I think it's actually the evolution of retail.

This "intersection between digital and physical" is all about enabling and tracking customer interactions. Regular readers of this blog will know I've spoken about recognising and rewarding this interaction before - and this is what Starbucks are doing.

In some senses the interaction is more important than the transaction as the interaction is further back in the buying process - if you can get someone to interact with you more often you have a better chance of converting this into a transaction - a sale.

The forward thinking retailers are recognising this and also recognising that traditional retail loyalty solutions are in the most part reactive - rewarding a decision that has already been made.

Of course there is a hope that the loyalty programme influenced this decision, but retailers like Starbucks and Best Buy are also ensuring that their loyalty initiatives are working harder and smarter - engaging customers before the purchase - and this is the traditional space for more mass above the line marketing; another area which is seeing a convergence - this time between above the line and below the line.

To me this is the real future of retail and retail loyalty.

Not only the convergence of channels but also the convergence of marketing. Engaging, recognising and rewarding customers across channels - before they purchase - before they are even a customer.

This isn't the end of traditional retail - it looks to me like it's just moved up a gear.

[Image credit Physorg]