Omnichannel fulfillment, and specifically in-store fulfillment, has become table stakes for retailers of all shapes and sizes. But with this tactic officially being commoditized, retailers must do more to differentiate throughout the entire experience.
Retail is rich with thoughtful resources on this topic, each analyzing, evaluating and opining on the industry’s latest trends, tactics and technologies. I do my best to help contribute to the collection on a regular basis. And while this vast collection of thought leadership can help set a powerful foundation for strategic store fulfillment decisions, I feel like we sometimes avoid the most important thing of all: our own opinions and experiences.
Sure, always “going with your gut” is not a viable business plan, especially for a multi-million-dollar retail business. But indulge me for just a minute. Try a quick exercise to see what I mean:
Think about the last time you ordered a product online and opted to pick it up in your local store. The online experience was most likely simple, efficient and turnkey. But what happened when the time came to pick up your order? Were you able to find the pickup area quickly and easily? Was there a dedicated associate on hand to pick and pack up your purchase? Would you consider the entire process fast and easy? If so, great. These elements make up the foundation of a successful (if not exciting) in-store fulfillment experience.
But let’s think a little more critically about your experience. Was the order already prepared for your arrival? Was the associate prepared to engage in a pleasant — and informed — conversation with you? Was he or she aware of your history with their brand? Did they ask you if you needed any assistance with your purchase, or if you were interested in any other products? Was the item appropriately packed, or was it hastily dropped in a shopping bag?
Your answers to these questions based on individual experiences may not seem like a big deal. Together, however, they make up the bulk (if not the entirety) of your in-store fulfillment experience. And if your experiences were less-than-stellar, you wouldn’t be alone. In fact, very few retailers have yet to sufficiently invest in ensuring their stores are consistently delivering efficient, personalized and turnkey in-store fulfillment experiences. The vast majority of shoppers are greeted with merely utilitarian experiences that neither excite nor differentiate.
Make no mistake, however: the nuts and bolts of fulfillment are critical. Once shoppers have given you their money and taken the time to drive to the store to pick up their order, failure is not an option. Even slight stumbles can cause big, brand-busting disappointment. Mistakes must be avoided at all costs.
Avoiding those often-fatal mistakes in the store fulfillment lifecycle requires several foundational elements. First and foremost, it requires a 360-degree view of the extended enterprise. Inventory planners must allocate inventory based on both past performance and expected future behaviors. Stores must have the people, processes and technology in place to ensure the in-store fulfillment process is as efficient for employees as it is enjoyable for customers.
However, these first steps represent merely the foundation of what I believe should be a much larger, strategic vision for truly differentiating store fulfillment experiences. I believe the time has come to stop thinking of fulfillment as a utilitarian exercise and to instead think of the opportunities store pickups represent to engage customers differently by taking full advantage of every store visit.
Here are six steps, based upon our experience with hundreds of retail brands that are rethinking their omnichannel journeys, that I believe can help you transform your store fulfillment experiences.
- Get to know your customer: You may think you know your customer, but the reality is they’re constantly evolving. What excited them last year may be considered boring today, and what motivated them yesterday may not garner a second glance tomorrow. It is important to constantly collect and analyze customer behaviors and insights, especially about their expectations and desires for store fulfillment experiences — something I find very few retailers typically examine.
- Recognize store fulfillment is also a marketing exercise: Even if your primary responsibilities require you to focus on the planning and logistical side of the experience, it is important to recognize that store fulfillment is also — and I would argue perhaps primarily — a marketing exercise. The store pickup process is rich with engagement, brand-building and cross-selling opportunities for those who pay attention. Make it a priority to collaborate with your colleagues in marketing and customer experience. Rely upon their knowledge of your customer and put their creativity to work to help design experiences and campaigns that will help you make the most of every store fulfillment visit.
- Know that no detail is too small: That’s right, even the way your online orders are packed makes a difference. Instead of the same-old brown boxes, why not invest in higher-quality, branded packaging? Why not have executives or “stylists” write personalized notes to customers, thanking them for their loyalty? These little things can add surprise and delight to the fulfillment experience and certainly help you stand out from the rest.
- Think through the entire journey: Once you have a basic understanding of your customer, you can then envision what the best, most innovative in-store pickup experiences would look like for your customers. Would it lean more on cutting-edge technology to maximize efficiency and convenience, or would it lean more heavily upon on informed and empowered store associates to create a high-touch, assisted selling experience? Would you offer “uber-fast” services like curbside pickup to busy moms toting around their tots? Think first about what you would do if there were no limits, and then revise based on budgetary constraints and other considerations.
- Embrace technology (when it makes sense): How many times have we heard about the latest and greatest technologies for retail, only to see them fizzle out in a matter of months? It’s difficult to get budget for technology as it is, so be sure that you have a plan and strategy for your investments. This ties back (once again) to knowing your customer: Which technology would they perceive as valuable during the in-store fulfillment experience? Would employees benefit from having smartphones or tablets? Would smart fitting room technology or in-store displays help drive additional sales? Could technology automate the entire fulfillment process? These are only a few of many questions to ask to get your creative wheels turning.
- Keep an ear to the ground: There are always new trends emerging in the retail space. Artificial intelligence and conversational commerce are just two that have the entire retail community buzzing. While it’s certainly not realistic or viable to hop on every new trend, brainstorming ways to incorporate them into fulfillment practices can be a great exercise for expanding your creativity. Who knows, you may come up with the latest and greatest best practice in in-store fulfillment.
So yes, while in-store fulfillment has indeed become table stakes, retailers have a great opportunity to differentiate throughout the entire experience. I know this is no easy feat, especially on top of all the other tasks and to-dos you must juggle. That’s why we created the Omnichannel Fulfillment Blueprint: to help retailers develop the strategies and tactics that work best for their customers and business model. Our new blueprint is a step-by-step guide to creating differentiating in-store fulfillment experiences, developed with the help and advice of numerous experts and retail advisers.
Because the time to differentiate is now. Are you ready to get started?
Dave Bruno is Marketing Director of Aptos. He is a 25-year retail technology veteran, having spent his entire career helping retailers leverage technology to maximum competitive advantage. He is an active blogger, prolific content developer, sought-after speaker and webinar host, and frequent podcaster. Bruno also is a member of the RetailWire Brain Trust, an avid supporter of RetailROI and a member of the Demand Gen Report Advisory Board.