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How to unite physical and digital retail

Anthony Mullen, head of research and development at data science consultancy Profusion, discusses how to bridge the gap between online and offline data and help retailers provide added value to customers.

Consumers are demanding. Demanding better service from businesses, more personalised marketing, and more understanding from retailers of what they want and when they want it. This poses a problem for retailers that have both physical shops and online offerings. Today’s customer is increasingly expecting that the online offering and the bricks and mortar shop of a brand have the same understanding and knowledge of them. To make this happen, retailers need to be able to marry the data they gather in the physical and online world.

The biggest challenge in uniting the off and online retail experience is being able to identify the same customer that visits or purchases from both outlets. Individually, it is relatively easy to monitor and understand the profile and preferences of a customer. Tracking cookies and email addresses provide the simplest method of data gathering online. Translating this to a physical shop is harder but can be done using WiFi, video cameras and mobile phone signals to track a customer’s activity within a shop. The trick is in linking both sets of information together.

The most straightforward way is to ask customers for their email addresses when they get to the checkout and input this information along with what they purchased into customer management software. This data can then be linked to the backend of the online shop. Assuming the shopper is willing to share their email address, this process will lower the barrier between the online and offline profiles of an individual. Online marketing efforts can then be tailored to the individual and what they have recently purchased. However, the benefits are one-sided with the offline experience only improving the online service.

Retailers such as Waitrose have started to address the idea of the online experience enhancing the offline experience by using iBeacon technology in their stores. If a shopper has downloaded the Waitrose app and switched on their phone’s location, the beacons will identify them and offer price promotions based on their online shopping habits when they are in the right area of the shop.

Of course, having technology that monitors online and offline behaviour is only the first step. Retailers need to be able to manage, analyse and coordinate data collected online and in a physical shop. In most businesses, the online and offline experiences are usually managed by different teams, therefore, extra steps must be taken to ensure those customer insights and point-of-sale teams from both sides are involved. Making a single individual or team responsible for a unified approach is the best approach. Ideally, the retailer will then implement this connected thinking mentality throughout the entire organisation.

Thankfully, technology that can track customers, manage data and automate marketing initiatives is not prohibitively expensive. Through a little investment and a joined-up approach to using the information contained within the online and offline offerings, retailers can potentially reap huge benefits. For example, for a fashion retailer, a customer’s journey throughout a shop can be tracked, revealing to the retailer what clothes the customer was interested in looking at and potentially purchasing.

If we know that the physical shop didn’t carry the customer’s size in the item they spent a lot of time looking at, they can later be alerted, via an email or targeted ad, that the item in their size or a different colour is available online. As a result, the physical and the digital stores enter into a mutually beneficial relationship that improves the customer experience and boosts sales.

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