NRF's Big Show: Retailers Solidify Multichannel Strategies to Drive Customer Engagement
Digital technologies in stores are vital, but how they're being used is also important.
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As channels merge and customer activity becomes even more unpredictable, retailers are finding it trickier to figure out how to engage customers. Evidence suggests that most purchases are still made in brick-and-mortar stores, but companies can't afford to keep their physical locations disconnected from their other channels. Retailers have had to find creative ways to blend physical and digital channels to successfully connect with customers, and, for many, that has meant trying to distort the illusion of distinct channels and bring their stores to life, explained a number of speakers at the National Retail Federation's Big Show in New York in mid-January.

While one wouldn't usually expect gamers to be a particularly social bunch, they are, in fact, very attracted to the prospect of gathering in a place where they can meet other gamers, suggested GameStop's president, Tony Bartel. The company took this into account when designing its newest store model, which aims to engage shoppers primarily through their mobile phones. Under GameStop's model, iBeacons can be used to send push notifications to customers while they're in the store. The notifications keep customers updated on deals and new releases. Likewise, they enable customers to view exclusive game trailers and share them on the larger screens found around the store.

GameStop has also taken advantage of an asset in the store that many other companies take for granted: the sales associate. "Our number one value is the associate," Bartel said. "We want to expand their influence outside of the store walls."

To do this, GameStop leveraged its loyalty program—which boasts a membership that equates to roughly one-fifth of all American adults—to gain information on customers. Store reps, equipped with their own tablets, can connect to loyalty members through a social media platform well after the member has left the store.

If used properly, apps can also be used to maximize in-store experiences, as JCPenney found out. This past year, the company decided to give more attention to the fact that, though mobile devices are frequently being used to make purchases, orders are still being made on the devices in stores. At the Big Show, Mike Rodgers, chief customer officer at JCPenney, showed how the company's new shopping app can help the modern shopper while staying true to the company's root values. The app takes into account the problem of limited stock. If something looks appealing to a customer but it's not available in her size, she can simply scan it into her phone and order it that way.

To a lesser extent, kiosks are another burgeoning area that retailers have been using. In fact, eight out of 10 Millennials said they would prefer to interact with a machine at a brick-and-mortar location than a human being, according to research presented during a keynote by Alison Kenney Paul, vice chairperson of Deloitte. With this number in mind, in-store machines are making more sense.

The kiosk option is being used effectively by companies such as Staples, which has successfully incorporated it into its stores to create an omnichannel environment. "Just the word channel creates constraints on how we think," Faisal Masud, executive vice president of Staples' global e-commerce division, said during a panel about customer journey mapping.

"The aha moment for Staples came ten years ago," said Alison Corcoran, the company's senior vice president of marketing for North American stores and online. "[We understood that] the thing that really will differentiate us at Staples is not the neat gizmos, not the great digital aspects, but [the ways in which we] activate and energize the stores."

Staples' kiosk model presents the Web site and features more options than are available in the store. "The kiosk represents more than 5 percent of our retail sales.... We're at a pretty high rate, and we're growing very rapidly," Corcoran said. "We've gotten our store associates to truly understand the power of what an omnichannel experience is for our customers."

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