Thursday, September 25, 2008

Mystery Shopper Research Uncovers Improvements In Cross-Channel Marketing

By stepping out of the office and into the stores, the e-tailing group captures unique insights into successful retail marketing and merchandising practices. In the fourth year of its Cross-Channel Shopping Study, the e-commerce consulting firm found that retailers are more dedicated to shop online/pickup in-store and are moving towards improvements in other cross-channel areas such as in-store web tie-ins, buy online/return in-store and online store locators.

Researchers for the e-tailing group spent time in stores and online with more than 50 chosen retailers and has found a number that float to the top as successful cross-channel marketers:

In-store pickup stars include Nordstrom, Sears and Circuit City. A recent entrant into the in-store pickup arena, Nordstrom is testing buy online/pickup in-store in apparel, shoes, and cosmetics to roll-out to all merchandise categories by September 2008. The retailer boasts online inventory of 83,000 SKUs and pickup in 159 stores across 28 states. Sears has been offering in-store pickup since 2003 and guarantees that if the customer does not get their package within five minutes of the in-store request, they get a $5 gift card, 10 minutes/$10 card, etc. Circuit City reports that more than 50 percent of 2007 online shoppers picked up in-store

Store associates lift sales. Sales associates can make or break the shopping experience. Those that are knowledgeable about the products and cross-channel opportunities for consumers will boost the bottom line. Retailers employing some of the best sales associates include: Apple, Bass Pro Shops, Best Buy, Crate & Barrel, Finish Line, Orvis, RadioShack and Ritz Camera. In each case the associate was friendly, eager to help and knowledgeable. In many cases shoppers were greeted at the door.

Multi-media features improve web site rating. While store associates augment the shopper experience in the brick-and-mortar channel, interactive and educational features make the experience more enjoyable online. Orvis, Pottery Barn and are among the retailers cited by the e-tailing group for successful use of online video. Orvis, a fishing specialist, offers “Hook TV” as well as “The Beginner’s Corner” and a live chat feature. Pottery Barn provides design tips at “Stylehouse” and houses a video library showing products in use at home. Consumers who visit can view pet care videos and expert advice.

A plethora of product information helps sell merchandise effectively at Patagonia, Ritz Camera and Williams-Sonoma. The key to providing a lot of product information is presenting it efficiently and in an easy-to-read format. Patagonia lists the essential item information clearly at the top of the product page and displays graphics to the left. Customers are able to opt for buying or saving the item mid-page. Ritz Camera incorporates tabbed sections to clearly delineate product features. Williams-Sonoma displays product information to the left of item photos and uses bulleted lists for simplification.

Cross-channel marketing leaders are successful for a variety of reasons but in particular because they promote across all channels. Babies “R” Us provides online postings for in-store events, sign-up for the Birthday Club and access to job openings. Borders offers a cross-channel rewards program, book promotions, and promotes the online experience at in-store cash registers. Linens ‘N Things has an online gift registry, promotes shop anytime and displays in-store signage promoting “as seen on TV” and “as advertised” in other channels.

Other stand-out retailers include: Apple, Barnes & Noble and Crate & Barrel for their online retail locators; and Petco, Brookstone, Sears and Target for their merchandising and mapping within locators.

In the report, the e-tailing group lays out statistics for key trends including in-store pickup, product research online and in-store, online product information availability, use and effectiveness of cross-promotions, retail locator rankings, online order process, merchandise checkout practices, and more.

For more information including a list of surveyed merchants or to order the report visit the e-tailing group's web site at:

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Reality Bites: Retailers Need Cross-Channel Tools To Overcome Bleak Holiday Outlook

By John Gaffney

Several research reports released last week showed the undeniable reality check that awaits retailers this holiday season. Most merchants will be faced with the slowest sales growth since 1991. In order to remain solvent and competitive beyond this critical further quarter period, analysts stress retailers must get closer to their customers by adopting online tools and analytics capabilities.

The bad news about holiday sales predictions came from several fronts. TNS/Retail Forward estimated that retail sales this November and December will increase just 1.5%. Deloitte was a bit more optimistic, predicting a 2.5% to 3% increase. That would make the 2008 holiday season the worst for retailers since 1991. However, it is also not a sharp drop taken on an annual basis. Deloitte says holiday sales hit a 10-year high in 2005, surging 7%. In 2006, sales rose 3.8%, and last year, they were up 2.7%.

TNS senior economist Frank Badillo said that the economy is the culprit and will push consumer spending toward discount and mass retail. “Our top-line forecast separates into two distinct groups—the leaders and the laggards,” Badillo states. “Sustaining above-average growth will be non-store and mass retailers. They will see combined growth near 6.0% in the fourth quarter. Continuing to troll the depths will be the homegoods and softgoods retailers where growth is expected to decline 1% or more.”

In recent years, e-commerce has come to the rescue providing double-digit growth for retailers that were suffering offline. But that growth may not be so easy to come by this year either. A new report from and Forrester Research shows “cautious optimism” among its members. The 25% growth rate predicted earlier this year may still be reachable from some companies the report says, but specific growth rates were noticeably absent.

About one-third (35%) of online retailers surveyed said they expect their online business to perform better than expected in the next 12 months, while another third (33%) anticipate their online business will perform the same as expected.. According to the report, 81% of online retailers surveyed reported that their eCommerce business was profitable in 2007, and 75% were also more profitable last year than in 2006. Almost half (49%) of online retailers said that their average conversion rate in 2007 was higher than in 2006, and that 36% of total sales for the online retailers were driven by repeat customers—higher than in 2006. However, due to their outlook for the US economy, 37% of survey respondents noted that they’ve lowered their expectations for their online business performance in the next 12 months.

The report also issued something of a profit warning: “Retailers must still execute well to capture possible sales. Additionally, it cautions that those sales may not necessarily be the highest-margin revenue due to increased input costs and the pressure to offer promotions such as free shipping,” it said.


For retailers looking for a way to combat these new realities, Aberdeen Group released a new research report focused on the strategies necessary for driving holiday business. The Aberdeen study, released just days before the slew of bad news on Wall Street, showed that “Best-in-Class companies optimally manage merchandise, customers, and data as key determinants for driving successful holiday business.” On average at least 50% of the Best-in-Class respondents focus on customer-facing and back-end technology tools that support online channel sales as e-commerce becomes more significant for topline gains during peak selling seasons, according to Aberdeen.

The data from the report, “The Complete Mantra for Driving Holiday Business in 2008, 2009 and Beyond,” shows that 55% of leading retailers see the need to counter competitive selling strategies as the top holiday pressure. To try and outpace their competitors, 50% of leading retailers are using such advanced online tools as search and comparative shopping tools, dynamic web content management, online analytics, and social marketing tools.

The report showed a fairly big divide between the Best-in-Class companies from the rest of the pack in terms of their approach to planning and measuring the key holiday period. 70% of Best-in-Class companies utilize standardized metrics to measure Holiday performance effectiveness versus 41% of Average and 33% of Laggard companies. Accordingly, a critical enabler for managing seasonal selling is the ability to measure key associated metrics like sales comp, product margin erosion, cost to serve, and total cost of goods sold, the report found.

The top action for holiday selling optimization was developing loyalty programs, which topped the list of best-in-class respondents. 40% said they were consistently evaluating commerce infrastructure to accomplish loyalty and analytics goals. The need for technology and infrastructure is driven by the increasing complexity of e-commerce applications, as well as increased cross-channel sales. Product inventory and customer data must be managed across- channels in order to drive customer loyalty for the future and maximize sales for the short term.

“These content-rich, immersive sites are compelling, but require more bandwidth than standard, static pages,” said Aberdeen senior analyst Ben Ream. “Leading retailers are taking a preemptive approach, and measuring system capacity against site application demands."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Circuit City Grabs An EDGE By Incorporating Multi-Channel Intelligence Into Tablet PCs

Looking to improve the shopping experience and stand apart from its competitors, Circuit City is betting a lot of its future on its new ‘the city’ format. And one of the key differentiators for the new format will be the Enhanced Digital Guide Experience (EDGE), a handheld selling tool designed by the retailer and Microsoft. Delivered on Tablet PCs running a custom Windows-based application designed to help inform and engage customers.

While the EDGE initiative clearly comes to life on the sales floor, Dave Romero, senior manager of new concepts for Circuit City, points out that the strategy is anchored in a multi-channel approach. “[EDGE] allows full access to all the reviews on our Web site,” says Romero. “It’s a terrific multi-channel tool that combines all the great power and information on our Web site and all of the great information around products and details. And it combines the guest reviews on our site, and puts it all in the hands of [associates].”

After two years of testing, learning and iterating in multiple markets, Circuit City began using Table PCs running the EDGE application in all of its new-format ‘city’ stores and is already enjoying positive results. Sales associates are more confident in approaching customers with the knowledge to sell or discuss any product in the store. The mobile tool is integrated with online content for a seamless multichannel experience.

EDGE is designed to extract product information, inventory data, in-store promotion, third-party reviews, and other information over the Internet and from multiple back-end business systems. Once the information is extracted, EDGE is then optimized with decision-support intelligence and friendly user interface.

“We knew we had to create a more consistent approach to how we engaged guests in our stores, and Microsoft had the insight to show us where the industry was heading and provided knowledge and resources to move us in that direction,” says Romero, senior manager of new concepts for Circuit City. “We hadn’t seen anyone before bring together guided selling components (questions and answers) in addition to learning content.”

The EDGE technology is designed to speed the sales process by providing associates with immediate access to product recommendations, demos, usage questions, competitive pricing and other information for thousands of items across hundreds of categories.

The EDGE offers a series of guided selling questions and answers that are based on popular features of products. For example, if a shopper is in the market for a new TV, the EDGE will give the store associate a series of five-six questions to refine search. By providing answers, the EDGE offers a manageable list for shoppers to compare features and prices.

Once a shopper comes to a decision on the product they want to purchase, the EDGE prints out necessary information on the product, which can then be scanned in at the POS. Though the EDGE is not completely integrated with tendering system, it is a program Circuit City is currently working on as part of a new POS rollout, according to Romero.

“We try to avoid that ‘not-my-department’ scenario that can happen with other retailers,” says Romero. “Within retail things change very quickly, especially in our space, so we wanted to have the [city] store be something we could grow and flex with over time.”

In addition to remedying the reluctance store associates had to approach customers, Romero says the “Google it” mentality has a strong tie to the EDGE concept. “You’ve got to be able to look at the generation of the folks out there who have been raised on Google and appreciate that, and say, hey, ‘it’s okay to look up products and information over the Internet and share that with your guests and make sure they get you the right one and use the guided selling solution to get there.”

With a wealth of information now at store associates’ fingertips, Circuit City can hire from a broader talent pool and prepare them for the sales floor more quickly, according to Brian Leach, vice president of new concepts for Circuit City. The new hiring strategy has enabled the company to expand its hiring pool seeking friendly associates with strong team-building and communication skills, rather than searching exclusively for highly technical associates.

“We’ve done a lot of guest research with their perception of the device and how it’s changed their shopping patterns and habits… [Response] has been overwhelmingly positive,” Romero says. “Our guests really appreciate having access to the information.”

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Brand Keys CEO: Gap’s Soft Comp Store Sales Indicative Of Wider Branding, Cross-Channel Failures

By John Gaffney, Senior Analyst

Gap Inc. posting an 11% same store sales drop for the month of July wasn’t a huge shock to retail industry watchers, but one analyst in particularly has been extremely vocal that the dip points to much larger problems for the chain.

“The chain, which has been in a death-spiral of same-store sales for as long as we can remember, is opting to leverage a trend we identified quite some time ago: customization,” says Robert Passikoff, CEO of Brand Keys. “The Gap has fallen into this version of customization that should be presented more in-store through the product and the experience, but it’s not,” he says. “They’re giving us dramatic photos of actors we don’t know and expecting to reach sophisticated customers that way. And this is supposed to be the fashion attempt of the year. They have the same stuff with better photography. That’s all.”

Who is Robert Passikoff and why is he saying all these nasty things about Gap? No he’s not a disgruntled customer or bitter blogger. Passikoff is a market research expert, author, and CEO of branding consultancy Brand Keys. He has found in Gap a consistent problem that he believes pervades most retailers today as they work to embrace the cross-channel customer. Offline brands have failed to differentiate, he says, and cross-channel brands have failed to innovate. Both will be necessary to profit over the next year, according to Passikoff.

Passikoff’s provocations are based in data. The Gap ranked last among apparel specialty retailers Brand Keys’ Customer Engagement Index released earlier this year, behind Victoria’s Secret, American Apparel, J. Crew and others. The Gap is just Passikoff’s current poster child for ineffective branding. He has taken Microsoft, GM, and T-Mobile to task in the past. His current retail favorites are Victoria’s Secret, Nike, and Adidas.

“They deliver a seamless sense of what the brand stands for online and offline,” he says. “They allow customers to connect their own personalities to the product. They differentiate themselves and still they resonate with some value. All this combined with some buzz makes an effective cross-channel retail brand.”

After following retail brands as well as other verticals for three decades, Passikoff is surprised by the current comeback of the focus on the in-store shopping experience and in-store merchandising. Just a year ago he believed the online experience would become more important. It still is important to the brand, he says, but in-store is where customer expectations and satisfaction are bred.

Back to Gap, which has cut costs and tried to move the focus online. Passikoff says it’s not enough. He admits the retailer has done some good work to become more cross-channel focused, but same store sales are unfortunately a dominant metric. “It would be great if we could all focus on cross-channel results but it’s simply not what Wall St. looks at,” he says. “Until we find a new way to keep score, same store results will dominate.”