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There is little doubt that multichannel commerce is being reborn. The traditional ways of describing multichannel commerce no longer work because customers no longer interact with companies from a "channel" perspective.

Customers now use a rapidly evolving set of devices as a means of engaging across touch-points, which they don't distinguish from the brand or business. Customers are now empowered with more information than ever before and as businesses still struggle to deliver cross-channel experiences, the never-ending stream of innovation and market transformation continues. In response retailers must transform how they market, transact, serve, and organise around the changing customer experiences and behaviours — they must adopt a whole new paradigm of execution.

Be aware that these changes are not simply an organic evolution — they are a metamorphosis, a new era! Welcome to the era of agile commerce.

In this new era, retail leaders will optimize their people, processes, and technology to serve today's empowered, ever-connected customers across a rapidly evolving set of customer touch-points.

The most disruptive, fastest growing and hyped of these is of course mobile. Mobile is rapidly evolving into an important, if not the most important, digital touch-point for retailers. A report from Forrester Research (Mobile Commerce Forecast: 2011 to 2016) forecasts that consumers will spend more than $31 billion on their mobile devices by the end of 2016.

Also according to Forrester Research, mobile is seen by retailers as the key channel to drive customers to existing investment in web and stores. While Forrester reports that 87% of retailers see mobile as a driver of revenues, less than a third (29%) have a strategy implemented. About 19% have a strategy and are now implementing, 9% have a strategy, 34% are in the early stages and 9% have nothing.

Just as companies failed to develop their go-to-market strategies to embrace the impact that e-commerce presented, retailers that dismiss the disruptive potential of mobile may face the same consequences.

A carefully executed mobile strategy offers retailers the opportunity to engage with consumers at every step of their retail journeys, from awareness and demand generation through to purchasing and subsequent customer care.

Exploiting mobile effectively requires more than squeezing existing assets and services developed for the PC to a smaller screen. Retailers must provide excellent mobile services by delivering convenience; leveraging mobile as a highly efficient sales and service channel; focusing on customer needs; breaking free of their PC-based design roots; and, being agile.

The use of the mobile device is not purely for the ‘virtual’ on-line shopper either. IDC, a global provider of market intelligence, predicts the concept of a physical store will evolve to make the most of the mobile channel. Bricks-and–mortar retailers can exploit and be exploited by the shopper’s use of mobile. Prior to even walking into a store he or she uses the mobile in many ways: checking directions to the store; opening hours; reviews; discounts, vouchers or other offers; or even see the average waiting time for checkout. Once in the outlet the mobile can be used for a shopping list with a route map for the items; scanning items for more information; product safety or latest price comparisons; in-store offers and their locations; reviews; and to display a barcode for collection of a pre-order. Once shopping is complete: using the mobile to checkout; payment; to apply coupons and loyalty bonuses; and, emailing for receipts. All of these technologies are already available and will really start to take hold in 2012.

While there are some quick wins that retailers can implement to immediately strengthen their mobile channel, fundamentally they need to consider their overall mobile strategy and "Think mobile first for mobile services" in order to maximise their revenue potential and offer a genuinely multi-channel customer experience.

Too many Retailers begin a mobile strategy with the goal of simply having a mobile presence. This approach leads to the shrinking or squeezing of a company's existing digital assets onto a smaller screen to offer essentially the same services. While this approach might offer a pragmatic starting point, it is not an approach that will drive enough value to the organisation in the long term or offer the most convenient experiences. Retailers must evolve their approach to designing mobile services in order to avoid a short sightedness that holds them back from seizing the full potential of mobile within a multi-touch-point strategy.

Mobiles are increasingly packed with sensors and new gadgets, capable of offering experiences unthinkable on a PC. Use case scenarios will also diverge, with more on-the-go consumers looking to complete tasks or get things done in unusual scenarios.

  • Migrate a portion of existing digital services to support consistency. Consumers will look to migrate some of their online behaviours and expectations from the PC to the phone. This doesn't mean they'll use mobile exclusively; this will seldom be the case. As already explained, mobile will become an additional touch-point. However, consumers will expect consistency of experiences across devices. To optimise the opportunity here, retailers must focus on those services that are ‘mobile-appropriate’ or those that deliver value through immediacy and are simple and contextual. This first step is a pragmatic, low-cost one to get started, but it is not the end game.

  • Offer new digital services in combination with other touch-points to enhance experiences. Mobile offers much more than a pocket PC experience. When combined with other channels such as radio, TV, or physical presence, or integrated with augmented reality services, mobile offers new, enhanced and improved services. Comparing the location of a mobile phone with an ATM or credit card transaction, for example, offers a new fraud-alert service. Domino's Pizza pushes out coupons via SMS that can be redeemed online for an in-person delivery order. BMW uses augmented reality to allow users to specify new cars and then place them in the consumer’s own world by integration with pictures and virtual images.

  • Develop mobile-first experiences for breakthrough experiences. New services will be born on mobile devices and with them new value. Through a simultaneous assessment of consumer pain points and business processes, along with creative thought about how to use mobile technologies to mitigate issues or enhance existing processes, retailers will find new and innovative ways to provide value to their customers. 

  • Evolve the use of context to maximize convenience. Context must be used to simplify the delivery of mobile services and offer highly relevant experiences. For many retailers today, context simply means using location to tailor search results for inventory. A handful of more sophisticated companies are layering intelligence on top of context to offer different home screens based on context. For example, banks may alter security requirements based on whether a customer is at home or travelling. In the future, retailers will use context to test price elasticity, measuring ‘how instant is the need?’ and pricing accordingly. As more sensors are placed in and attached to phones, more contextual information will be available.

This is just the beginning of a seismic shift in consumer behaviour and only innovative retail firms prepared to see through a long-term strategy to change the fundamentals of how they serve their customers can thrive amid these challenges.

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Latest posts by Chris Brassington
Chris Brassington
Chris is the CEO of Starfish 360, a Manchester, U.K.-based group of mobile commerce experts who provide mobile engagement strategies for retailers.
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