This article appeared in the June 2012 issue of Direct Commerce magazine

It wasn’t that long ago that building loyalty for the typical bricks-and-mortar retailer was fairly straightforward. Businesses could rely on in-store relationships and customer service to keep shoppers coming back. But the new reality of Web 2.0, social media and mobile apps means it’s tougher than ever to stand out, stay relevant, and create those differentiated experiences that motivate customers to come back soon – and often.

Today’s consumers are empowered as never before - carrying with them immediate access to the world through mobile, connected devices. With just one touch they can compare products, review competitive pricing information and order online – often using real-time product reviews found on-line to inform their choices.

Just as technology has delivered dramatic leaps forward for consumers, retailers are now realizing the critical role that technology must play to enable their business. So how do retailers earn and maintain the loyalty of today’s digitally empowered consumer, while taking advantage of opportunities in ‘social commerce’ to increase brand visibility and relevance?

Multichannel capability

Today’s retailer can only gain a deep understanding of what today’s consumers expect through true ‘omnichannel’ retail – combining the right personalised communication, relevant information and offers, at the right time, via the right channel. But it is the transparency, connection, and consistency of these insights that will define success.

Real-time multichannel insights and synchronisation

The power of choice which has created such freedom and flexibility for customers has produced a new imperative for Retailers – serving customers how, when, and where they want to shop, but doing so with consistency. Achieving this level of complete integration between on-line and off-line operations – blurring that line - requires a highly integrated retail platform that makes such optimised and unified customer interactions possible.

Intelligent agility

With the fight for customer loyalty becoming more fierce, it is imperative to stay engaged with the consumer throughout the buying process, using customer intelligence gained along the way to refine store execution strategies. The retailer must be agile and responsive which means linking all areas of the retail operation end-to-end – from PoS and inventory management to sales performance tracking, stock ordering and management and payment processing, to a customer’s entire purchasing history and preferences. Ultimately this means using the data and intelligence assimilated by the technology to not only track the retail business but to optimise and drive the retail business. This is how retailers go from “reactive” to “proactive”.

Giving staff and customers visibility into inventory

Nowhere is the need for seamless IT integration across the entire retail enterprise better illustrated than real-time inventory visibility. Today’s lean retail inventories mean that in-store, en route or at a distribution centre – retailers need to fulfil customer expectations and make sure they capitalise on every sale opportunity. And that means integrating warehouse management, order management, PoS – and more – to show precise inventory levels to customers.

Delivering on the in-store service promise

Multichannel retailers know that differentiating the in-store shopping experience is a central component of winning the loyalty battle. Consumers are highly connected and often better informed than in-store personnel, but giving sales assistants powerful role-based access to product information, inventory and customer histories via POS technologies empowers the associate - allowing them to demonstrate recognition of customer preferences, and deliver the personal experience customers expect.

Personal and seamless differentiation

But creating differentiation that expands the overall shopping experience – regardless of channel –and provides personalized recognition of shoppers wants, needs and aspirations creates a value-add relationship that makes a retail brand stand out from the crowd. It is crucial to establish enduring relationships where customer loyalty is earned and repaid, so that customers come to view a retail brand as its single, trusted supplier of choice. But creating a shopping experience that’s second to none depends more than ever on delivering a customer-centric and connected experience that keeps the retailer at the forefront of the consumer’s mind.

Achieving this requires seamless integration across the entire IT retail technology ecosystem. Yet many retailers are being hampered from delivering their new retail vision, thanks to disconnected applications and IT systems that make it impossible to build those all important ‘real-time connected bridges’ across their entire spectrum of retail activities.

Realizing that technology is integral to evolving and competing in a new retail landscape, retailers now appreciate that not all solutions are created equal – architecture; ease of use; global scale; and multi-channel management must be in the DNA of a solution and at the core of its development strategy. Older technologies and disparate systems cobbled together will give way to solutions that make real-time merchandising and multichannel synchronisation possible, delivering deep customer insights to power a new era of customer experience.