By Christer Holloman, author of How to Sell Online: The Experts’ Guide to Making Your Business More Successful and Profitable Online, published by Pearson, priced £15.99.

Universal retail truths from the high street still holds true for online retailers; offer an experience, look amazing and treat your customers like VIP’s

I met up with Professor Kim Cassidy, Dr. Sheilagh Resnick, Dr. Julie Lewis and Nelson Blackley, academics in the National Retail Research Knowledge Exchange Centre (NRRKEC) at Nottingham Business School (Nottingham Trent University) to discuss the transition from ‘bricks to clicks.

“Bricks to clicks or clicks to bricks; the principles of successful retailing remain the same”

The question for retailers is no longer whether to operate an omni-channel strategy, but how to implement it most effectively. Just a few years ago, in the face of the continuing and unstoppable rise of online retailing, developing a bricks and mortar presence might have been considered a high risk strategy. However as consumers now shop both online and offline, retailers have to be there too. The goal for retailers is to fully integrate off line and on line sales channels and so create a seamless ‘holistic’ customer experience.

The strategic response to this ‘omni-channel’ challenge has been mixed. Some retailers have made few strategic adjustments, retained only a physical estate and consequently struggled to survive. Others (‘pureplay’ retailers) benefiting from a strong brand or niche product or service positioning have chosen to maintain an online presence only with varying success. A third group, the majority, who have historically prospered through their physical estate, have reduced or maintained their store offer whilst simultaneously striving to develop an integrated online offer i.e. followed a ‘bricks to clicks’ strategy. A fourth group, and the focus of this white paper, are those who have adopted a ‘clicks to bricks’ strategy – retailers who have a heritage in catalogue and/or online retail but have now actively also developed a physical store presence.

Clicks to bricks retailers have an in-depth and personal understanding of the changing demands and behaviour of their consumers

Extensive consumer databases accessible through the catalogue operations have given clicks to bricks operators a head start and ensures that decisions are customer focused and market driven. Powerful datasets and integrated data processing systems enables them to sense and rapidly respond to changes in consumer behaviour and expectations.

Made.com is an example of a clicks to bricks operator who have focused on integrating customer data across all channels. The etailer was launched in 2010 and claims to offer unique design-led furniture at affordable prices. The company has opened three UK showrooms in addition to a pop-up showroom in Brighton, and is seeking more “unusual locations” to expand its European network. The company has joined forces with retail analytics company CloudTags to pilot the connected showroom in Brighton which uses tablets and beacon technology to capture the preferences of its shoppers. Using in-store tablets to showcase Made’s full online offer, CloudTags’ technology gathers data on shoppers based on items they have looked at online but did not buy. The pop-up store also houses an interactive wall featuring images from the retailer’s social media platform, Made X Unboxed. Shoppers can tap on the images to reveal product information. CloudTags combines beacon technology with data on products shoppers have interacted with in store, allowing Made to send personalised marketing communications to individual customers based on the products that caught their eye in the showroom.

Clicks to bricks retailers appear to have a strong brand identify and positioning within the market and a clear view of the role stores play within their channel ‘mix’.

They have recognised that a physical presence offers the consumer different benefits and can be used strategically to reinforce a consistent brand image. The first most obvious benefit is that stores can be used to ‘showroom’ products and give customers’ the opportunity to touch goods and assess the quality themselves prior to purchase. This is clearly more important for some product areas than others. Ocado for example are reportedly considering a move into bricks and mortar with the etailer eyeing a showroom for its health and beauty business. According to chief financial officer, Duncan Tatton-Brown ‘we don’t expect to add a physical presence in grocery but in health and beauty we would think of having a showroom to help the supply chain to showcase their products.’ Similarly Sofa.com established in 2005 as a bespoke furniture design service, has recognised how important it is for customers to be able to touch and feel fabric swatches and now has showrooms in Chelsea, Edinburgh and Bath for those reluctant to buy before they try. Stores have the potential to engage all of the customer’s five senses and so demonstrate how the brand looks, sounds, smells, feels and even tastes. This is not possible (at least at present) in the online world which can only appeal to the visual, and sometimes auditory, senses. Sensory engagement has become even more important to retailers given the empirical link to increased customer spending and dwell time.

To conclude, whether a retailer is bricks to clicks or clicks to bricks the principles of successful retailing remain the same. To succeed retailers need to understand customer behaviour across all channels, create and maintain a strong brand identity and a clear view of the role stores play in the channel mix and establish an entrepreneurial culture.

By Christer Holloman, author of How to Sell Online: The Experts’ Guide to Making Your Business More Successful and Profitable Online, published by Pearson, priced £15.99.

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