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A couple of great ideas from eTail East

By Steve Timpson

I have just gotten back from eTail East held last week at the Baltimore Convention Center. The social media and mobile commerce topics mirrored, to a large degree, the same sessions held in Palm Springs, CA, early this year at eTail West.

ETail East speaker Abhi Dhar, chief technology officer for ecommerce at Walgreens, hit the nail on the head when he aptly pointed out that there is no longer ecommerce or mcommerce, simply commerce. He said customer touch points are relevant threads passing through and around everything that a retailer impacts in a customer’s life.

With that thought as a backdrop, I felt there were two standout presentations reflecting Mr. Dhar’s opinion. It just so happens that the first was at the beginning of the conference and the second was at the end. Too bad not everyone was there to hear the last session.

Retail 2.0
In his keynote presentation, Gilbert Fiorentino, CEO of Systemax Technology Group, discussed how his company, through its bricks-and-mortar stores, has used Internet technology to improve the customer experience, both at the store and online. He calls this symbiotic relationship Retail 2.0.

Mr. Fiorentino was a founder of Tiger Direct in 1987. Tiger Direct was acquired by Systemax in 1995 and opened its first store in Miami in 2000. Systemax then acquired CompUSA in 2008, adding to its portfolio of bricks-and-mortar stores.

The history here is important, I believe, because there are few examples of companies that started on the Internet and then were able to cross over into retail stores. This is no mean trick. The core competencies are not related.

But what if you could take the best of both businesses and combine them? This then is the basis of Retail 2.0.

Imagine a store where you could go in and receive the same experience of online shopping and combine them at the point of sale?

Go to an individual LCD TV and get the specs and benefits explained to you on screen instead of just a playback of the most current DVD out on the market?

Or how about going to the camera section and picking up a camera and see the monitor on the display go into a sales pitch on that particular item?

“For example, each widescreen TV on display becomes a computer monitor with its own keyboard for easy surfing,” Mr. Fiotentino said. “So does each display PC and laptop. Touch the keyboard and an Internet page on the item appears on the screen.

“Tiered displays with cameras and GPS devices share a common computer,” he said. “Pick up an item, and its Internet page appears.”

From that page, a shopper can navigate to any Web site to compare prices or check reviews.

If a local competitor or national chain store offers a large-screen TV for $50 less, CompUSA will match it. However, most of the time CompUSA, with the pressure of the Internet business, will be cheaper.

Should a customer find a cheaper price from a rival Internet retailer or a wholesale club such as Costco or Sam’s, matching the price is left to the store manager’s discretion.

Net learnings
An Internet company has to sell from images and copy, giving the consumer a lot of information.

A store, on the other hand, can sell using sales people and real product, but due to shelf space, signage and training limitations ultimately give the consumer less information.

Both enterprises have in common the attributes of service, reputation and trust required to sustain long-term customer loyalty.

The new retail reality is that Internet information is almost always combined by the consumer with store purchasing. The winners will embrace the Internet, not deflect it.

Integrating the technology into the everyday shopping experience is the future of store sales opportunities – a way to differentiate the shopping experience that can mitigate competitive differences that so often now are based solely on the price of a product.

The end result seems to be higher comps and higher average ticket. This also leads to brand building and lifetime customers.

Other retailers should study this strategy and figure it out pretty quickly.
Better service, lower payrolls, higher top-line revenue and profits: over all better and longer customer engagement.

Seems like a no brainer, but then again, retail is an old business and sometimes old-school leadership stays stuck in the past, trying to squeeze the last drop of life from decades-old strategies.

Maybe all retailers could learn from pure Internet retailers that successfully make the conversion to bricks-and-mortar. These ecommerce players are fleet of foot and quick to adapt to changing consumer habits.

The second presentation I saw that made an impact on me was by Frank Malsbenden, vice president and general manager of Vision Retailing.

Mr. Malsbenden has been at Vision since 2004 and had an interesting take on the role of social media and how to integrate new media into online retailing.

Vision Retailing has several ecommerce sites centered around the shoe business, a market that is a bit crowded on the Web.

Innovation must be incorporated into strategy to successfully break through the background noise, Mr. Malsbendenpointed out. What better way than to let your customers break through for you.

Social is a shoo-in
Take a look at Click on an item and look at how this site has integrated social into the very fabric of the purchasing process. Vision makes it easy to rate, share, vote and tag a product.

Additionally, Super Shoes has developed a unique way to share from the product selection pages with the “Drag and Share” functionality.

Customer can use all their social sites and email to pass on information about a product to their friends and family. By doing this activity, customers create their own social page inside Super Shoes.

Thus, social media strength becomes imbedded into the Web site. These efforts also help in search engine optimization performance.

Maybe this is not that novel an idea, other sites do some similar things. But not many do social marketing to this level.

Coupling this strategy with the Super Shoes Facebook page or Twitter account gives strength to the social interaction between the company and customers and lets customers leverage their social behavior as well.

Mr. Malsbenden has a clear goal: drive traffic to the site and create better conversion. He said that this is best done through this site-localized social media strategy.

Steve Timpson is chief operating officer of Siteminis, Atlanta. Reach him at [email protected].