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The retail industry’s transition from “bricks to clicks” has once again been top of mind during the holiday season, as online retailers and traditional brick-and-mortar stores alike have targeted customers with Cyber Monday deals and other Internet shopping sales. While more mobile and online shopping has occurred this year than ever before, a recent survey by Ascent portfolio company TimeTrade found that 88 percent of consumer shopping is still done in-store. I spoke with TimeTrade president Gary Ambrosino about the customer engagement opportunity, and why in-store sales aren’t dead yet.
Brian Girvan: At a high level, what is the industry problem you’re trying to solve?
Gary Ambrosino: Although online shopping has grown very rapidly over the past few years, it still accounts for only 12 percent of retail consumer spending. That means 88 percent of shopping is done in a store. Retailers know that a high quality of the in-store shopping experience is crucial to solid sales and loyalty-based follow-on purchase. If they can deliver this every single time a customer comes into the store, they will see a consistent strength in sales and also have a competitive advantage. The TimeTrade Responsive Customer Engagement platform solves the sales associate availability problem in the store. We can make every customer experience, either prescheduled online or concierge-served walk in, an experience where the customer received undivided personal attention from exactly the right person.
BG: TimeTrade recently released research that found that customer experience, and not price, is the #1 way to prevent showrooming. That surprised some people. Why is the customer experience so critical?
GA: That’s right. We did a survey of 1,000 consumers across the country and got a strong message from them about retail service. Over 90 percent of them pointed to personalized attention as the number one thing missing from their shopping experience in the store. This surprised a lot of people in the retail industry. The wisdom is that price and product selection have been the real drivers of what retailers refer to as “showrooming,” when shoppers walk into a store to look at a product or try it out, and then buy it online. But we found that over 50 percent of shoppers would actually be willing to pay a little more, and almost of all of them would buy on the spot, if they could count on personalized in-store help with their shopping. Our research shows this make them happier and more satisfied with their purchase decision. The result is they will spend more during their visit, and are much more likely to stay loyal to that store and brand as a result.
BG: Why is online scheduling so critical to the customer engagement process?
GA: The main thing that has changed in the consumer’s shopping experience over the past few years is the extent to which they shop largely out of sight of the retailer. By that I mean, today about 75 percent of the purchase process is conducted using online and social media to do product research, read reviews, visit websites and especially, use online catalogs. The problem with that of course, if you are a retailer, is you have no visibility on the purchase decision getting made, so you don’t have a chance to influence it until it’s too late.
This is where online appointments become such an important tool. What happens as consumers are perusing and shopping online is that at some point in the process they reach a “conversion” moment where they are ready to buy. I think sometimes the assumption is that this is always going to be an online purchase. That’s not the case. Remember that according to the National Retail Federation, 88 percent of consumer spending is done at the retail store level. So to be competitive a brand needs to get that shopper to come to their store.
Brands that capture customers at this conversion point win over the competition. TimeTrade Online Scheduling is a means for a customer who’s reached the conversion point on a purchase to have an instant way of reserving a slot for a visit to a retail store. When the TimeTrade platform is used to do this, we not only reserve a time for a visit, but we also locate exactly the right sales associate to help and reserve time directly on their calendar. When a customer walks-in for their appointment, he or she is guaranteed undivided attention. It results in the perfect customer experience.
BG: More and more retail brands are looking to replicate Apple’s Genius Bar experience – timely, technical, in-store product support. How are your customer brands moving beyond scheduling appointments to improving the entire customer experience?
GA: Scheduling an appointment at one of the 40,000 U.S. retail and retail bank locations currently using TimeTrade is the beginning of an ongoing personalized relationship between the customer and the brand. The TimeTrade Responsive Customer Engagement platform tracks and manages the customer conversation from the time they walk in to the store, to well after they leave.
For example, one of our larger customers is Sprint. Each of their over 3,000 retail locations uses TimeTrade to manage and track the customer interaction. We have a handheld mobile app that sales associates use to check-in customers when they visit, collect data about the conversation, and check them out at the cash register when they leave. Customers then get an instant survey on their smartphone very shortly after they leave the store.
Once all of this data is added to the their customer record, our Insight Analytics tool provides the marketing, sales and social media analysis for data driven assessment and follow-up. This is completely unique in retail – – to have that granularity of engagement data that can be analyzed at the sales associate, store, region, and corporate level for actionable individualized attention.
BG: What about lead-gen? Obviously social media has played a big role in how companies are found and approached. Where are the new challenges and opportunities for lead-gen, social and otherwise?
GA: Traditional lead-gen has become very ineffective over the past few years. Response rates to email campaigns and even online advertising are marginal at best and continue to decline. Push marketing is really a thing of the past. Today, shoppers are in control of the brand selection and product process to a great extent. They decide when to engage with a brand, not the other way around. They use a broad range of social media and web tools to educate themselves in advance of a purchase. And they have many options on where and from whom they can make the purchase.
Today’s challenge for a marketer, retail or otherwise, is to make sure they have an accessible presence across social media, their web presence, and traditional channels like print advertising and phone. By accessible I mean being available to offer a click-to-schedule appointment across all their marketing channels, especially in social media. So for example, a major brand retailers page could contain a TimeTrade Click-to-Schedule button that gives the consumer instant access to guaranteed personal attention in-store or on the phone.
BG: Mobile is another way – and sometimes the primary way – consumers interact with brands. How are your customers working to unify their online, mobile and store presences to improve the customer experience from beginning to end?
GA: Most of our customers include brands like Best Buy, Sears, Staples, and others that already have mobile apps to assist their customers. What they have done with TimeTrade is incorporated TimeTrade Click-to-Schedule in their app. A banking customer, for example, could view car loan alternatives presented in a the bank’s mobile app. Then they could select a Click-to-Schedule appointment that would access a geo-locator to show them the nearest branch with someone available to help them. So the mobile experience is a great place to create a conversion-to-purchase with a pre-scheduled appointment.
BG: What are three ways a company can shorten its sales cycle?
GA: Certainly the first, and in our experience, the most overwhelmingly successful technique is to provide personalized service. All our research points to this, but in practices it’s something that requires management commitment as well as facilitating technology like TimeTrade.
I think second is to maintain a strong online presence at the “conversion point” we talked about earlier. It’s the moment at which the consumer moves from online perusing to an emotional commitment to make a purchase big or small. It’s essential to capture the customer at that moment in time, and engage them in a personalized dialog of some type. With 88 percent of buying done in a retail store, it’s essential to get them in the door.
Third is to reinforce brand loyalty with personalized follow-up. Many brands make the mistake of thinking aggregated exit surveys or follow-up bulk e-mails are personalized, but they are not. The best-personalized follow-up includes the offer to “get together again” with incentives tailored to the personal interaction that individual customer had with a sales associate.