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All CIOs Want For 2017…Is Unified Commerce

  • Written by  Ken Morris, Boston Retail Partners, and Greg Griffiths, EarthLink

November 25, 2016 lived up to its name for many retailers, signaling the start of holiday shopping and revenue generation. Unfortunately, for some unprepared retailers these results were disappointing.

Black Friday, along with its digital cousin Cyber Monday, signaled the official launch to holiday commerce and kicked off a season to be jolly for those retailers with a robust technology infrastructure. But it was a Blue Holiday Season for those who did not sufficiently invest in the infrastructure and processes that lay the foundation for a true omni-channel shopping experience.

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This holistic and interconnected approach – unified commerce – is increasingly the conduit for delivering a seamless and consistent customer experience across all channels and touch points.

Unified commerce goes beyond omnichannel by enabling a single, holistic platform, combining in-store, mobile, e-Commerce and every other function throughout the enterprise. As such, it is quickly becoming the new retail imperative. While just 18% of retailers have implemented a unified commerce platform, another 57% plan to do so within three years.

Clearly, the presence (or absence) of unified commerce can make (or break) the customer experience – especially during the holiday season.

With the dust having settled from the holiday 2016, here are some insights into what retail CIOs and IT managers have on their wish lists for 2017…and beyond.

  • Unified Commerce Environment. According to a recent BRP survey, 85% of retailers state that creating a true unified commerce environment is their top priority. And they had better hurry; while 60% of retailers say they have recently improved inventory visibility across all shopping channels, 80% of them say that their systems still need improvement.  

Similar to what happened when the Internet first gained widespread appeal, many retailers in recent years have tweaked their existing legacy systems to cobble together a makeshift infrastructure to keep up with customer expectations. While many retailers have strived to make omnichannel a reality, too often the “just get something done” approach has resulted in a faux omnichannel environment – as evidenced by the high percentage of retailers that say their systems still need improvement.

Retailers need and want a unified commerce environment to provide consumers the seamless, cross-channel shopping experience they expect.

  • Enhanced Mobile Capabilities. While 92% of retail sales take place in-store (or are retrieved in-store), mobile commerce continues to grow dramatically and U.S. consumers now spend more Internet time on mobile devices than laptops and desktop computers. Even customers who eschew mobile as a purchasing platform are nonetheless relying on their smartphones to view competitive offers or activate a discount coupon – increasingly, while roaming retailers’ aisles.

This continual evolution of “real-time retail” shopping – replete with interactive and personalized services, such as digital assistants – is heavily dependent on the availability of mobile technologies. Customer facing WiFi, beacons, sensors and other location devices can further personalize the shopping experience by identifying customers in-store via their mobile phone.

And mobile is not just for customers; the ability to use smart devices to check out customers or review real-time inventory is freeing sales associates from the tethers of the cash register, so they can better cultivate immaculate customer experiences anywhere in the store. Mobile is now a retail imperative, and CIOs are making this a priority.

  • Virtual POS. Cloud computing enables retailers to significantly reduce the infrastructure cost within each store and centrally manage the unified shopping experience. Virtual POS is a quick and secure path to seamlessly connect all e-Commerce, mobile commerce and in-store POS transactions to order management, inventory, marketing, financials and customer service. The speed and agility of utilizing the cloud enables retailers to support the ever-increasing dynamic and complex needs of commerce and real-time customer engagement. Retailers have the choice of a private, third-party or hybrid cloud to meet their specific needs.

  • According to BRP’s 2016 POS Survey only 8% of retailers have implemented a cloud-based POS platform; however, another 37% of retailers plan to within three years.2 While early adoption has been slow, retailers are beginning to realize the value of cloud-based POS and we believe one day all retailers will join them.

  • Robust Network. Often forgotten in the headlong rush to implement user-friendly mobile apps and desirable in-store experiences is the telecommunications network that is needed to ensure these customer satisfaction improvements can be delivered across all channels.

The days of separate systems and independent networks for in-store, warehouse, online and other retail functions are long gone. In order for unified commerce to work, retailers must transform their outdated legacy systems into robust, centralized networks that are fast, reliable, safe and resilient. The emergence of cloud-based offerings is making it easier – and more cost efficient – to integrate voice, data, video, WiFi and wireless technologies into one highly-reliable, redundant and economical telecommunications network.

Like water flowing out of a spigot, customer traffic – whether in-store, online or in-app – is a precious commodity that can pass through a business, never to return, if the resources aren’t there to capture it. Shoppers are in control, and their loyalty is only as strong as their next shopping experience.

Those retailers who remain slow in delivering a unified commerce experience will likely see the impact by the 2017 holiday shopping season – in the form of sluggish sales.

And those who are willing and able to effectively execute on omni-channel services are destined to have Happy Holidays, indeed.


Ken Morris is a principal at BRP, an innovative and independent retail management consulting firm. BRP is a subsidiary of EarthLink, a leading network services provider dedicated to delivering great customer experiences in a cloud connected world. Greg Griffiths is Vice President of EMM Marketing at EarthLink. In this role, he is responsible for the go-to-market strategy and execution for EarthLink’s Enterprise/Mid-Market business unit. He also works closely with many of EarthLink’s retail customers.

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