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S.H.O.P.: Making the move Online

Welcome to S.H.O.P., our series examining the changes in retail and commerce. Over the course of four weeks, we’re exploring some of the key topics around the past, present, and future of retail, looking at the technologies and behaviors that have enabled – and transformed – shopping as we know it.

This week, we’re looking at the tools and infrastructure needed to facilitate the move Online. On the podcast, Dee Reddy talks to Vend founder Vaughan Fergusson, sustainable lifestyle retailer Sheelin Conlon (The Kind) and Mixtiles‘s Ori Singer. Listen below, and read on for our companion post.

For today’s consumers, the line between ecommerce and commerce has been blurred almost to invisibility. But while the “e” may be silent for customers – who understandably want a consistent, personalized shopping experience regardless of whether they’re buying online or in-store – it still rings out loud and clear for the businesses who need to ensure they have the right tools to deliver that unified, excellent experience across multiple channels.

If you build it, they will shop

As with many of the habits and trends we’ve seen so far in S.H.O.P., the adoption of ecommerce tools has been growing steadily for years – until the pandemic hit. Suddenly, the turning tide has become a tsunami; discussing the impact of COVID-19 on retail, Vaughan Fergusson, founder and director of the cloud-based point-of-sale and retail management software Vend, says, “In the space of nine months, we’ve had 10 years of industry acceleration.”

And for an industry as fast-moving and innovative as ecommerce, 10 years can feel like a lifetime. As Fergusson points out: 

“10 years ago, we didn’t have Google Pay or Apple Pay. Cash was still king in most retail environments. And now we’re in this landscape where credit and mobile transactions are the norm. They’re the majority of transactions.”

Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine a time when buying things from the internet was an anomaly, and something that was looked upon with suspicion. (Then again, it’s also hard to imagine a time when the internet looked like this.) But while companies like Amazon have played a major role in legitimizing online shopping, until relatively recently there was still a barrier for entry for smaller companies and startups to get in on the trend.

“Tools and platforms such as Shopify, Stripe, and Vend have revolutionized the way retailers work, removing common obstacles and allowing companies to grow and scale, both online and offline”

Enter the innovative ecommerce platforms and payment tools of the mid-2000s. Tools and platforms such as Shopify, Stripe, and Vend have revolutionized the way retailers work, removing common obstacles and allowing companies to grow and scale, both online and offline.

This ability to operate across multiple channels from one unified system has been invaluable for businesses over the past few months in particular, as many retailers have had to rethink their ways of working. For Fergusson, this convergence of the digital and analog retail worlds has always been at the heart of Vend:

“I could see a really big opportunity for retail as an industry to really innovate and make a move to a fully digital platform that enabled retailers to really engage with their customers in new and novel ways. So we gave them the flexibility that they could manage their store from anywhere. They could use iPads as their point of sale registers. We could help them to manage their inventory from one place. So really the problem that we were solving was one around convenience, and minimizing costs, and streamlining operations.”

Meeting your customers where they are

These new ecommerce solutions have replaced the smorgasbord of tools and apps that retailers would have had to mash together previously: from inventory management tools, to accounting software, to customer databases, and more. Now, instead of multiple subscriptions (and disparate sources of truth for information on things like customers, vendors, and stock), retailers can streamline their tech stack to just a few essentials that help them to cover all their bases, saving them time and money – and enabling more businesses to flexibly transition into online selling.

“It’s no longer about having an online shopping experience or an in-store shopping experience; the reality is that customers expect both”

So what do modern retailers need to prioritize? As always, the best return on investment comes from creating the most seamless and delightful experience for your customers.

For Fergusson, this comes from meeting your customers wherever they are: 

“It’s no longer about having an online shopping experience or an in-store shopping experience; the reality is that customers expect both. The truly delightful experiences are where it’s blended: a customer could discover a retailer online and browse their product catalog, but come to the store, have their wishlist of favorite things that they liked online, touch and feel the products, maybe buy the product in-store, or maybe even go back home and purchase at home and have it fulfilled to them at home.”

Whether consumers are shopping online or offline, creating a positive and personalized shopping experience is key. 

Loren Padelford, Vice President and General Manager at Shopify Plus, proposes that, ultimately, this is the very essence of retail. “Humans love stories,” he says. “They love options, they love personal, they love things that are made for them, they love to get to know other humans. This has been true since the beginning of time, and our shopping behavior over time has just mimicked that ebb and flow of our human desire.”

In this respect, “meeting your customers where they are” isn’t just about physically catering to them whether they’re shopping in brick and mortar stores or via the internet; it’s also about creating a thought-out customer journey that is able to proactively meet their needs at every stage.

Curating the right tech stack

For many businesses, the unexpected shifts in the retail industry have also brought an unprecedented increase in customer queries and conversation volumes. And whereas previously, your retail staff would have worn many (metaphorical) hats – working not only as salespeople but also as unofficial customer support agents, constantly handling customer queries and resolving complaints – the move online has meant that this function needs to be planned for and costed separately.

“According to our recent study, 79% of customer support leaders aren’t sure they have the right tools to manage these online conversations, leaving them at risk of delivering the kind of slow and unhelpful customer experiences that can cause customers to churn”

This is where the unsung hero of the retail tech stack comes in: your customer support tool. 

According to our recent study, however, 79% of customer support leaders aren’t sure they have the right tools to manage these online conversations, leaving them at risk of delivering the kind of slow and unhelpful customer experiences that can cause customers to churn.

Now more than ever, the importance of a great customer support experience can’t be underestimated. And much like the multichannel approach we’re seeing in other areas of ecommerce, the right support tool similarly offers multiple ways of meeting customers where they are.

Redefining retail

While the last nine months have taught us all a valuable lesson about trying to predict the future of retail (or, well, anything), Padelford believes that the changes we’re currently seeing in the retail industry are here to stay. “If the pandemic ended today, we would still continue on with online shopping being a primary source, with options to buy online and pick up in store or get home delivery,” he says.

“Retail as an industry knows how to survive and adapt. With the lockdowns, we’ve been seeing retailers reboot their businesses in order to adapt”

There’s no going backwards; instead, the challenge now is in continuing to adapt to an increasingly online way of shopping. Luckily, Fergusson says, retailers have always been resilient:

“Retail as an industry knows how to survive and adapt. With the lockdowns, we’ve been seeing retailers reboot their businesses in order to adapt. Selling online is an obvious one, but so is offering things like curbside pickup or different ways for customers to acquire the product, like using showrooming or endless aisles but then fulfilling the products to them directly at home. Or doing really innovative things like video shopping or concierge services, so that if the customers can’t come into the store, they can bring the store to the customer.”

What’s becoming clearer and clearer is that there’s no more “online vs in-store”; instead, it’s about creating a customer-centric model that offers consumers the same flexibility and personalization, no matter where they’re shopping.

In our next episode, we’ll be looking at the Present situation to understand how this year’s holiday present shopping could present a new model for retail going forward.

Original artwork for this series was created by self-taught artist/illustrator Elijah Anderson. You can find out more about his work here.