NATIONAL REPORT — Convenience store operators have long been known for the personal service they provide. Your local c-store clerk knows your coffee order, knows the name of your grandchildren, and may even know what lottery numbers you faithfully play. In-person, personal service.
This is all changing, however, as consumers seek — or, more accurately, demand — a shopping experience when, where and how they want it.
Enter the emerging channel of omnichannel.
Defined as retail that integrates the various methods of shopping available to consumers, including online, in-store and mobile, the 360-degree omnichannel approach is an avenue consumer packaged goods retailers and suppliers are beginning to explore.
"True omnichannel retail is still something retailers and brands are striving for, but doesn't yet exist,” explained Mark Hardy, CEO of InContext Solutions, a global provider of enterprise mixed and virtual reality solutions focused on retail optimization and shopper engagement. “In general, though, the convenience channel seems to be making quite a few leaps and bounds when it comes to innovation.
"Because it's increasing in popularity, shoppers are more inclined to interact in new ways, whether that's mobile apps or in-store technology. But it's going to take some true innovation and disruptors to take the lead on creating true omnichannel shopping experiences in the convenience channel," Hardy continued.
Omnichannel can be defined as understanding how the digital and physical experience can become more unified, he said. Omnichannel is targeting customers through every available channel — digital, brick-and-mortar, and even B2B collaboration.
In an industry dominated by single-store and small operators, meeting all consumer touchpoints can be a challenge, however.
Aaron McLean, chief operating officer at digital product innovation company Stuzo, said they often suggest mobile as the starting strategy. But he acknowledged that each small operator needs to consider their shopper demographic and the types of programs that will work best for them and their consumers.
"Demographics are different region to region, so it's not a one-size-fits all [strategy]. You can't prescribe mobile as a solution for everybody," McLean said. "We wouldn't necessarily say mobile is the right solution if you had four stores and that's your entire operation. The cost of deploying something like that is significant. You cannot spend twice your total margin for the year to get mobile up and running; it's just not feasible."
A digital relationship is key, though, to give retailers a path to understanding their customers.
"We typically recommend that smaller operators generate some kind of digital relationship with their consumers where they are able to collect some data and have some understanding on a baseline level of who their consumers are on individual level, and do something baseline actionable on that data. That's a great first step," McLean explained. "…That could mean social, that could mean email, that could mean SMS text, or it could mean mobile."
In addition to customer data, retailers need to rely on customer feedback as well.
"The need for positive customer feedback is especially true in physical stores, where getting the in-store shopping experience right can translate to significantly higher revenues," Hardy said. "The lines between channels are blurry; an online shopper might come to pick up an order and be enticed by a well-placed shelf display to buy something else. Consumers are embracing more fluid shopping experiences, and retailers need to acknowledge this to make it work for them."
Retailers who are not already embracing omnichannel in some form are behind the eight ball, so to speak. However, further evolution is undoubtedly coming.
"By the time you realize the wave of disruption hit you, it's too late. By the time you start feeling the impact of that disruption, it's already passed you by," McLean cautioned.
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