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The growth of mobile as a marketing channel has provided a massive opportunity for retailers to connect with their customers.

However, it has also created new problems for brands trying to offer a joined up, multichannel experience.

Google’s industry head of retail Rick Jones is tasked with helping brands use digital to create a single customer view.

I spoke with him at last week’s E-commerce Futures Conference to find out his opinion on delivering an effective multichannel customer experience.

What is Google’s role in retail?

Obviously we have a lot of advertisers, many of whom are retailers, so Google has a department whose job it is to work with those retailers, which includes everyone from grocers, to the multichannel guys, to the pure plays.

And we do two things; we work with them as advertisers to nurture those relationships, but also to help them understand trends where digital might be playing a role in their organisation going forward.

Obviously we are party to a lot of data and insights, so often we are operating at a board level. We have relationships with directors and we are helping them to build their roadmaps, and sometimes that is very transformational for them if they aren’t very far down the track.

What advice do you offer to help them join up online and offline? Is mobile a key part of it?

Up until the recent boom in mobile it was probably relatively difficult for us to help those retailers understand the dynamic between offline and online channels.

Before this big boom in mobile we were running studies with a lot of the big retailers, such as Vodafone, where we would work with their econometrics guys to work out what is the impact of an up-weight in online advertising in terms of store footfall and sales.

So we could empirically prove the relationship, which is the big unknown for everyone, and the thing retailers want to understand, but mobile is now completely changing the game.

We are not there yet, but if we can understand someone’s behaviour across different devices on their route to a purchase, whether that’s offline or online, then that’s clearly a very powerful insight.

And again, we can help advertisers right throughout the consumer journey from the initial piece of research through to being in the proximity of the store and being able to deliver the customer a relevant ad in a timely way.

Do you currently have any way to link users between their search activities on a desktop and a mobile?

We can to a certain extent through Chrome, but to be honest it’s still very embryonic. It’s still something we are working on for advertisers, as it solves a big problem for them in the multichannel world.

Businesses are often siloed, so their online and offline customers are treated differently and presented with different offers. Do you feel that’s the correct way to go, or should they be treated exactly the same regardless of the sales channel?

My perspective is that you definitely need to offer consistency across the two channels. We see consumers today aren’t just searching your website, but they are searching your website in other countries to try and find better prices.

Consumers are increasingly savvy about retail offers and that means you have no choice but to be transparent and make it consistent and seamless, and also you have to avoid the horrible customer experience of seeing a price on website, then you go into a store and there’s a different price.

In recent months we have seen a few major high street retailers reducing their number of brick-and-mortar stores to refocus on e-commerce, while pure play e-tailers Kiddicare and Amazon are both moving towards opening offline stores. Do you think there is a perfect balance or does it differ between industries?

I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all approach and I think it’s right that people are still experimenting. It depends on the sector you are in, your business model, and the size of your market.

I think there are trends in consumer behaviour around retail that are driving a lot of the changes in established business models.

We all know what is happening on the high street at the moment - the impact of online and out-of-town shopping provides a more convenient experience for people, and the high street is struggling to create its point of difference.

So it means the multichannel mix that you are talking about for established businesses is clearly changing.

You could argue that pure play online businesses are in a stronger position, as they don’t have the challenge of that legacy of a big retail estate.

One of the speakers at the conference suggested that Amazon suffers because it can’t do in-store delivery, so misses out on big ticket sales that people may not want delivered to their home address. Do you think that is really an issue for pure plays like Amazon?

I don’t think it is if you look at its success and the scale that it continues to grow. If you look at trends here you see that consumers, and particularly younger consumers, are more demanding of convenience. They are also more confident about buying online.

They will trust that someone like Amazon is going to deliver on that promise, and they do deliver on that promise, so that completely changes the game. But having said that, there’s still a lot of big ticket items that people do want to go and see.

Rarely are people going to buy a bed or a sofa without having sat on it or laid down on it, but it doesn’t mean that’s the case for everyone, so e-commerce pure plays can still pick up an increasing level of sales.

I think that is a big challenge for the traditional retailers as online is continuing to eat away more and more of their business.

How does social fit into a multichannel strategy in terms of communicating with customers? Should brands be looking to offer customer service though social?

I think as a bare minimum you need to be monitoring it and I would say the vast majority need to be proactive in it.

There was a period when businesses first started realising that all these customer experiences were taking place on social media and would go in under the pretence of being a consumer.

We saw brands subtly trying to influence people’s opinions and conversations by trying to pretend to be a member of the public, but I think businesses learned that it wasn’t the best way to go, and now they are going in and having conversations as the customer service department.

That works really well and can save a lot of costs as well. It also nips things in the bud, as you can understand problems more quickly but also be more in control of the conversations that are happening and influence them with your point of view.

David Moth

Published 22 May, 2012 by David Moth @ Econsultancy

David Moth is Editor and Head of Social at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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Jamil Kassam, Online Selling Manager at John Lewis

I love this question - 'What is Google’s role in retail?' ;)

over 4 years ago

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