With the likes of Amazon and other online giants seemingly dominating the landscape and creating challenges for physical retailers, there is a fear amongst brick and mortar retailers that they cannot compete with these major brands. This is reflected in almost 650 UK high street stores having closed – or face risk of closure – in 2018 alone.

Established online-focused retailers, such as Amazon, can seamlessly deliver products from central distribution hubs straight to the customer’s door, mirroring the approach of physical and online high-street retailers’ home delivery options. Furthermore, they can prioritise customer satisfaction more highly, as interaction frequently occurs through one channel.

However, traditional retailers still have the opportunity to thrive and even witness a new growth trend, but they must be willing to rip-up the rulebook and transform their business model, by enhancing in-store fulfilment for customers, using a seamlessly connected omnichannel ecommerce strategy.

Stores acting as mini distribution centres

Retailers are facing a constant battle to balance customer expectations and profitability in an omnichannel world. This is where in-store fulfilment comes into play. Retailers need to rethink their processes and technologies to transform their retail stores, taking full advantage of current stores that will enable them to act as mini distribution centres (DCs).

With the cost of maintaining and running physical stores rising rapidly for retailers – especially at city centre locations – it’s more important than ever for retailers to maximise their investment in floorspace.

Utilising a unified inventory management solution that provides the customer with a clear picture of exactly where stock is located is crucial in adopting this strategy. If a product is out of stock when searched for online, i.e. from the main distribution hub, customers do not want to wait for it to become available once again. The on-demand nature of customer purchasing habits mean that they want to be offered a means of obtaining the product as quickly as possible.

Having a joined-up view of all stock available online, in-store and at distribution centres will allow retailers to circumnavigate this problem. Offering this in real-time allows retailers to personalise their offering for customers; identifying the nearest piece of stock or online inventory allows retailers to fulfil the customers’ needs.

This helps to shorten the time the customer has to spend on obtaining their products, providing greater convenience and ultimately, a superior experience. However, retailers shouldn’t view this solely as customers shopping online; the whole part of the ecommerce experience is about offering the customer increased convenience, regardless of where they have started the purchasing process.

Using existing floorspace to turn each store into mini distribution centres allows retailers to utilise stock across all physical stores, enhancing their business operations and ultimately, driving more sales. This will offer greatly enhanced flexibility for retailers and more convenience for shoppers. For example, a major retailer such as Debenhams will be able to utilise its 167 UK stores to provide access to stock in one store, that isn’t available in another location, based on the customer’s proximity to its outlets.

The only way to offer this is to have a unified, single view of inventory across all channels, empowering store employees to get the product to the customer as quickly and efficiently as possible, while making them feel valued.

In-store tooling

In-store tooling has to be user-friendly for store employees, in order to turn stores into collection points and mini DCs. Previous research has revealed that over two thirds of consumers expect store associates to use a mobile device to perform simple and immediate tasks like looking up product information and checking inventory.

In-store mobile devices are easily implemented, quick to learn and allow for speed of execution. More importantly, they offer a live view of everything to do with that product, which is vital in empowering a retailers’ staff to become a part of the overall customer experience, have a better understanding of their place in the broader business, and ultimately enhance brand perception.

Having a unified, real-time view of inventory will allow a retailer’s staff to offer increased flexibility and mobility for customers, especially for those who are starting the purchasing journey in-store. However, these technologies should serve only as a enabler; retailers still need to be significantly investing in training customer-facing staff to easily use the technology, as it’s these employees which will ensure the customer’s experience is as good as it can be.

Utilising real-time data

Customers expect retailers to be ahead of the latest retail trends; empowering and engaging staff to adapt will ensure they keep pace with the changing retail landscape. As an example, retailers must also be utilising insights from online customer behaviour to provide a completely personalised experience.

It’s no longer good enough for these aspects of the purchasing journey to be disconnected; customers want to know your likes and dislikes when you walk into the store. The alternative option of using online-only retailers, where customers can complete the buying process in just a few clicks, is all too easy. It is therefore essential for retailers to provide a simple, easy-to-use solution that will encourage the completion of transactions.

As a basis, retailers must also offer additional products, similar to items already selected or browsed at online. A retailer should also ensure that its reserve online, pick-up in store (ROPIS) capabilities are available for all currently-selected and additional products, should they want to physically collect the product.

This emphasises the need for retailers to treat its mini DCs and online platform as one, offering relevant online and in-store inventory to customers, based on their location. Providing a real-time view of product availability – not only at their preferred store, but at different locations – will meet the customer’s requirement to have that product as soon as possible, providing instant gratification.

How to out-convenience the online giants

Retailers cannot afford not to track a customer’s commerce journey; the changing retail landscape means that they must utilise all available routes to market to offer the customer a personalised, convenient shopping experience, when compared to what online retailers can provide.

The likes of Amazon can offer a personalised experience for retailers, but only currently to a certain degree – at least before the mass adoption of AI and chatbot technologies. For brick and mortar retailers to truly compete, they must forget any existing ‘traditional’ commerce models, empowering in-store staff to surpass customer expectations in offering increased convenience, alongside an effective online and mobile strategy.

With many customers using physical stores to test and survey the product they would like to purchase, before looking at its cost and availability online, retailers must go above and beyond in making the purchasing experience as convenient as possible, helping to ultimately foster increased customer loyalty.

Graham Jackson

Graham Jackson


Graham Jackson, CEO of Fluent Commerce.