Multichannel is still growing in importance but the priorities are changing, a Retail Week survey has found. Joanna Perry joins a group of retail directors to find out how their focus is evolving

Ever keen to plug into what the big issues for our readers are, Retail Week invited you to take part in research looking at what is happening with multichannel and where the pain points are.

More than 120 retailers have completed the survey so far, conducted with Unipart Logistics, and more than 90 per cent of respondents operate multiple channels – mostly stores and a website.

It came as little surprise to the retailers who gathered for a breakfast roundtable to discuss the preliminary results that 86 per cent of those surveyed rated multichannel as either important or very important to their efforts to win and retain customers.

Some issues that have been covered previously in multichannel discussions seem to be less of a concern now. For example, handling returns efficiently and ensuring that staff understand the multichannel strategy were mentioned the least by retailers as their biggest multichannel challenge.

Speaking at the event in February, Mosaic Fashions head of brand logistics Greville Lushington said that he would be surprised if any employees of the company’s brands weren’t aware of their online offer.

As the years pass and more store staff come into retail having grown up with the internet and e-commerce this problem should ease considerably.

On the subject of returns, the retailers at the roundtable agreed with the findings of the research, saying it is not a huge problem. Reiss head of retail Claire Arksey pointed out that you can’t always assume that it will just be home shopping channels that have higher returns rates.

She said that refunds are low for the retailer in its own stores because customers receive a lot of service and spend a lot of time in the fitting rooms. However, for Reiss sales within John Lewis – where there is a full refund policy and no one explicitly selling the products – Arksey explained that returns rates are much higher.

Some of the results were more surprising. When asked to rank what the most challenging areas are for delivering a positive customer experience across multiple channels, the ranking for meeting customer delivery expectations was polarised. A large number of respondents ranked it as either their biggest or smallest challenge.

Unipart sales director Paul Brooks explained that delivery is an essential aspect of customer service for many of its clients, but the UK is increasingly well served by logistics suppliers that can offer retailers delivery services that will meet their customers’ needs.

For instance, Unipart’s client Vodafone is very particular about customer orders being completed correctly as every customer has the potential to purchase a lifetime of airtime from Vodafone. Brooks added that Unipart didn’t miss one handset order the first Christmas that it worked with Vodafone, a decade ago, and the retailer has chosen to continue working with the company ever since.

The issues that are stopping retailers from delivering better on the customer promise include a lack of investment in multichannel and the integration of customer data.

Anna Porter-Wright, e-commerce manager for high-end handbag brand Anya Hindmarch, pointed out that luxury customers tend to fall into two distinct camps when it comes to data privacy. There are those who don’t want to give their details to anyone and a quite large percentage that do, because they want to be associated with the brand and receive company information.

Anya Hindmarch surveys all of its customers who shop online – with about a third replying – and many say that they would visit a store to purchase its products if they could.

Stores are still retailers’ favourite place to dispose of end of lines. Lushington agreed that it can be hard online to live up to customer expectations about the availability of end of line stock. He says that it is best to get it out to stores and sold, to turn stock into cash.

Porter-Wright said that Anya Hindmarch has looked at the private sale websites that have sprung up, but is wary of having its product sold through such sites because customer service is a concern. She would rather have a direct relationship with Sale shoppers as she recognises that they can be turned into loyal customers.

However, one other participant in the roundtable, A Suit That Fits, showed how quickly customers’ perceptions of what they are willing to do online can change. The multichannel tailor has three London stores as well as a roaming tailor who will travel around the country, in addition to its website.

A Suit That Fits co-founder David Hathiramani explained that 70 per cent of his customers see a member of staff at some point and the other 30 per cent measure themselves and purchase bespoke suits online. The company has created an 18-step guide on how to measure yourself to make the ordering of a bespoke suit online possible.

Once the company has your pattern you can also order further products online. This has led one Devon-based customer to order 21 suits from the company in three years. A clear case of anecdotal evidence that perfectly backs up the high levels of confidence in multichannel trading that the survey displayed.