Some blame online and mobile shopping for stealing customers who’d normally go to stores. But Rebecca Thomson finds that clever retailers are using modern channels to their shops’ advantage.

Retailers’ tactics

Republic The fashion retailer has nearly 44,000 fans on Facebook and draws them into its stores by offering them £5 off when they check into their local Republic store using their smartphone

Oasis The fashion chain allows shoppers to buy gift vouchers that are delivered to a mobile phone. The normal incentive of a gift voucher is there, but with the added convenience of it being on a mobile and the likelihood of a spontaneous purchase increased

Majestic Wine Every time a new online customer signs up, he or she is assigned to their local store. The website contains information on which wines each store is offering for free tasting that day, and there are links to each store’s Twitter feed

Selfridges The website home page has clear links to events going on in-store and uses email marketing to increase interest around the stores

The growth of online shopping is sometimes viewed as a bad thing for the humble bricks-and-mortar store. It has been partly blamed for myriad retail problems including deserted high streets and declining sales. But websites do, and increasingly will, have roles far beyond providing another channel through which to buy something. And, while there’s enormous scope for further development in online shopping, retailers are already making clever use of online and mobile technologies to boost interest in store shopping.

“One of the things businesses can get wrong is to compete against themselves,” says Majestic Wine ecommerce manager Richard Weaver. “It’s important that your website is as relevant to your in-store customers as it is to your online customers.”

Majestic Wine is one retailer using ecommerce to lift its bricks-and-mortar assets. Every time new online customers buy something, they are assigned to a local store based on their billing address. The company can then use its arsenal of marketing tools to make sure they’re aware of what the local store can offer - from in-store wine tastings to store staff’s advice for a dinner party. The aim is to show how useful a friendly specialist store can be, Weaver says. The initiative can also help with online merchandising, giving the company a steer on the types of offers and promotions that might work with a particular customer.

“One of the things businesses can get wrong is to compete against themselves”

Richard Weaver, Majestic Wine

Cross-channel customer

Majestic Wine’s ideas are well tailored to its audience but there are plenty of tricks anyone can use to step up the profile of a store using websites. Childcare retailer Kiddicare, which operates mainly online, has plans to raise the profile of its 160,000 sq ft Peterborough store this year through its website, which gets 50,000 visitors a day. The store is now featured on its home page, so it can be as simple as advertising your own shops. It’s all part of a plan to foster a sense of community around the brand - something Majestic Wine is also aiming to do.

Collection services that bridge the channels - click-and-collect for instance - are an easy way of offering customers the chance to visit a store. The list of retailers that offer click-and-collect services is growing, and Aurora Fashions - an early adopter - says it has a positive effect on sales, luring customers in and allowing store merchandising to work its magic and persuade them into further purchases. “The cross-channel customer is very valuable,” says group IT director John Bovill. “They do spend more money and it tends to be on in-season stock.”

Clever use of ecommerce is a little more advanced than mobile and retailers tend to be further ahead when it comes to desktop use of the internet. Torex product manager for cross-channel products Roy Patrick says the first ecommerce system retailers invest in is often fairly basic, allowing them to scope out the market and see how their brand reacts to the online world. About three years later they choose to move onto something more sophisticated, enabling them to do more with their websites. Better-targeted email marketing is another benefit of evolving IT. Instead of broad-brush marketing offers, more retailers are using customer data to send more relevant offers to each person, increasing the likelihood of drawing them into stores.

Mobile technology is a few years behind. While the market for smartphones is growing quickly, only a small proportion of the population has one and retailers are still experimenting with what works. Location-based marketing has perhaps the most potential, but it’s still in the early stages. The idea that a customer walking past a particular store could be sent a relevant offer to their mobile sounds intriguing, but the practical application needs thought. “If it’s done in the right way I can see a place for it,” says Bovill. “And there are some good examples such as Starbucks. But we have to think about the customer and make sure they have the chance to opt in or out.”

Weaver says Majestic Wine is looking at the use of location-based social networks like Foursquare and Facebook Places, offering them small incentives to shop at the nearest store when they log their location using their phones - a process called checking in. The company is still deciding which direction to go in, but it says mobile is an exciting channel for bricks-and-mortar retailers. “For retailers with shops, mobile phones that are aware of their location represent a way of fighting back against pure-play etailers. Location is something we can play to,” says Weaver.

“The cross-channel customer spends more money and it tends to be on in-season stock”

John Bovill, Aurora Fashions

Going mobile

In the not-too-distant future, mobile phones are likely to act as everything from a loyalty card to a payment device but there is some way to go and, as with large swathes of multichannel retailing, each company will need to develop a proposition that works for its business model. But store sales need not languish at the expense of mobile and ecommerce - not only will customers continue to want to buy many products in person, but the channels will also become more complementary and the level of brand integration between them will be up to the retailer. What’s important, says Bovill, is keeping a clear idea of priorities. “There’s probably a lot more room to move forward, and buying online is obviously the future. But if your heritage is bricks-and-mortar retailing, that will still be your dominant channel for a long time to come.”

Reverse the trend: site to stores

  • Use the store as part of the online ordering process either at the collection or the returns stage. About 65% of retailers currently use some form of this, according to ecommerce provider Snow Valley
  • Support store sales by advertising in-store events or face-to-face services that staff could provide, such as advice on a particular product
  • A simple mobile-optimised site will help drive footfall, with customers using it to find store locations and opening times
  • If competing on price, an app that scans a particular product and compares prices across the web will be useful
  • Strong online content including video and editorial can help increase store footfall by providing inspiration and strong brand awareness, according to video provider Adjust Your Set. Marks & Spencer’s online videos are a good example, it says
  • Interesting uses of technology in-store can pique interest and draw people in, says media provider PlayNetwork. For example, fashion chain Pilot has installed mirrors that allow you to upload a picture of yourself to social networks