Prospering in the blended retailing world
Innovation profile: Three Ireland
‘Our online sales grew by 400% at the peak of the pandemic,’ says Three Ireland’s head of sales Ronan Gibney.
While retailers have had much to contend with during Covid-19, the positive news is that demand didn’t wane even while shops were closed. Consumers stayed home but the statistics show they continued shopping online.
“After Three closed our 61 stores across Ireland at the end of March, our online sales grew by 400 per cent at the peak of the pandemic,” says Ronan Gibney, head of sales with Three Ireland. “Independent research suggests our experience wasn’t unique. The IE Domain Registry’s (IEDR) recent Tipping Point report found that 72 per cent of consumers either spent more or the same amount online as before Covid-19.”
But, if we accept that ecommerce will be a big part of the shopping experience in future, what do retailers do next? “The first thing is to make the online experience easy,” says Gibney. “Consumers don’t want a laborious process to buy an item. The design should focus on look and feel, especially for browsing on mobile devices, but also on cutting out unnecessary steps.”
Live chat functionality is also important. “At Three, the impact of Covid-19 focused us on the things that were going to make the biggest difference,” he says. “We used off-the-shelf software to set up a live chat option on our website so retail agents who weren’t in store could still answer questions from our customers. It proved to be a big win.”
Another low-cost technology is to set up an appointment booking system for customers who want to visit the store. “This option is available to businesses of all sizes and it helps to cater for customers who want to limit the time they spend visiting a store in person,” says Gibney.
“From a retail side, while some purchases are being influenced online, there are other items the customers would prefer to be physically present to complete the sale. This means retailers need to focus on the omnichannel experience: consumers might start a purchase online and finish in the store, or vice-versa.”
He calls this the endless aisle. This gives retailers the ability to sell more than just what’s on the store shelves, and it gives the customers more options. “A retail store only has a limited capacity to hold a certain number of products, so you need to have good inventory management to make sure the product is physically in store to fulfil an order, or that it can quickly move from the warehouse to whichever shop the customer chooses,” he explains.
“There’s no denying footfall in stores has reduced considerably since Covid-19,” Gibney adds. “The IEDR found 74 per cent of customers are more reluctant to visit shops because of the new safety guidelines. One trend we have noticed in our own stores is that the number of people browsing has reduced, but the conversion rate of visitors to sales has gone up. People are there for a particular sale or service. When this happens, it’s really important for the sales staff to be ready to cross-sell or upsell related products.”
That can begin before customers even enter the store. “In smaller outlets, there might only be space for two sales staff and two customers at a time,” he notes. “We found that by reassigning a sales agent to handle queue management, they could start troubleshooting issues for customers quickly, even as they waited in line. Sometimes, customers didn’t even need to enter the store; or, when they did, the transaction was much faster because our team had already begun helping them.”
This worked best when fully trained staff were assigned to look after queue management. “Those people have the full depth of knowledge to be able to handle all queries, no matter how complicated or simple,” Gibney says. “We’re in a service industry and we need to take time to understand our customers and deliver the level of service they expect. The queue manager can set the tone for the rest of the transaction.”
He concludes on an upbeat note. “There’s been a lot of talk that retail is dying, but I don’t believe that’s true,” he says. “It’s changing and evolving. As retailers, we need to create engagement in our stores and through our websites. We need to deliver a frictionless customer experience where the online and in-store channels work together.”