Retailers aggressively support the idea of merged channel strategies, but have had difficulty in the implementation phase.
One $200 million retail chain—mattress.com—is taking a baby step toward merged channel, by sending copies of online customer chat transcripts to the local brick-and-mortar.
"Having the complete transcript of what the customer is looking for onscreen in the store facilitates the sale," Executive Vice President Joe Vicens was quoted as saying in an Internet Retailer story.
The effort is indeed encouraging, but it's not an especially complex effort. The chain requires the customer to request the store to access the file. That cleverly accomplishes two objectives.
First, it shows a respect for privacy and makes the customer feel in control. But from an IT perspective, it sidesteps the need for an automated trigger and a ZIP code lookup. The transcript is stored and it won't go anywhere until a customer-initiated action causes an employee to look it up, presumably with an identifying number the customer was given to mark that exchange.
From a low-tech level, much of the same could be accomplished by the customer printing out the exchange and bringing it with him to shop, but it's quite encouraging that store associates can access the data directly, although only when prompted.
But at least this mattress chain isn't taking its merged channel potential lying down. (My apologies but it was too easy to resist.) To make the transitions from multi-channel to cross-channel to merged channel is difficult, but customers can't understand why.
When a customer spends 90 minutes with a chain's call center employee describing a problem in excruciating detail, why should he or she then have to start anew when talking with a physical store associate?
(We're going to skip over the question of why those details need to be repeated as the customer is transferred from call center employee to call center employee. That's a different column.)
The ultimate merged channel environment is actually a knowledge management challenge, in the sense that the data already exists in various databases (the computer screens in one of your call centers, for example) and in the heads of quite a few of your employees. IM addresses two hurdles: knowing all of the data that you're collecting in untold number of ways and somehow cataloguing it; figuring out how to get that now-identified data to the people who need it.
That truly is the essence of the biggest merged channel hurdle. Attitudes and conflicting incentives are also issues, but that's the case with most large knowledge management projects.
Retail Center Editor Evan Schuman has tracked high-tech issues since 1987, has been opinionated long before that and doesn't plan to stop any time soon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To read earlier retail technology opinion columns from Evan Schuman, please click here.
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