Throughout this year I’ve been talking about the key challenges High Street Retailers face with trying to consolidate their online / offline inventories - so that shoppers can be sure of the likelihood of their obtaining what they seek when they venture into town. In numerous posts over the years I have highlighted my disappointment about making the usual weekend pilgrimage into town - only to find that most of what I was after is either not stocked by the particular branch I happen to end up in, or is recently out-of-stock.
I have cited Phonica and Forbidden Planet before - whose inventories are somewhat in sync with their websites, and I can check with some surety before I set off. Neither one has a same-day reservation facility yet, but if I set off early enough, I can usually guarantee a favourable result.
This is also the second time I have secured a new iPhone by reserving one for in-store collection the night before. Admittedly I was compelled to venture a little further afield this time to get my first choice of model (Apple Store at Watford Mall), but the fact that I could reserve and knew that my phone was waiting for me, more than offset the extra miles I needed to go to obtain satisfaction.
As shared previously too, I still vividly recall two particularly vexing examples of poor customer service - both happened on Regent Street - in the pursuit of shoes at Hugo Boss and a jacket from Banana Republic. In the first instance my size was out-of-stock at Regent street, but I had to forcibly cajole the shop assistant to ring each of the other London branches in turn - until we secured a pair at Brentwood. I then had to plead and negotiate to have those shoes conveyed to said branch for easy pick-up the following week. At Banana Republic it was more a case of ’missing stock’ in that the computer said they had 2 in stock at Regent Street, but the assistant could not find either anywhere. I was sent to the Long Acre branch where a similar scenario played out in unusual déjà-vu fashion. I eventually secured said jacket when returning to the Regent Street store later in the day, and finding the mystery jackets now featuring prominently on display.
It is quite a common scenario thought that I venture into town in high spirits and return at the end of the day wholly empty-handed and deflated. The Internet is then my best buddy as I order online to received my goods a day or two later.
Now the key advantage of the High Street is ’Immediacy’ - being able to secure something within the hour - even with the best will in the world, and the best service, this is nigh on impossible to achieve via a web-based store (with some exceptions). As such it should be a major point of competitive advantage for stores to unify their inventories and enable Click-and-Collect and Reservation in-store. John Lewis is one for instance who does this very well, as does the master of the Click-and-Collect - Argos.
The downside of unified inventories is universal pricing. For instance if I look at Forbidden Planet - the online prices are often 10-30% cheaper than sold in-store. I believe dual-pricing is reaching the end of the line as in most cases customers will always compare to online, and if there is a sufficient gap they will buy online or from a competitor.
When Buying Animé DVDs for instance I have 5 options - 3 in-town - Forbidden Planet and Fopp in Convent Garden and HMV on Oxford Street. Online I have Amazon of course and eBay. At different times, each one of these can have the best price for a particular item. When I’m in town, I still like the impact of immediate satisfaction, and usually don’t mind a couple of quid bricks-and-mortar tax to buy the item in-store. Yet the price difference can be as much as 50% on occasion. I always have a mental list of what I’m after, and I pretty much know the target prices, so it often surprises me how much one store can be out-of-step with the aggregate price index for that item.
I have to admit that my online to offline ratio is probably 70:30 at the moment, but this would be better balanced if the products I sought were more available in store, and at a more attainable price point. High Street retailers are losing a bigger chunk each year to online retail, they cannot afford to not provide uniform pricing with reservation and click-and-collect. In fact online retailers have been getting in on the same game, as they too are offering more click-and-collect via the use of secure lockers at local facilities such as supermarkets, train stations and garages...