Unified Commerce: Creating the Retailer of the Future

The retailer of the future does not define customers by the channels they shop in, or the devices they use. The retailer of the future simply considers them as areas of the customer experience that create new opportunities for sustaining service excellence.

The retail industry is one of the most dynamic, forward-thinking industries. It has to be, as technologically-savvy, knowledgeable, and discerning customers continue to revolutionize retail engagement with ever-changing expectations toward retail service.

Unified commerce represents a fundamental shift in how technology supports the retail business. With unified commerce merging disparate front-end and back-end systems into a single platform, technology is no longer a standalone, separate entity; it instead melds effortlessly into the retailer’s business foundation, providing an agile system for delivering insightful, efficient service at every touchpoint.

Download the full eBook on unified commerce here.

Ultimately, a retailer’s success depends a positive customer experience, which unified commerce helps to deliver.

Cloud-Based Applications: The Key to a Successful Unified Commerce Platform

A successful unified commerce platform can easily handle each facet of operational management – from storefronts to back office – along with all of their inherent complexities. Yet the platform must also be flexible enough to seamlessly integrate the data and processes from each operation into a cohesive, all-in-one view of the business. That’s where the Cloud comes in.

A Cloud-based unified commerce platform means that retailers are no longer required to purchase costly systems (or to maintain equally costly, rigid IT infrastructure) in order to run their business. The Cloud offers flexibility and choice for companies seeking a robust business management system that cost-effectively scales with business change and growth.

In addition, a Cloud-based unified commerce platform enables retailers to seamlessly transition to an increasingly digitalized world. As consumer technology continues to evolve, new channels arise for people to connect and interact, creating new preferences for communication and engagement. Cloud technology helps retailers pull in and consolidate this cross-channel data, analyze trends and patterns, and develop more effective strategies for reaching customers on their terms, in their preferred channels.

9 Trends Disrupting the Industry – and How Cloud Unified Commerce Technology Helps

1. Brick-and-mortar retailers aren’t just competing for customers’ wallets – they’re competing for their time. Unique in-store ex1. periences will differentiate retailers from their competition – and their own online channels.

The brick-and-mortar store provides an interactive, hands-on shopping experience: the ability to pick up, feel, and try-on products before buying; the immediate gratification of taking products home the instant that checkout is complete; the chance to view and browse new merchandise in stock.

But in this digital age of ecommerce ease and convenience, customers who can purchase the items they need with a simple click of a smartphone button seek an extra incentive for visiting a physical store. Because with the time and energy they save with an online transaction, brick-and-mortar store shopping competes not only with the ecommerce channel but also with other recreational activities that vie for customer attention.

A retailer that can provide a uniquely memorable in-store shopping experience creates a compelling reason for the customer to return. The brick-and-mortar store will move beyond being an inventory storage space and instead a focal point for “retailtainment” – combining retail and entertainment to provide customers worthwhile experiences that delight and excite.

How Unified Commerce Helps:

Despite the interest that a differentiated in-store experience may incite, the bottom line existence of a store is its products – the products are the primary reason that a shopper visits in the first place. Any disruption in receiving, storing, or delivering inventory creates errors or delays that negatively impact the customer experience. Empty shelves are not an enticing sight, and an overabundance of the wrong product is money sitting and collecting dust.

The true core of a differentiated in-store experience is a supply chain system that is seamlessly connected from beginning to end. Unified commerce provides an all-encompassing view into inventory availability and locations across warehouses, distribution centers, and channels. With one system, retailers can assess stock levels across channels in real time and compare current data with historical inventory data to get a better understanding of inventory trends and patterns. This analysis helps retailers conduct more accurate forecasting and demand planning, vital elements for a profitable supply chain.

2. Shoppers no longer accept one-size-fits-all service. Personalization rules customer engagement.

Today’s digitally savvy customers are more knowledgeable and connected than ever before. They can look up competing retailers and compare their offerings within seconds. They can make a purchase with the click of a smartphone button. They can broadcast their satisfaction (or displeasure) to social media followers and influence the opinions of an entire network. Today’s customer is able to quickly discern what’s worth their time and attention, and ultimately, their hard-earned cash.

The key to winning the loyalty of these astute and selective customers is by providing an outstanding personalized shopping experience across channels. According to Forrester Research, 77% of consumers have recommended or paid more for a brand that provides personalized experiences, or chosen that company because of those services. Retailers that deliver service tailored to customer needs and wants can provide recommendations and support in line with customer desires at each stage of their buying journey – and thus are better positioned to guide the customer to final checkout.

How Unified Commerce Helps:

Unified commerce enriches the in-store shopping and service experience by consolidating customer data across channels into a single view and making it accessible to store associates through the mobile point of sale devices they use to engage. Equipped with information on a customer’s multi-channel transactions, preferences, and desires, a store associate can deliver the relevant, one-on-one personalized service that turns browsing into purchasing.

3. Beacon technology will continue to redefine outreach to shoppers.

Going hand-in-hand with providing an outstanding in-store experience, retailers are deploying innovative new technologies that engages customers on their terms, on the devices they use, and in the locations they shop. According to a survey conducted by Euclid Analytics on consumers’ holiday shopping behaviors, 53% of respondents said they would welcome digital experiences in the form of receiving the store’s best deals and sales, and 36% with quick access to the retailer’s loyalty program information.

Beacon technology is one such tool that connects to customers through a digital channel and a physical channel – at the exact same time. With beacon technology, a beacon installed in the retail store detects a customer’s smartphone within the vicinity of the store, and sends a message to that customer’s phone (provided that the customer opted in to the app/beacon program in the first place). So, if a customer is walking by the store, the customer will receive the message on their smartphone.

The message that the beacon sends is entirely customizable by the retailer – it can promote a new sale or special offer or alert the customer of new products. Beacons can also be placed in different parts of the store and trigger messages tailored to products or special offers in that section.

How Unified Commerce Helps:

Unified commerce aggregates customer data and interactions across different business areas – from the loyalty program, to the ecommerce store, to the brick-and-mortar location. This business intelligence transforms from being a tool that analyzes the past, to a tool that helps retailers predict and plan for future customer preferences and behaviors. With this insight, retailers are better able to develop the beacon messages and special offers that are attuned to customer desires, thus leading to higher sales conversions.

4. The lines between brick-and-mortar and online will blur as a seamless shopping experience will no longer be merely an expectation, but a requirement.

Digital communication is rapidly becoming the predominant form of connection, as digital channels offer a wealth of information at a person’s fingertips, helping them to learn and find answers effortlessly.

Ecommerce enables retailers to stake their claim in this digital world, providing them unprecedented opportunities for reaching new customers and growing business. And with unified commerce, no longer must retailers think of ecommerce as a completely separate entity from the brick-and-mortar store. Instead, the online store and the physical store are both extensions of the customer experience, offering an additional means for customers to engage while simultaneously strengthening both channels that the retailer operates in.

Click-and-collect, the process in which a customer can purchase a product in an online channel and pick that product up in a physical retail location, is a prime example of a service that unites both the online and the brick-and-mortar experience. According to the ICSC’s study on recent holiday consumer shopping trends, nearly one-third of shoppers opted to purchase their products online and pick them up in-store.

How Unified Commerce Helps:

Retailers are not the only ones who receive greater insight when an ecommerce channel is seamlessly integrated with the other retail systems. In addition to click-and-collect options, unified commerce delivers important visibility and self-service capabilities to customers striving for more control over their shopping experience.

For instance, a unified commerce platform helps the customer to see up-to-date pricing and inventory availability at all times. Integration with order and financial data also provides customers a record of all their shopping activities across channels. Purchases, returns, or exchanges that have occurred in the brick-and-mortar store or online shop are all available for perusal in a single, self-service view.

5. Online customers want the same immediate gratification that brick-and-mortar shopping offers.

The quicker a product gets into the hands of the customer, the quicker the sale is sealed – which sets up the potential for more sales in the near future. Brick-and-mortar, of course, offers the advantage of immediacy, with customers able to take home the product they buy in-store right away – no waiting, no anticipation of delivery.

On the other hand, a customer must usually wait at least two days for the merchandise they bought online to arrive, in addition to paying shipping and delivery fees on top of the product cost. In a survey by Deloitte, 96% of U.S. consumers consider same-day or next-day delivery to be fast, compared with only 63% feeling the same way about three- or four-day shipping.

While same-day or next-day fulfillment may not be feasible from a logistical standpoint for some retailers, setting up the brick-and-mortar store as a mini-fulfillment center helps expedite order processing and delivery by integrating the digital experience with the physical. Offering services such as click-and-collect (as discussed in the previous point), as well as the ability to return and exchange online purchases at a brick-and-mortar location, help customers get what they want, when they want it.

How Unified Commerce Helps:

Unified commerce simplifies the transition of the physical store into mini-fulfillment center by fusing customer transaction history insight with store inventory visibility.

For instance, returns management is one such critical component that unified commerce accelerates. While customers enjoy the convenience that online shopping offers, it can be far less convenient when they need to return or exchange a product. Getting packaging, printing out return labels, using the right carrier to ship the item back, and then waiting for the new item or the cash back to be applied can be a hassle that many customers don’t want to deal with.

Unified commerce makes returns much easier (for both the retailer and the customer) with the ability to accept and process returns at a brick-and-mortar location for items purchased online. Since the ERP, point of sale (POS), and online store are all connected within the unified commerce framework, a store associate can simply look up the customer through the POS, see the purchase that was made through the online store, and then proceed with the refund or replacement.

6. Mobile payments will be critical to retailer brand perception as an influential, tech-friendly millennial customer base grows.

As people continue to put more personal data on their phones, digital payments are increasingly becoming the go-to payment option. Mobile payments offer checkout immediacy as they occur the moment a customer clicks the payment app icon, while the time it takes for a POS system to authorize and process a chip credit card is several seconds longer. While that doesn’t sound like much, time is precious for the omni-channel consumer.

In addition to mobile payments saving time, mobile payments represent a larger impact on a retailer’s brand. Retailers who aren’t on board with the latest innovative technology risk appearing outdated and irrelevant – a major concern as a new, younger generation of buyers prefer modern technology and will expect businesses to keep pace. According to an Accenture survey, 40% of overall have used their phone to make a mobile payment That figure jumps to 52% for millennials.

How Unified Commerce Helps:

The flexible architecture of a Cloud unified commerce platform helps set a solid foundation for interfacing with innovative mobile technology. A Cloud unified commerce model breaks down traditional credit card processing siloes, streamlining the payment experience by consolidating multi-channel financial and transaction data, and enables retailers to seamlessly interface with new mobile technology. Keeping data and processes together provides the visibility retailers need to better understand customer-facing areas of the business that can be optimized.

7. The checkout line isn’t just a means to an end – it is an opportunity to connect with, and delight, customers at the conclusion of their buying journey.

Nobody wants to be kept waiting. The checkout line has long been the least-favorite part of many consumers’ shopping experience, with people dropping everything to avoid a long line – and usually not come back. An Omnico Group study found that more than 77% of Americans would be less likely to return to a store if they experienced long checkout lines.

Retailers who transform checkout from a necessary evil into an opportunity to create a positive connection with the customer, give customers one more reason to return.

How Unified Commerce Helps:

Powerful BI and analytics tools help a retailer better assess checkout activities and patterns – from peak checkout traffic, to average order processing time, to customer checkout preferences, and so on. New, unified commerce-optimized business management platforms offer built-in BI and analytics tools that enable retailers to analyze the data they need, all in one system. No longer do additional IT investments need to be made for standalone BI and analytics tools. These capabilities are already embedded within the unified commerce platform, and available for business users to leverage.

8. Knowledgeable, helpful store associates will be an important sales driver as customers still seek a human connection.

Supportive, friendly staff aren’t simply a cost of doing business – they are dynamic factors in the difference between sustained sales conversions and store abandonment. Even in this digital age of 24/7 ecommerce access and quick answers, customers still crave human expertise and assistance during their shopping experience. Retailers that empower their sales associates with the tools – and the mindset – for cultivating personal relationships with customers help turn those customers into loyal brand advocates.

In a report by TimeTrade, it was found that 90% of consumers leave a store without purchasing anything when they can’t find the right person to assist them, while 93% are likely to buy when helped by a knowledgeable associate. In addition, 85% would buy more when helped by a knowledgeable associate. Retailers also understand the importance that sales associates have on the bottom line, as of the 60 major retailers that TimeTrade surveyed, 80% noted that sales increase by 25-50% when shoppers are assisted by knowledgeable retail associates.

9. Virtual and augmented reality will drive the immersive shopping experiences that customers anticipate.

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) offer unique experiences as part of the customer’s experiential shopping journey. VR enables users to enter a computer-generated 3D simulation or environment using a headset. AR differs slightly from VR in that it takes existing reality and incorporates computer-generated enhancements. Both VR and AR, however, provide retailers with a unique opportunity for incorporating futuristic, differentiated elements that take the in-store experience into entirely new realms of engagement.

How Unified Commerce Helps:

To build a high-tech, ultramodern VR/AR experience that advances both the company brand and its products, a retailer must first understand – and anticipate – customer preferences and shopping activities. Predictive analytics are crucial in helping retailers analyze customer data across operations, and using this data, forecast future outcomes.

Predictive analytics can help companies identify customer patterns and trends in business activities, and better determine results they are projected to achieve. Predictive analytics are used across functions, such as for forecasting annual sales revenue, the popularity of specific products at different times of the year, inventory levels by month, etc. Armed with this data, retailers can develop the VR/AR experiences that capitalize on popular trends, and appeal to customer wishes and curiosity.

Microsoft Dynamics 365: The Next-Generation Cloud Unified Commerce Platform

A retailer’s business depends on the customer experience. Fiercer competition for customer wallet share is rising; new competitors are popping up across channels; new shopping outlets (both digital and brick-and-mortar) are appealing to customers’ changing preferences.

Retailers that deliver a differentiated, customer-centric experience will be the ones that take their business into the future. Developing and executing omni-channel strategies for effectively serving customers across channels has long been an important priority for the retail industry.

But now, the industry – and its customers – are moving beyond omni-channel, and retailers must align their businesses with this shift. Cloud unified commerce provides the operating model for retailers in search of the technology that will help them evolve.

An example of an innovative new platform designed with a unified commerce model in mind is Microsoft Dynamics 365. Microsoft Dynamics 365 is a Cloud-based platform of purpose-built business applications that centralize Sales, Customer Service, Operations and Marketing processes within a single system.

Business insight from these applications enables retailers to streamline processes and optimize operations across departments. Familiar Microsoft productivity tools – such as Microsoft Office 365, Microsoft Power BI, Cortana Intelligence, and Azure Machine Learning – are also provided within the Dynamics 365 instance, enabling employees to continue working with ease, with the tools they need to effectively do their work. In addition, an accessible ecosystem of industry apps provided by Microsoft Dynamics implementation partners offers retailers a wealth of options for tailoring and extending the platform to their needs.

Dynamics 365 also offers extensive data intelligence tools within the platform. Microsoft Power BI, Cortana Intelligence, and Azure Machine Learning allow users to easily create the dashboards, reports, and visualizations that collect and organize data in the ways that are most meaningful to their work. Users are able to improve productivity with powerful, real-time insights, and always stay up-to-date on the areas that require their attention most.

Microsoft Dynamics 365 is a unified commerce platform that remodels the way retailers connect their business. Dynamics 365’s applications provide the intuitive, user-friendly business tools that effectively manage processes across sales, marketing, and supply chain departments. These Cloud-based applications, which are fully accessible through the different devices employees use on a daily basis, deliver the data and analytics that attune employees to customer needs, desires and preferences.

For customer service is (and will continue to be) the driving force behind retail success. Retailers who offer a remarkable experience from beginning to end, no matter where or how a person shops, create the long-term customer loyalty that inevitably leads to long-term business profitability. Microsoft Dynamics 365 is the unified commerce platform that helps deliver on this promise.