Know Where Customers Are Going

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Journalists and analysts have called the race between multichannel and Internet-only retailers play by play for several years, giving highlights and statistics of who has the advantage.


But retailers, caught up in the colorful commentary and straining to see another competitor carried off the field, have missed the big picture: It is not a race of dot-coms against bricks-and-clicks; it is a race for customers. Regardless of whether your company's origins are in the virtual world or the real one, you are racing toward a common goal that can be achieved only by meeting consumers where they want to be.


Turn awareness into action.


Following the siphoning of dot-com ad spending, this fall brought a surge of direct mail into our homes -- in the form of postcards, gift books and catalogs.


While these tactics are less expensive and more targeted, they will be more effective only if they are used to spur action. Simply getting your brand in front of consumers in one more venue will not be enough; you have to show them an easier, cheaper or more convenient way to find and get what they want.


RedEnvelope mailed cards in celebration of its first anniversary, offering customers 20 percent off their next purchase. Cooking.com sent a catalog from which customers could order directly via phone or fax, in addition to the Web site.


Make accessibility about options.


While e-commerce -- which allowed consumers to shop 24/7 from their homes -- was a major breakthrough, it is not the final frontier of accessibility.


Years ago, accessibility was about finding a McDonald's at every freeway exit. Location, location, location is still the appropriate battle cry, but it is less about where the retailer is and more about where the customer is or wants to be.


Years from now, we will have several more channels through which we can shop with conveniences that we cannot yet contemplate. What is important about different types of access is that they give consumers options.


Consumers do not live on their computers, so around-the-clock online shopping may not always be the best answer. Provide a physical presence for immediate gratification. Or provide a direct mail option they can flip through and order from when they have to sit in a doctor's office surrounded by 6-month-old copies of Redbook and Sports Illustrated. Or provide a virtual presence they click through at 6 a.m. before the children are awake. Or provide a wireless presence for when they are on the go.


Build loyalty around your brand, not your channel.


Consumers' channel preferences will come and go and come again -- it could depend on the weather, the life stage or the day's schedule. Do not corral consumers into one medium. Rope them into your brand and you will keep them longer. The mall, the Web or a catalog may appeal one day more than the next for myriad reasons. But brands become part of people's lives. Once people become brand shoppers, they will access the most appropriate channel for that moment -- to buy the brand.


Leverage other channels, don't compete with them. We are nearing the saturation point, after which there no longer will be a few million newbies to count on winning around the bend of each holiday season. Start making the most of the customers who are out there, regardless of your channel origins or current focus.


Don't suffer from your own channel bias; you need to integrate or overlap with other channels. It does not have to mean building an infrastructure from scratch in every venue. Create partnerships to share inventory, like MVP.com and Galyan's, or to share customers, like eToys and Gap Kids.


Many channels, tightly integrated, not one that stands alone.


With few exceptions, one channel will cease to dominate the retail market. While two years ago Web stores were the hottest thing, now it is wireless, but even that fire will fade fast as the next technological platform is adopted. Don't spend all your efforts trying to win a channel.


Skillful vigilance wins the race.


You need to continue to watch each medium evolve and leverage it appropriately for your customers, but just as the channels change, so do your customers' needs, interests, routines and schedules. The key is to act fast enough to be where consumers are today and be nimble enough to get to where they want to be tomorrow.


• Karen Scholl is associate editor of research services at Resource Marketing Inc., Columbus, OH. Reach her at kscholl@resource.com.
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