Split the retail sector in half and you'll find two contrasting narratives.
One concerns the online world where sales are rising month on month, with an ever-increasing pool of tech-savvy customers waiting to hand over their cash to purchase laptops, tablets and smartphones.
The other covers the high street. Once a thriving hub of activity and prosperity, it has now become littered with struggling brands and big names that have entered administration.
But the so-called death of the high street isn't necessarily the foregone conclusion to this story, because technology can provide this sector with a much-needed boost.
"Omni-channel" is the current buzzword in the retail sector. But look beyond the hype and you'll find an incredibly important concept: the idea of developing and enabling a seamless and consistent customer experience, regardless of the channel the consumer may choose to use for interaction.
This concept certainly crosses into the realms of branding and marketing; however, it can be realised only through the effective use of technology, incorporating a robust back-end system with a user-friendly front end. And this stuff is the bread and butter of the IT channel.
With this is mind, we can now approach the issue of the struggling high street. The first thing I want to discuss here is that it's important to analyse why the online world is flourishing, as opposed to bricks and mortar.
Shopping online is relatively easy. Consumers can order items with the click of a button, regardless of where they are in the world. Crucially, it is often a personalised experience.
This means that if the consumer returns to a retailer's website, the company has recorded and therefore "knows" his or her preferences. The consumer can be sent targeted and relevant offers, and regular visitors may be rewarded with giveaways or bonuses.
This is one area where the high street is seriously lacking. Customers who take a trip to the shops are anonymous in comparison to those who choose to visit the equivalent store online.
Store loyalty cards have enabled retailers to profile and then try to entice customers back into their shops, but this is only ever done retrospectively after the shopper has already completed their in-store experience.
To remedy this, the high street needs to incorporate the personalisation element of the online world into its real-world stores. Currently, the most effective way to do this is by using the internet itself and setting up wireless networking within shops. When a customer connects in-store, he or she can then be matched up with their online account.
The benefits of this? Retailers can track each customer's offline activity as well as their online purchases, and push personalised messages to shoppers based on their apparent preferences.
If a consumer walks into a shop, he or she may be sent a message, for example, directing them to the third floor where they may find the jeans looked at online - in that customer's size.
If the customer then decides to buy the jeans, he or she may get a message offering a free drink at the store's café. And while the customer drinks his or her coffee, he or she may be sent another message offering a discount on shoes to complement the jeans.
Some retailers and shopping centres are already doing this sort of thing very effectively, but there is a lot more work to be done in the sector. That's where the opportunity lies for the channel.
David Astley is national sales manager at Imerja
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