Taking a digital dive with consumer focus


NEW YORK — The race is on to capture tomorrow’s click-and-pick shopper — that multichannel consumer who, with a click, wields her phone as an omniscient shopping tool and then either picks her product off the shelf or picks where that product will be waiting for her, be it at a nearby store or in her mailbox. 


It’s that kind of seamless shopping experience — expected to predominate how consumers interact with retail brands in the very near future — that’s driving many retailers toward melding their e-commerce and traditional retail divisions into one cohesive unit. Walmart.com SVP and general manager Steve Nave coined this concept the “continuous channel” last month at Nielsen’s Consumer 360 Conference, defined by how a consumer interacts with a retail or consumer packaged good brand as opposed to where a consumer interacts. “The gist of all this is basically us trying to figure out how [to] just take the customer and the retail brand — Walmart, in our case — and just let them [interact] however they want to interact with us,” Nave said. 


Walgreens certainly has been implementing that kind of customer-centric thinking into its multichannel strategy. Last month, the chain established a Web-enabled drive-through of sorts. Customers in the Chicago market shop online at Walgreens.com’s Web pickup, build a cart of any size and dollar amount, and then pick up their orders at a Walgreens store in less than one hour. The next phase of that program will include curbside pickup. 


Walgreens gave additional credence to that need to meld retail divisions just last month with the announcement of its Chicago Hometown Investment Initiative plan. Walgreens plans to create some 300 corporate jobs in its home market to help fuel the expansion of its overarching digital strategy, the company stated, including e-commerce, information technology and other digital support areas, such as folding the company’s recent acquisition of Drugstore.com into the Walgreens mix. 


A new report issued last month by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and PricewaterhouseCoopers attributed sales improvements across many consumer packaged goods companies to the significant number of investments those companies have been making into digital technology. And those multichannel strategies are beginning to branch beyond the consumer and to the employee. Put those kinds of tools into the hands of retail managers and customer service representatives on the ground level, and a whole new level of workforce productivity begins sprouting. Digital devices on the retail sales floor can help relocate more employees from behind a register to in front of the shelf to help influence their customers’ decision-making at the actual point of decision. 


That’s exactly how Rite Aid hopes to bridge the divide between the back bench and the front end. As part of the chain’s new Wellness concept store, the Pennsylvania retailer is dispatching its “Wellness ambassadors” out to the aisles to assist customers on finding the health-and-wellness products they need. In their hands, they’ll be carrying iPads with access to a large health information database. 


Specialty retailer MaxWellness, a Cleveland-based health-and-wellness chain, has been executing against a similar strategy for more than a year. Each location features “Max-Answers” information stations throughout the store. The Web-based tablets can either be picked up by Max-Wellness associate or directly placed in a customer’s hands for use right at the shelf of interest. 


“Today’s consumers are more empowered with greater control of their shopping choices with the growing array of digital technologies like smartphones, tablets and social media,” noted Susan McPartlin, retail and consumer industry leader for PwC. “And they aren’t shy about posting their feelings online about products, where they literally are handing over reams of potential insights that can create a tremendous opportunity for CPG companies that can find the patterns in the noise.” 


Kimberly-Clark’s VP business development, Anne Jones, helped place the still-developing multichannel retailing concept into two buckets: mobile commerce that gives consumers access to on-demand information, including promotions and coupons, and social commerce — or in other words, “Facebook commerce” — that gives companies a leg up in attracting a loyal customer base.

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