Courts' CEO on pushing a retail business online

The rapid development of technology and platforms has mobilised change in the retail landscape, disrupting the environment with the proliferation of e-commerce, as well as increasingly savvy and discerning consumers who are agile in their shopping journey.

According to Google’s recently released Consumer Barometer report, Asia is eclipsing the West as a ‘mobile-first’ region, fuelled by its spiralling smartphone penetration and adoption rates. Consumers are infusing connectivity and the ‘Internet of Things’ into almost every aspect of their lifestyle, from communication to research and shopping, and this trend is on an upward trajectory with no signs of decelerating.

The digital revolution is well on its way, and Asia is indeed leading the pack with online spending across Southeast Asia predicted to hit US$35 billion by 2020, according to a recent report by investment bank UBS.

Brick-and-mortar retailers must adapt and innovate to this new dynamic or risk being obsolete. Being channel-agnostic is no longer effective, and retailers cannot ignore the many new customer touch points that transcend traditional retail boundaries. The new reality is that the customer journey is no longer linear, and customers are becoming more adept at utilising different channels at different stages of their shopping experience. It is critical to create an omni-channel experience for customers, allowing them to glide seamlessly between online and offline, where they are able to research, deliberate and make the final decision interchangeably either in the physical or online store.

In this regard, retailers with physical stores have the necessary resources and infrastructure to integrate online with the shopping experience; thus distinctly differentiating themselves from a pure-play online retailer.

In the late 1990s, we launched a website that had transactional capabilities, and developed it into a full-fledged online store in 2008. We then launched the second iteration of our online store in October 2012 with 7,000 product offerings then that has since grown to more than 15,000 today. According to UBS, our online store is currently the 9th largest shopping site in Singapore based on monthly traffic, and we are the top multi-channel retailer in the country.

Self-help digital kiosks in-store, Click & Collect counters, QR codes, mobile apps, and free WiFi in-stores – these are some of the ways technology has breathed new life into our physical stores, creating a more connected and personalised experience for customers. Depending on the customer’s preference, these channels can work independently or together at any part of the shopper journey, from product research and price comparisons, to fulfillment and payment.

As the stores embrace this new demand, so too must our workforce. It is vital that our multi-channel journey is supported by all facets of the business. Online should not be perceived as a threat to physical stores, and we have implemented internal processes that circumvent this, such as postcode ownership for physical stores that includes both online and offline sales, and internal reporting that reflects the mindset shift.

In addition, our staff on the sales floor has undergone training and upgraded their skills for a tech-infused environment that is customer-oriented. They are now equipped with tablets, giving them more mobility and the ability to process and transact on-the-spot orders. They are able to pull up information at the tap of a finger to answer or clarify any customer queries immediately, as well as process payments directly on the tablet.

Logistics and inventory are also key components in ensuring offline and online can grow and excel together in offering superior customer experiences. A retailer with a physical presence will already have existing infrastructure that can scale up to integrate and support online activity, such as in supply chain, inventory, processing, marketing, customer relationship management, delivery and customer service. Our stores serve as additional fulfilment centres with the development of a common product information system. Moreover, GPS tracking has been integrated into our delivery trucks, allowing customers instantaneous updates on when they can expect their deliveries.

Nonetheless, we have observed that customers still crave the personal touch, evident by the growing preference to ‘ROPO’ (Research Online, Purchase Offline), especially for the latest or higher priced products, and the fact that half of our online customers prefer to pick up their purchases from our Click & Collect counters in-store. Our stores are also where we create meaningful engagement with our customers in the form of exceptional in-store experiences, so there is more pressure for us to ensure our stores remain relevant and exciting. Stores are our showroom for products, so it is critical to create an immersive and engaging shopping environment supported by store theatre to entice shoppers not only to purchase in-store, but also explore our online offerings.

In the long run, e-commerce has opened the door to endless possibilities, where physical barriers are non-existent and a retailer can expand beyond its traditional categories and reach a wider local and global audience. It is indeed an exciting time for retail today, spurred by a market energised by digital innovation, consumer empowerment and the confluence of old and new touchpoints.

The writer is Terry O’Connor, group CEO of Courts Asia