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Is e-commerce the future of retail?

As online and in-store retailing converges with the growth of mobile networks, the daydream could become a reality. Via their smartphones, shoppers at retail stores will have the capability to check the Internet for online promotions, product descriptions and reviews by past customers. Meanwhile, online customers will have access to software that allows them to “try on” clothing, or discuss a buying decision with contacts on social networking sites.

New mobile capability, social networks and better analytics will play an important role in the future of the retail industry, according to speakers on a recent Wharton Retail Conference panel titled, ‘E-Commerce: Is It the Future of Retail?’ “Mobile will be a critical piece of retailing, even more so than shopping online,” said Dave Larkins, vice president of NetPlus Marketing in Conshohocken, Pa., and a co-creator of The Colony online boutique.

Mobile technology has not advanced to its full capability, Larkins noted, but continues to evolve due to expanded bandwidth and increasing consumer adoption of smartphones. As networks get better, it becomes easier for retailers to target customers based on where they live or shop, and to communicate with them in real time. Location-based social networks such as Foursquare, which essentially ask users to share their retail patterns with friends, are viewed as another way for brands to link to communities, he added.

The history and visibility of bricks-and-mortar stores helped retailers achieve immediate brand identification for new Internet ventures. But the support is now moving in the other direction, from the Internet to physical stores, said Kris Roberts, divisional merchandise manager of Target.com. She pointed out that consumers are eager to use mobile devices to inform in-store decisions because accessing online information on the spot is more convenient than having to research an item later via computer. “This brings the two [retail modes] together, and I think it will transform how people shop,” Roberts stated.

Cross Channels

Most retailers continue to view online customers and shoppers at physical stores as two separate entities, panelists said. Roberts noted that Minnesota-based Target is trying to develop “cross channels” that would link the offline and online experience, and reach consumers more effectively.

Mobile Matters

But she added that cross channeling is often an overused buzzword that presents many obstacles for retailers, including the need to update organizational systems to integrate in-store operations with Internet retailing. “We will need to see a generation or two of management changeover to really leverage the power [of cross-channeling].” Successful integration, said Larkins, will require top managers to embrace new technology systems.

“It begins with leadership,” he said. “It is all about philosophy and how much the C-level executives are going to embrace these channels as one.” Retail executives need to reduce divisions in their organizations and bring together people working in catalog, stores and online operations to create new added value. “It’s tricky,” noted Larkins.

“The point is to have everyone at the table thinking about things and not just in silos, from stores to online to mobile and social media, beginning [with] the idea process and the planning process and the thought process.”

Roberts suggested that the web is the ‘ultimate’ branding opportunity for companies because it is available anytime and anywhere. Buying an item in a store is a ‘primal’ experience that will never go away, she said, but online shopping can deliver new levels of information and convenience for consumers. Roberts predicted that as online retailers interact more with consumers, shoppers themselves will take a role in shaping brands.

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