eCommerce has always been the channel left standing outside in the cold. The capabilities and connectability of ERP, Inventory Management and POS systems have led the majority of business decisions since day one. In most businesses, these systems were there first, and as a result, they housed the majority of the data any business had. There are some truly awful ERP systems out there, and even though the brand may loathe said system, they stick with it because they know it’ll be too difficult to migrate away. This would be fine if those systems operated in isolation, but they don’t. The rise of eCommerce and the expectations customers have of retail are forcing brands to rethink how they best serve customers and give them an experience that will stand out from their competitors.
I don’t want to talk about the operational struggles a retailer has with their various systems; there’s plenty of articles out there (and I don’t think anyone needs any more encouragement on the topic). However, I do want to talk about the importance of finding a way for these systems to work together to create a better experience for the customer, the end user, the person who trusts and likes your brand enough to give up their time, and money, to engage with you.
Operational considerations aside, these systems are hugely important in the overall experience we give our customers, especially as customers are demanding more choice in how and when they shop.
One of the biggest and most common issues we come across is inventory issues. There are a range of ways inaccurate or inconsistent inventory can affect the overall customer experience. I’ve outlined a few classic examples that most retail brands operating both physical stores and online would see everyday.
- A customer is looking for a new pair of sneakers online and after 25 mins, has found the pair they want to purchase. They go through the checkout, add their credit card, confirm the order and receive the order confirmation. The next day, they recieve an email from the retailer saying they can’t fulfil their order due to an ‘inventory issue’ and their order will need to refunded.
- A customer is looking for a dress to wear to an event that evening. They find one at a retail brand that has 4 stores across the city. They check the store stock availability online and decide to head down to the shop in their lunch break to purchase and take home right away. When they get there, they can’t find it on the rack so they ask one of the retail staff, who looks it up on the computer and says “strange, it says we have 5, but we can’t find any in the backroom”
In both these examples, there are plenty of possible reasons that the customer had a negative experience with the brand, but the most common issue is a lack of real time inventory data passing between their POS, ERP and eCommerce platforms. eCommerce thinks there is a dress in a store that was transferred out earlier that day or someone buys the same pair of sneakers at a similar time, and eCommerce wasn’t updated in time. Getting the basics right is essential if you want to keep customers happy. A seasoned customer who has purchased from you plenty of times with no issue may not be that upset about an inventory issue, but if that’s the first interaction a new customer has with your brand, imagine what they’re thinking?
The second issue that comes with ineffective integration between key business systems is the view the brand has of a customer. Do you know if a customer is just an online shopper, an in store customer, or swaps between them? Do you know their true value as a customer, or only the value they are worth to you online?
This notion of a ‘total customer view’ is becoming increasingly more important as more brands push further into the automation and loyalty spaces.
Imagine you were a once a fortnight shopper from a high end clothing boutique store. The retail staff knew you by name. You’ve shopped online once or twice but you much prefer to shop in store. You don’t know what POS system they’re running (because why would you?), but it happens to be an older, clunkier system that’s relatively disconnected from the eCommerce and marketing channels. The marketing manager at head office wants to hit the online sales budget for the month so they decide to send out a reactivation email to everyone who hasn’t purchased in 12 months, pushing them to the site with a cheeky discount code. The email subject reads “We haven’t seen you in a while and we want you back”. POS data doesn’t sync well to eCommerce or CRM so you are in the segment titled “Win Back Customers” and you get the email. You feel an odd feeling inside. You were in the boutique just the other day talking with Jemma and you spent $1,500 while you were there. Is this how they treat loyal customers?
The absolute mecca is that there is a real time, always up to date connection between POS and eCommerce channels. Having a more accurate picture of your customers will allow you to enhance the experience they have with your brand. Imagine being able to successfully run the following campaigns:
- Targeted reactivation campaigns based spend frequency or recency.
- Personalised browsing experiences based on ALL past purchase history.
- Reminding customers they can shop in any of your stores and return anything online if it didn’t fit
- Reminding your customers they can head in store to get style advice based on your recent online purchase
- Segmenting customers based on total customer spend and sending them more targeted communications based on their spend levels.
These campaigns require a total customer view. They can all be achieved without connected systems, but the data consolidation and cross checking required is immense (and you really need to trust your data before you push ‘send’).
Discount codes, gift vouchers and loyalty vouchers are the bane of many brands existence, and make for the third issue that comes from disconnected systems. They aren’t a burden on brands because they don’t want to offer them, but because it’s too difficult to give customers the experience they expect when it comes to these basic retail functions. Think back to how many times you see gift vouchers for sale online that can only be used online, despite the brand having an extensive retail network. What about loyalty programmes that are only valid in store, but not through eCommerce?
The complexity around gift vouchers playing nice across physical and digital is due to two key reasons:
- Some systems will not allow another system to create, modify or delete a gift voucher via API
- Some systems can’t tell the other system that a gift voucher has been used, at all, or in a timely manner.
You can imagine the issues that can come with these two scenarios (and we’ve seen both plenty of times).
A lot of brands state that the gift voucher only works in store (where the voucher was created) but not online. They don’t say why, but in most cases, this is due to POS not being able to send this data to eCommerce. Customers have an assumption that if they have a gift voucher with a store, which is effectively the same as cash, they should be able to spend it where they want. Now we’ve given our customers a bad experience because we can’t get our systems to pass this key information between each other in what to them, seems like a basic function.
Alternatively, some brands do get these working together, so voucher information is passing between POS and eCommerce. However, if you had some crafty customers, they could go in store and use their gift voucher on a purchase, then immediately head online and try their luck again. There are thousands of websites out there where that voucher would most likely work again, and they would score a second purchase on the same voucher. In this case, the POS system isn’t telling eCommerce immediately to update/disable that gift voucher, giving those crafty customers the option to ‘double dip’.
These key areas are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what retail brands could do with tighter integration. Click and collect, store to door, returns and a raft of other key retail functions could be expanded on to match the customer experience you want to give if things worked a bit better.
We believe that enough is enough. Customers are demanding these features and that demand is only going to increase as more brands take the plunge and force their systems to work better for their business. If your systems aren’t playing nice together, not only are you creating unnecessary workflows internally, but you are putting roadblocks in between your customers and them engaging with you brand.
How can you solve this? Start small, think about the one thing you would love to be able to do for your customers and work to get that implemented. Full blown integration can be pricey, especially if the systems are older and more difficult to get data in and out of. Maybe the key thing you really want to be able to offer customers is real time stock levels from stores pulling the from POS API (to ensure their accuracy) - great, start there and measure the response! Once you’ve got a handle on how that’s working (trust us, it does), move down to the next priority on the list. Before you know it, you’ll be giving your customers the experience they deserve. Here’s the typical stages of integration that will lead to a fantastic customer experience:
Stage 1 - One-way integration
Every POS or ERP system has the ability to export the inventory in some form of report. It only needs to be basic; SKU and current stock count in most cases. We can take that report, usually in a CSV or XML format, and use it to update eCommerce. This is the most basic form of integration and is often a life saver. If you can, you might want to consider a pricing sync into this one as well. Will keep things nice and tidy around sales and new product releases.
Stage 2 - Basic 2-way Integration
We then introduce Order Integration as this is the next biggest pain point for retailer brands. This step ensures orders are fulfilled on time and, for those running in-store fulfillment, ensures that products that are sold online don’t get re-sold in-store again.
In order to have a full "two-way integration" where orders are sent down to the POS or ERP system, we need to use FTP update, or ideally API where possible depending on your system. If we go down an FTP route, we need to build some fail safes in for when the import inevitably fails (and doesn’t tell anyone it’s not running anymore).
Stage 3 - Product Integration
The next step is to introduce the ability to create products in your ERP or POS and not have to do the same again in eCommerce. We recommend we make your ERP/POS the source of truth, and push all key data up to eCommerce. This data includes:
- Promotion/Sale price
- Product Name/Title
- Product Type
- Key tags/attributes
Once the core product is created in eCommerce, additional rich information can be added directly into eCommerce including high resolution imagery, cross sells, additional tags and merchandising.
Stage 4 - Customer Integration
This is where things can get messy, creating and ensuring a single customer account between eCommerce, ERP and POS.
For those who have existing customers in both ERP/POS and eCommerce, we will need to work through your data and create a list of customers that exist in both systems and those who only exist in one. We then create that customer in either system to get a 1-to-1 match. From there, we ensure all customers created in either system are also created in the other system. This forms the base of a single source of truth for customer data which we then can start introducing loyalty, online/offline gift vouchers, and more comprehensive customer segmentation. This is also a baseline for beginning to support your wholesale customers in a much more comprehensive way. Think automated reminders and suggestions, cross sells, new product launches etc.
The shift to interconnected systems in inevitable. Why not lead the charge and create a truly amazing cross-channel experience that sets you apart and leave it to your competitors to play catch up when they finally catch on.
We work with a range of ERP, Inventory Management and POS systems to build custom integrations that allow our customers to give their customers the experience they deserve.