It’s fair to say that ecommerce in 2021 is far more streamlined than it was ten or even two years ago. The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed online shopping from merely a convenience to a necessity. As a result, shopper expectations have never been higher.
In fact, over half (51%) of customers say most businesses fall short of their expectations for a great customer experience. 51%!
But it’s not as simple as 49% of merchants being amazing, and 51% not making any effort. This is an expression of the mismatch between what brands are prioritizing and what customers want.
The truth is that customers don’t care about physical retail, or even about digital shopping channels – at least not in the way many ecommerce and retail executives are thinking about it. They care about the ‘me’ channel.
In this post, we’ll define and discuss the ‘me’ channel, and advise on how brands can create this customer-centered experience with real-time inventory management.
What is the ‘me’ channel?
The ‘me’ channel refers to the perceived place of the customer in today’s omnichannel retail environment: right at the center of the shopping experience.
Where customers once had to fit into a retailer’s operation by shopping at defined times or waiting weeks for online orders to be delivered, they now expect everything to be seamless and designed with their convenience in mind.
This is backed up by numerous studies demonstrating how customer experience (CX) has fast become the strongest competitive differentiator in ecommerce. A Walker study predicted that by the end of 2020, CX will overtake price and product as the biggest differentiator for brands.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw this shift towards CX accelerate. Consumers reported being more willing than ever before to experiment with new brands and products - a clear sign of how upheaval in the marketplace is creating optimum conditions for setting new expectations.
Today’s consumers want to shop whenever, wherever, and however they choose - and they expect brands and retailers to facilitate this.
When consumers are no longer basing brand loyalty on who can offer the cheapest price or the biggest product selection, merchants are forced to rethink their value proposition.
In 2022, it’s the brands that remove friction from key touch points in the customer journey and create new, memorable experiences that will emerge as the winners.
How? By focusing on seamless omnichannel experiences and inventory management.
The cost of not investing in omnichannel connectivity
Coordinating seamless omnichannel retail is a tall order for any merchant, but especially for emerging brands that don’t have the same resources as the Amazons of the world. However, there’s a far bigger cost to not investing in omnichannel connectivity at a time when customers see themselves at the center of the retail ecosystem.
As these stats show, preventing customers from being able to switch seamlessly between shopping channels can have some major consequences for merchants:
- 46% of CX managers surveyed for CX Network's Digital Customer Experience 2021 cited ‘data silos’ are being their biggest CX challenge.
- In their future of CX report, PwC surveyed 15,000 consumers and found that one in three customers will leave a brand they trust after just one negative experience.
- In the Forbes Insights Report, 74% of consumers said they are somewhat likely to buy based on experience alone.
As we mentioned above, consumers no longer care whether you’re a direct-to-consumer brand or a legacy retailer. They have no interest in where you ship from or how you fulfill their order; they care about getting what they want when they want it.
Unlocking the 'me' channel with real-time inventory management
If there’s one word that sums up the ‘me’ channel, it’s flexibility.
When consumers want to shop at any time, anywhere, your inventory needs to be where your customer is. It also needs to be visible at all times so that you have the ability to make customer-centered decisions on where, when, and how your orders are being fulfilled.
This is known as real-time inventory management. Without it, it’s impossible to achieve convenient, hassle-free shopping journeys for your customers.
If you cannot answer basic questions on where your inventory is, how much you have, or what inventory is being used to fulfill what orders, you’re looking at the following problems:
- Insufficient inventory to fulfill customer orders
- Frequent split shipments that drive up fulfillment costs
- Expensive, multi-zone shipping rates
- Excess inventory accumulating unchecked
What does real-time inventory management enable you to do?
1. Hybrid fulfillment
Merchants and retailers love geeking out about their selling and marketing channels - online stores, social media, third-party marketplaces, store locations - the list goes on.
But it’s important to be aware that while you may view your operation as a grouping of individual channels, your customer does not.
To them, it makes no difference whether they’re shopping through your ecommerce store or via your latest Instagram post. All they see are different facets of a unified brand identity - and they expect to be able to switch seamlessly between them.
This is why being unable to return a product in-store that was bought online, or not having access to a click and collect service, causes immense frustration for customers. They have to inconvenience themselves to reach the desired outcome - simply because a brand’s inventory management strategy is not up to scratch
Real-time, unified inventory management opens the door to a range of hybrid fulfillment options that streamline the customer experience, including:
- BOPIS (Buy Online, Pick-Up In-Store)
- BORIS (Buy Online, Return (or exchange) In-Store)
- ROPIS (Reserve Online, Pick-Up In-Store)
- Buy in-store for home delivery e.g. “showrooming”
In sum, siloed inventory and fulfillment are some of the biggest barriers to a smooth customer experience. It also results in lost opportunities to entice customers into brick and mortar stores for further sales activity; nearly half (49%) of consumers have made an additional purchase when picking up a BOPIS order.
2. Tailor-made shopping experiences
Although inventory management is usually thought of as a ‘back end’ concern, it plays a critical role in giving shoppers the information they need to make informed purchasing decisions and tap into the ‘me’ channel.
Giving consumers access to real-time inventory information when shopping online enables them to see whether their chosen product is available, and if so, whether they need to hurry up and purchase due to low stock levels.
Showing current inventory levels for each store location means that shoppers can avoid wasted trips. In fact, 80% of consumers are less inclined to visit a store location when the website doesn’t provide information on product availability.
But there’s more to real-time inventory levels than just offering transparency. For example, you can ensure that personalized recommendations reflect products that are actually available, or even leverage product scarcity to drive buyer urgency as shown here by Sephora:
In fact, superior inventory visibility opens up all kinds of opportunities to help customers take charge of their shopping experience.
If you sell products that customers will need to replace at regular intervals, why not offer a replenishment service for additional convenience? Another option is to implement a ‘try before you buy’ strategy using a unified system like ours at TryNow, which enables your customers to order items for free on a trial basis with the option to return if they aren’t suitable. With real-time inventory management, returns and trial periods are a breeze to manage.
3. Multi-node fulfillment
By design, hybrid fulfillment strategies have raised the stakes as consumers push for faster, more seamless delivery and pick-up timeframes. Expectations for same-day delivery services have soared during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the percentage of consumers thinking same-day delivery is important increasing from 33% in 2020 to 56% in 2022.
So, how can merchants meet this demand without seeing their shipping costs spiral out of control?
Multi-node or decentralized fulfillment is when a retailer uses more than one facility to fulfill customer orders. These are usually at strategic locations that are close to large hubs of consumers, helping to minimize shipping costs and transit times. When an order is placed, it’s allocated to the warehouse that can fulfill the order in the fastest timeframe.
By positioning your inventory at optimum locations within your fulfillment network, you can meet consumer expectations for rapid delivery.
For example, you could consider using sales data to position your most popular SKUs for home delivery within regional hubs. Another option is transforming stores or affiliated retailers into micro-fulfillment locations that can manage BOPIS and home delivery orders within a certain radius.
By decentralizing your inventory and order fulfillment process, you can speed up delivery and pick-up timeframes and increase customer satisfaction - boosting the odds of them coming back to shop with you again!
Achieving real-time inventory management
You know why your inventory management strategy is important and how real-time visibility enhances the customer experience. But how do you actually achieve it as a merchant?
In our experience, partnering with an experienced omnichannel fulfillment provider like Whiplash gives your business the technological support it needs to make real-time inventory management a reality.
We sat down and asked specifically how they can help merchants:
Manage your entire inventory from one interface. The Whiplash platform makes it easy to search and filter all the SKUs in your database. Configure custom notifications for when inventory levels hit or are close to your reorder point, ensuring you never find yourself without enough units to fulfill orders.
Seamless integrations with your ecommerce platform. Access to advanced two-way integrations with all major ecommerce platforms including Shopify, ensuring that your inventory levels are updated every time a sale or a return is made through your store.
Set up multiple warehouse locations and Routing Rules. Set up multiple fulfillment sites through your Whiplash dashboard. Our Geolocation tool will automatically allocate new orders to the facility closest to your customer. Set custom Routing Rules to route orders involving certain SKUs to specific warehouses for the ultimate control over inventory management and order fulfillment