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As a company, Apple ploughs its own furrow. It has been a hugely successful innovator in terms of its business model and service delivery, re-inventing the way we interact with mobile devices and consume music. So it’s a surprise that the company ends up mid-table in our recent Retail Ecommerce Report. Why hasn’t a company that prides itself on providing the services and technology people crave, that commands such devotion and respect, not trumped the likes of John Lewis and Marks and Spencer. The short answer is that it performs brilliantly on some guidelines and poorly on others.

Some may argue that Apple operates by a different rule book, that their unique way of doing business can’t be judged by conventional guidelines. However, the report investigates the experience of buying and interacting with the brand across multiple channels, rather than the desirability of their products or the persuasion of their brand. The unusual level of corporate good will towards Apple products might outweigh some negative aspects of the experience of buying them, but that’s not to say that improvements can’t be made.

Here is an overview of our findings of Apple’s multichannel customer experience:

  • Mobile customer experience:

As you’d expect, the company excels with its mobile Apple Store app. It opts to put its effort into an app rather than bothering with a mobile-optimised site, which makes sense given its business imperative to steer consumers towards its unique platform for apps. However, it could do more to point customers towards the app. The retailer Next, for example, gives a choice between the app and a mobile site when customers search the web for the company on a mobile device. Apple just loads a site that isn’t optimised for mobile which is not best practice.

  • Cross-channel Mobile and In-store  customer experience:

What really stands out though is the way the company integrates the app with an in-store experience. With the app you can make reservations to join workshops or get 1-to-1 technical help. The design of the app is in tune with the mobile context of its use – ‘I’m out and about, I want to try out the new iPhone, where’s the nearest store, I can be there in an hour, let’s make an appointment…’

  • In-store customer experience:

This leads to the other genius aspect of the Apple retail experience. Apple Stores aren’t really like stores at all. They’re places to admire and try out Apple products. They’re more like demo spaces at slick trade fair stands, or the interactive areas of a science museum. At one

level this helps position them as places of consumer worship where devotees can queue up for product releases and place half-eaten apple cores at the shrine of Steve Jobs. At another level, it’s offering a successful and practical customer experience – lots of eager, knowledgeable Apple geek staff who can’t wait to answer your questions about the products. You can buy there if you want, but the idea is really to get you hooked with no pressure to buy straight away. They’re expensive, luxury items after all – so maybe you need some time to think about it… Apple stores make a confident statement that the shopping experience can be new and different.

So what is going wrong for Apple’s cross-channel customer experience?

Perhaps the way the stores are set up explains why the company didn’t do so well with the multi-channel aspects of flexible customer service. The report examines how easy it is to buy something online and return it in-store. Apple Stores wouldn’t allow me to return the lower value item I bought via the website. The bemused manager claimed it was because they didn’t stock the item in the store. But the stocking policy of the store is of little concern to the consumer. Perhaps it’s possible to return an iPad or an iPhone, but it shows the stores aren’t really designed with the more day to day transaction of money and goods in mind. Perhaps this is due to business prioritisation, or maybe it’s an oversight.

There are other aspects of the experience that don’t match up to the performance of other companies.

  • The lack of ways to manage product search results on the website. It’s true that the site sells only Apple products so perhaps search functionality isn’t that important. But a search for ‘iPhone’ yields 99 results with lots of choice combinations on colour and memory capacity but no sort or filter options to help customers drill down to the right product.
  • And, curiously, while the app does a great job of showcasing the strengths of the physical stores, the website doesn’t - again against best practice multichannel retail.

Steve Jobs was famously obsessive about the details of all Apple’s offerings but the details seem to be missing. At the risk of incurring the wrath of Apple devotees, the verdict on Apple’s multi-channel retail experience is that it’s inconsistent.

What do you think? Should Apple be considered outside the realms of our retail customer experience report due to the nature of the brand? Or do you think that they have, in fact, forgotten some key aspects that matter to customers?

Leave us your thoughts in the comments below!

Images are from Apple’s Covent Garden store information or screen shots from Apple products.

As part of the multi-channel shopping experience analysis for this year’s Retail multichannel experience report (coming soon – watch our twitter feed for its release!) I evaluated how well companies make their customers aware of the different channels they do business through. So, for example, do high street bricks-and-mortar stores champion ecommerce channels or other ways of shopping?

A good example (shown in the image on the right) is from a Debenhams department store in Westfield shopping centre. Even if I don’t have access to a smart phone, by using these online shopping points in-store on every floor, I can scan items I don’t want to lug around with me, buy them online and have them delivered. It also draws attention to the rather good Debenhams online shopping experience.

Are there any more good examples of cross-channel publicity?

Boots scored quite well for this guideline too, but I can’t show any photos in evidence of this because when I attempted to take a picture of a cardboard stand that allows customers to order items in a Christmas catalogue I was approached by a very agitated security guard. He told me that taking pictures in the store wasn’t allowed and he wouldn’t let me leave the store until I’d deleted the photo. It was apparently against company policy. Actually, he ordered me very aggressively to delete other photos I’d taken in other stores thinking they were other images of Boots (although in a potentially foolhardy act of defiance I resisted that – never try to forcibly destroy a UX consultant’s data…)

A check of the law reveals that shops are strictly speaking private property, and there’s no general restriction on taking photos while on private property, provided the photographer has permission to be there. Presumably, members of the public have permission to be in shops. However, the owner has the right to impose whatever conditions he/she wishes on entry into the property, including a restriction on photography. But since Boots don’t publicise their no-photography policy it’s hard to understand how people would know about it until it was too late.

Does it matter if people take picture in stores?

So, why the draconian measures? I wasn’t given a reason but some companies could be sensitive about the theft of ideas, for example, someone taking a photo of a designer dress could be stealing information to make it on the cheap. Although, a cardboard gift-ordering stand hardly feels like the stuff of industrial espionage.

Does it matter? Well, camera phones are ubiquitous now, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that people will take photos if it’s useful to do so. If you’re in a shop and you’re not sure about a product, you can take a photo of it and email it straight away to get someone else’s opinion. If you can use a barcode scanner app or use QR codes to check the price of the same product elsewhere, why shouldn’t you be able to take a photo of the product number to do the check later? That’s just consumer power and potentially could work in favour of the retail industry so should perhaps be considered as a positive for increasing conversion, and should perhaps be encouraged.

Beware the influences that effect brand experience!

Now I come to the most important point of this blog post, a security guard is still an employee of the company in the same way as a shop assistant and so is representative of the brand. In the same manner that sales assistants are delivering a brand experience by their tone of voice and physical appearance, so is a security guard. Just take one walk down Bond Street and you will see that the luxury brands have got this down to a tee and their security guards are all very well presented, polite and helpful.

My experience with the Boots security guard may have been a one off but it was an eye-opener for me proving how every channel and interaction that a customer has with the brand or that might be associated with the brand, be it website, advert, sales assistants or security guard it all influences perceptions and feelings towards a brand. So it might be advisable for brands to keep this in mind and ensure that even security guards communicate with customers in a manner that meets the same standards as would be expected from every other member of the store. Unnecessarily aggressive behaviour doesn’t do brand image any favours.

But, hey, Boots all is forgiven – I’m still giving you a good score for your multichannel customer experience!

If you want to be one of the first to get hold of our Retail multichannel customer experience report, sign up for our newsletter or keep an eye on our twitterfeed over the next few weeks!

If you have you had any interesting experiences that have altered your perceptions of brands, we would be really interested to know – please leave a comment below!

Terms like multichannel marketing and multichannel business strategy have been cropping up a lot in articles, industry news, board meetings, brainstorm sessions, presentations, workshops … you name it. This prefix has been going around for a while now and has become a must have strategy for most businesses.

What’s interesting though is actually seeing it being put into good use. Having recently completed a few multichannel e-commerce projects for high street brands, I realised that there’s much room for improvement in making multichannel shopping a better experience. We know that a lot of businesses have multichannel offerings (e.g. website, high street store, call centre, catalogue, magazine) and a lot of consumers are multichannel shoppers. For example a persona we created for a client (based on real user research) called Sally. She has a tendency to read an email on her mobile devise that sparks a desire to buy something, she then browses through a selection of products online on multiple websites, checks out the products in a store, compares store prices with online prices, then goes home and purchases the product(s) online and waits for it to be delivered.

It all sounds pretty straightforward, but what can a business do to improve this process to create a truly seamless multichannel experience?

  • Remember the whole customer life-cycle:

The first step is to really understand how your brand interacts throughout the entire customer life-cycle. Understanding consumers’ buying behaviour via different research methodologies (e.g. ethnographic studies, interviews, diary studies) can provide rich insights into the details for the design that will make a big difference. In short, putting yourself in your customers’ shoes and listening to what they have to say (in a structured way) and watching what they do is a great way to glean insights into how to develop a multichannel experience and get it right.

  • Design each interaction properly:

There are several structured processes and tools from multidisciplinary fields (…pun not intended) that can be used to improve multichannel customer experiences. Starting with the concept of designing for multiple touchpoints taken from the field of service design is a good plan.

As consumers usually come in contact with a brand from different points (or channels in relation to this article), which you can pin down with good user research, it is important to identify and focus on each interaction to ensure that the customer experience is designed for its purpose every time. Following that, the challenge is to ensure a seamless transition from one touchpoint to another and a consistent brand representation throughout. More about the topic of service design can be found in this brilliant book This is Service Design Thinking.

The most important aspect however is that different businesses have different priorities, so always adapt and apply these concepts so they fit with the business strategy and target market. I’m sure there are more ways out there that have been successfully implemented to make this work, it’ll be interesting to know what you think in the comments below!

By the way, if you are involved in the retail sector or are interested to learn which brands have created the best multichannel customer experiences and how to do the same, then join up for our newsletter on our homepage or follow us on twitter to make sure you get your hands on our Retail Multichannel Report first!

Picture from New York Times Fashion&Style: Next step for fashion label – Cyberboutiques

It’s that time of year again when your friends and colleagues are talking about going on holiday but you haven’t booked anything… What is the first thing you do? Well other than despair and wonder if the UK will be hot enough this year not to go abroad (probably not), I usually get online and start looking at pictures of gorgeous lapping shores, colourful market towns, and a certain theme park in Florida – but then what, should I just go for it and book it online? What is holding me back?

According to our latest travel poll results, most people that look at holidays online are most influenced to ‘book now’ if they are being shown cheap deals. This is what we, as the consumer, have come to expect. The second thing that would help us to part with our credit card details and book that dream holiday is a review, feedback from other people.

I have to agree with the 1000+ people in the poll, these things are definitely what I look for. The ideal website would be one that might show a price comparison, because then I don’t even have to do any research elsewhere to check I was getting the cheapest deal, and then show me reassuringly honest comments so I feel a level of trust that this great deal won’t have unexpected catches once I get there.

But is that really enough? I still haven’t clicked on ‘book now’, I wonder why…

Have you booked your holiday for this year? What are the top things a travel website would need to make you book online? Leave your comments below… (Also, if anyone has any suggestions on where I should go on holiday this year it would be greatly appreciated!)

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It’s crystal ball time again, the time of year when we like to get on our soapbox and become the modern day Nostradamus.

2010 has been a really interesting year for ecommerce. The economic picture is still not rosy and web managers have been under increasing pressure to halt the decline in traffic.

For years the online channel had been experiencing meteoric growth and web marketers could do no wrong – build and they will come. However, as the economy beat a hasty retreat, consumers became more conservative and looked to the web to research ways to save money. Voucher code sites blossomed. The number of searches declined and more people used long tail search terms to find what they wanted. In the email industry, open and click rates suffered. Blanket emails, once the preserve of the majority of retailers, suddenly stopped returning a profit.  The UK affiliate space became cluttered with discount websites.

The net result has been the need for digital marketers to be savvier, using Internet technology to increase personalisation and segment offers. It’s common sense but the margins are now so much tighter that it can’t be ignored. As the Board increases its scrutiny of the numbers, web managers are under more pressure than ever to deliver. The industry is maturing and a more commercial model is emerging; about time too.

As a result, there is an increased demand from employers for commercial skills like business analysis and financial planning. Web managers must be multi-disciplined, understanding digital marketing whilst knowing how to manage the numbers. Web analytics and website optimisation is more important than ever and investment in these areas is, thankfully, on the rise.

What remains to be seen is how far web teams will go with the unglamorous side of ecommerce. We’re predicting that site optimisation, investment in mobile platforms (including tablet devices) and better integration of social media with customer service will be key themes for 2011.

Our Webcredible article takes a look at why these trends are likely to be important in 2011.

Please drop by and share your comments.

Photo credit: danielbroche via Flickr/Creative Commons

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