March 30, 2007, 12:00 AM

Web/store integration still missing for many big merchants

A study by LakeWest Group finds that, while 75% of the 100 fastest-growing publicly held retailers in the U.S. operated in multiple channels, only 22% consider seamless multi-channel integration a top priority. Of retail chains that operate web sites, 40% still have no integration between store and web systems.

When it comes to multi-channel retailing, biggest isn’t necessarily best, retail industry research and consulting firm LakeWest Group LLC says. While nearly three-quarters of the 100 fastest-growing publicly held retailers in the U.S. operate in multiple channels, only 22% consider seamless multi-channel integration as a top priority, the firm says in its 8th Annual POS Benchmarking Survey. More than a third of the multi-channel retailers operate in at least three channels.

Of the retailers that operate web sites, 40% still don’t have any integration between store and web site, the survey found, and only two-thirds give customers the ability to purchase a product on the site.

“Most retailers watch what oth-ers will do, then make plans,” says Sunita Gupta, executive vice president of LakeWest Group.

One emerging area in multi-channel integration, she says, is in the use of web-based hand-held devices that store employees can use to help shoppers find and even purchase inventory online that isn’t available in-store. That’s partly because the prices of hand-held devices are coming down-as low as several hundred dollars, depending on screen size and other features-and retailers recognize the flexibility they offer to shoppers, Gupta says.

Most retailers surveyed by LakeWest have made at least some multi-channel progress, however, including integrated return policies, gift card poli-cies, and pricing and promotions across channels. Nearly three-quarters offer in-tegrated pricing/promotions, two-thirds allow the use of stored value/gift cards across channels, and more than half allow returns to cross chan-nels.

“Meeting customer expectations by simply having a presence in multiple channels is no longer a competitive advantage,” LakeWest says in the re-port. “Your channels and your brand must all work together seamlessly to offer your customer a rewarding shopping experience.”

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