June 3, 2013, 1:10 PM

The New Store Standard

Retailers make progress in melding sales channels to assist shoppers in buying what, when and how they choose.

Lead Photo

I am the omnichannel shopper that e-commerce analysts, online retailers and industry observers are always buzzing about.

My recent shopping history is a fitting example. A few weeks ago, I purchased a handbag from Urban Outfitters Inc. I found the bag on the retailer's e-commerce site but went to the merchant's store to buy it because I wanted to touch and feel the soft buttery blue leather before I handed over my credit card. A month earlier, I ventured into a Neiman Marcus store to try on a pair of jeans. The store didn't have my size but the associate helped me purchase the correct size online from a kiosk in the store. And, a few days ago, I used an m-commerce app on my iPhone to check into a Macy's store, which earned me a coupon I could use on that very shopping trip. My shopping activities over the past few months have touched the web, the mobile web and physical stores.

Omnichannel—the buzzword du jour in retailing today—stems from the Latin word "omnis" which means "all." In retail circles, the interpretation of omnichannel is to take all channels and meld them into one. This way, retailers can make their entire product inventory available to all consumers and consumers can shop with them in any way they want.

Retail chains today talk a big game about delivering omnichannel shopping experiences and how they are unifying the shopping experiences consumers have when shopping on the desktop web, mobile web and in stores. But is it really happening?

Internet Retailer sent me on a mission to find out. I trekked to four stores operated by four major chain retailers: Sears Holdings Corp.'s Kmart, Staples Inc., Target Corp. and Walgreen Co. I questioned, I observed and I strolled the aisles. Are employees instructed to match prices in stores with those on their retail sites? Do store clerks really offer customers the chance to buy online when a product is out of stock in the store? Are they armed with mobile devices to help consumers buy or get product information or reviews online?

The answer, in short, is yes. Retailers are making progress on training store employees to help shoppers purchase how and when they want. They are using store kiosks to help shoppers buy items that aren't in stores, and are incorporating mobile devices in stores to make consumers' shopping experiences better. While there are areas that need improvement, my trip showed me that merchants are starting to get it.

Here is my journey.

KMART

Notebook in hand and eyes wide open, I stride into my first store of the day—superstore Kmart.

Before I have a chance to step through the automatic doors I'm hit with an illustration of Kmart's omnichannel efforts. Plastered outside is a sign for MyGofer.com, a shopping service that lets consumers order products online that are then available at a local Kmart store for pickup as early as that day. "Shop our store on MyGofer.com," it reads. "Shop online. Get it today. For more information, ask a sales associate."

So I do. A friendly manager shows off lockers that resemble little dog crates. Inside are bags containing the goods consumers have ordered on MyGofer.com. Only a few lockers are filled with bags so I ask how many orders the store fulfills via MyGofer each day. She says between one and four an hour, sometimes reaching as many as 50 a day.

Next, I stroll down aisles and approach an associate stocking flip-flops. I ask her if there is a way to order something online if the store runs out of a product or doesn't carry it. She walks me over to a kiosk where I can order from Kmart.com. She says associates are trained to offer customers the option to order online if the store doesn't carry exactly what they want. I ask her how often this happens and she said it happened just a few hours earlier. A man wanted a patio furniture set the store didn't carry, so she helped him order it online at the kiosk.

After my trip I called Imran Jooma, executive vice president and president, online, marketing, pricing and financial services, for Sears Holdings. He told me half of Kmart's online sales come from cross-channel transactions where consumers either buy online and pickup in store or order in a store and ship to their home. Customers can take both those actions at all of Kmart's approximately 1,200 stores, he says.

"We have created a step-by-step training program, which includes hands-on demos that teach associates how to leverage our cross-channel capabilities," Jooma says. The training is required for all store associates, he says, and managers are instructed to reinforce the importance of integrated retail shopping options every day.

In addition to store marketing and employee training, Kmart promotes its store pickup service prominently on its e-commerce site and in print, circulars, targeted e-mails and digital marketing, Jooma says. And, a recently released humorous online video, "Ship My Pants" that highlights Kmart's ability to ship products to consumers' homes when they aren't in stores, went viral, garnering more than 17 million views on YouTube, spreading word of the service farther.

While still in the store I venture over to the appliances department. I come across a sign on a washer. "Make the smart choice," the sign encourages. "Protect your purchase beyond the manufacturer's warranty." It asks me to scan a QR code or text the word SMART to 88588 to learn more. I opt to text and await a response. I don't get one. I text again. Radio silence.

After my visit, I sent an image of the sign to Kmart's marketing team and they investigated. The sign, they report, was outdated and should not have been on display. Jooma says the chain works hard to make signage is up to date and suggests that this was an isolated case. Half of Kmart's online sales are picked up at a store or ordered in one.

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