May 15, 2008, 12:00 AM

Retailers lag in helping consumers shop across channels, Forrester says

Two-thirds of consumers go online to research expensive or complex purchases, although 60% ultimately buy offline, says Forrester Research. Multi-channel retailers don’t do all they could to serve cross-channel shoppers, says analyst Sucharita Mulpuru.

Consumers use multiple channels in the course of making expensive and complex purchases, but multi-channel retailers often fail to give them the help they need, according to a new report by Sucharita Mulpuru, an e-commerce analyst at Forrester Research Inc.

67% of consumers use the web at some point in the course of making a considered purchase, although 60% ultimately purchase offline, Mulpuru says in the report “How Consumers Actually Shop For Retail Products Across Channels.” Those who start their research online fit Forrester’s profile of high-income “technology optimists.” For instance, their mean household income is 30% higher than offline researchers and 70% use broadband Internet connections at home vs. 57% of those who start their research offline

Certain core web sites, including comparison shopping engines and manufacturer sites, often are starting points for research. And 9% of survey respondents say they began their research on or eBay.

Many retailers have not caught up with the cross-channel behavior of consumers, Mulpuru says. She notes only 33% of multi-channel retailers’ store employees can check information from other channels, 43% enable store associates to place online orders and 23% let consumers check in-store product availability on their web sites.

The cross-channel disconnect also shows up in marketing plans, as multi-channel retailers spend more than half their online marketing budgets on such new customer acquisition efforts as affiliate programs and search marketing. In fact, only 47% of the online customers surveyed said they had never purchased from that retailer before, when including purchases made by phone, mail or in stores, the report says.

Mulpuru recommends that retailers simulate the customer experience of shopping across channels-from web to store or call center, store to web, etc.-rather than waiting for customer complaints before exploring pain points. And given that many consumers research purchases online, she recommends making detailed and comprehensive information on such products available online. Such information can help educate customers, regardless of where they purchase.

The report is based on a Forrester survey of nearly 3,000 U.S. consumers in the third quarter of last year.

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