The retail industry has been one of the most impacted by digital transformation; the pandemic only added to that momentum as people stayed home and purchased online.
Years ago, the industry came up with the term “omnichannel” to describe how it changed to respond to customer behavior. And now we have a new term to add to that: the “Endless Aisle.”
This is the title of a new whitepaper from the Retail Doctor Group (RDG) in Australia, which seeks to analyze some of the more recent trends in retailing, all guided by the reality that the modern consumer wants to buy a product within seconds, and as seamlessly as possible.
“Mobile, in-store and online are quickly merging together,” the whitepaper says. “This disruption has advanced the concept of Endless Aisle.”
“Endless Aisle, otherwise known as the virtual shelf, looks to define its value to an omnichannel connected retailer, and therefore consumer,” it added.
The Endless Aisle is the concept of enabling customers to virtually browse or order a wide range of products that are either out of stock or not available in-store and which can be shipped to a closer store or their homes. It refers to a retailers’ ability to sell out-of-stock items to in-store customers or sell online items that are not kept in local inventory.
“Endless Aisle is an extension of your in-store shelf,” the whitepaper says before going on to include the results of some proprietary research.
According to the RDG, 44% of consumers are less likely to approach staff to check a price or something about a product.
They are more likely to check themselves, either on their smartphone if they are in-store or on another device, a laptop or tablet, if they are at home or work.
One RDG takeout is the increasing importance of digital screens in-store that allow customers to check stock availability. This was nominated by 32% of respondents.
The research also identifies the rise of augmented reality and AI instore. Apparently, 17% of consumers are influenced by augmented reality and would use “magic mirrors” to visualize products without trying them. In comparison, 10% said voice-activated robot sales assistants would influence them.
So what does this mean for retailers? The first point is to understand that most customers have a mobile screen with them at all times.
“Be forward-thinking and judicious on how you apply capital in this area,” the whitepaper says.
“Look into AI around supply channels, information processing, fulfillment. It doesn’t matter if you are running a market stall or Amazon; you need to be brilliant at the basics.”
In this new world of retailing, the store is still vitally important. RDG says it’s the “showrooming, human experience of the brand to convert and drive higher average transaction value (ATV), loyalty that is crucial to the concept of Endless Aisle being the success factor in the integrated brand experience.”
“To sell out-of-stock items to in-store customers, the retailer places an order for inventory to be kept by external suppliers,” the whitepaper says.
“The supplier then ships the products directly to the customer from their storehouse. To the customer, though, it appears as if the retailer has sold the item; the supplier is completely invisible in this process. It would then seem you have an Endless Aisle of products and are never truly out of stock.”
The critical element in delivering on this is real-time information, which requires efficient system integration and inventory management technology to ensure visibility.
All orders need to be centralized, regardless of which channel they come through from. It requires an “omnichannel smart fulfillment solution” with an efficient cloud-based centralized order management system.
This solution will connect mobile, online, and store channels to aggregate orders from various supply chains and provide a single dashboard of information across all retail channels. Such solutions are mandatory for a “truly effective integrated retail ecosystem” to deliver a seamless customer experience.
“Meanwhile, some systems provide the ability to auto-route orders to distribution centers or stores depending on stock location, leverage stock inventory, and manage online returns in-store,” the whitepaper says.
It’s Always About Time
In the end, it also comes back to speed. Retailers need to have these systems in place to meet customer expectations on wait times.
The customer might be in a store with an “Endless Aisle,” but the aisle is invisible for them.
They are unaware of the people before them in the queue. And if the item they want is not there, they need an almost instant solution on how they can acquire it.
The Endless Aisle is not so relevant for older types of stores, with lots of shelf space and no issues with keeping items in stock.
Accelerated by the pandemic, these stores are declining in number.
As the whitepaper says, if a retailer wants to downsize their retail footprint or cut back on inventory overheads, the “Endless Aisle is worth considering.”
Given that description matches just about all retailers who have survived the pandemic, the “Endless Aisle” could be a term we hear a lot more of as the industry continues to transform.
Lachlan Colquhoun is the Australia and New Zealand correspondent for CDOTrends and DigitalWorkforceTrends, and the editor of NextGen Connectivity. His fascination is with how businesses are reinventing themselves through digital technology and collaborate with others to become completely new organizations. You can reach him at [email protected].
Image credit: iStockphoto/hakule