A buy online for in-store pickup service is one way chain retailers with an e-commerce Web site can differentiate themselves from Web-only retailers. Consumers appreciate the convenience of using the Internet to learn about products and compare prices. But they also enjoy taking possession of a purchase immediately and avoiding shipping fees. At the same time, smart retailers know that once a consumer enters their store there is a cross-sell and up-sell opportunity.

The e-tailing group, a shopper-centric e-commerce consultancy, recently published the results of an annual proprietary study of the buy-online/in-store-pickup services of 18 large and small retailers. Mystery shoppers placed two orders with each retailer in order to evaluate the overall customer experience. "Based on consumer demand, savvy merchants are presenting themselves as cohesive and consistent cross-channel brands," says Lauren Freedman, president of the e-tailing group.

The starting point for a buy-online/in-store-pickup service is an e-tailer’s store-locator feature. All 18 Web retailers that were mystery-shopped had retail locators that gave store phone numbers. Additionally, most offered directions to stores, maps and information about store hours. But this year, compared with last year, the mystery shoppers found that store locators were taking on more tasks. Some 56% of merchants now use them to promote merchandise, compared with 27% last year, and 53% can check store inventory, vs. 47% last year.

But there is much more to buying online for in-store pickup than having a robust store locator. To create a positive impression with customers, multi-channel retailers must perform a number of other operations as well:

· Check store inventory quickly and accurately

· Have the ordered item in stock

· Confirm receipt of an order, notify the customer when it will be ready for pickup and state the time allowed for pickup

· Make it easy for the customer to find the in-store pickup counter

· Keep the wait short, have the product ready for checkout and staff with friendly and knowledgeable sales associates

It turns out that the devil is in the execution of these steps. The e-tailing group’s mystery shoppers found that while 53% of Web merchants allowed store inventory to be checked online, 43% of the items ordered were out of stock. While all retailers routinely send an order confirmation by e-mail, 17% showed themselves to be tech-savvy by including a barcode in hopes of expediting in-store service. Disappointingly, only 61% of merchants sent a subsequent e-mail notifying the customer that the merchandise was ready for pickup, while 28% did so by phone. There was also a decrease from last year in the percentage of retailers who offered same-day pickup, from 67% to 56%. Similarly, the percentage of retailers who included pickup instructions in their e-mail notification dropped from 68% to 56%.

A fourth-quarter 2005 survey also conducted by the e-tailing group found that only 18% of US online retailers offer consumers the option to buy online and pick up in store. Online retailers were much more likely to allow consumers to search via a store locator (99%) or request a print catalog (95%).

The cross-channel services mentioned thus far tap just a small part of multi-channel retailing’s potential. The opportunity exists for retailers to create a composite picture of a customer’s shopping behavior across the merchant’s store, Web site and call center channels. This information is valuable in crafting highly personalized promotions. But retailers must tread gently along this path, for many consumers perceive such efforts as a violation of their privacy. Studying customer demand patterns across marketing channels can also help retailers improve the efficiency of their supply chains. Furthermore, retailers can learn to deliver better customer service across channels by making live customer agents and packaged product information available in the right place at the right time.

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