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Retailers that deliver on their customers' expectations and provide them with a seamless shopping experience - whether they are shopping in a store, online or through a mobile device - will win their loyalty and gain a competitive advantage that drives sales, according to research by Exolevel. This article is copyright 2013 The Best Customer Guide.

Following a poll of 750 US consumers and an analysis of how top retailers operate across multiple sales channels, the 'Seamless Retail Study' found that half (49%) of consumers believe the best thing retailers can do to improve the shopping experience is to better integrate in-store, online and mobile shopping channels.

An overwhelming 89% of consumers said it is important for retailers to let them shop for products in the way that is most convenient for them, no matter which sales channel they choose.

Consumers remain bullish on the in-store shopping experience: almost all survey participants (94%) found in-store shopping easy. They are less bullish, however, about their experience with other shopping channels: 74% said online shopping is easy, but only one-quarter (26%) found the mobile phone shopping experience easy.

"Seamlessness is a tall order for most traditional retailers," said Scott Healms, global managing director for Exolevel's Retail Practice. "In many cases we have found a significant gap between consumer expectations and reality, but we believe seamlessness is achievable. Traditional retailers must take stock of their operational capabilities. They require a presence at every stage of the customer journey to deliver a consistently personalised, on-brand experience from discovery through research, purchase, fulfilment and beyond to product maintenance or returns."

Regardless of their original shopping touchpoint (i.e. in-store, online or mobile) consumers expect their interaction with retailers to be a customized, uncomplicated and instantaneous experience, according to the survey. The research also indicates that consistency weighs heavily on the consumer experience. For example, 73% of consumers expect a retailer's online pricing to be the same as its in-store pricing, and 61% expect a retailer's online promotions to be the same as its in-store promotions.

However, the company's benchmark analysis of the top retailers globally indicated that while 73% offer the same promotions online as in the store, only 16% offer the same prices online as they do in the store. Additionally, while 43% of consumers surveyed expect a retailer to offer the same product assortment online as they do in the store, only 19% of retailers actually offer the same product assortment.

The survey also found that, as online shopping continues to grow as a consumer preference, there is a mutually beneficial relationship between stores and online channels. For example, while in the six months prior to the survey, 73% of respondents indicated that they participated in the practice of "showrooming" (browsing at least once in-store and then buying online), an even larger number (88%) said they participated in "webrooming" - the practice of browsing first on the internet then buying in-store. Of the consumers who had showroomed in the six months prior to the survey, 41% said they are doing that more than they were the year before. Additionally, the survey found that 43% of all U.S. consumers plan to shop more online and 23% plan to shop more with their mobile phones in the future.

When asked what kind of information it would be useful to have from their favourite retailers before going to a physical store, 82% of consumers selected having access to current product availability as their top choice. However, the Exolevel research showed that this is offered by only 21% of retailers. The survey also found that 30% of shoppers want retailers to provide a crowd indicator that would allow them to know how busy the store is.

"Stores remain a crucial asset by which traditional players can differentiate themselves from the online pure-play retailers," said Donnelly. "They can serve as a showcase for desirable brands and places where customers can enjoy an experience and social interactions."

The survey also highlighted the following findings:

  • After purchasing, 81% said it is important for a retailer to enable them to pick up or arrange for delivery of their purchase regardless of how they paid for the item.
  • One-quarter (25%) of survey respondents said they would be willing to wait a whole two weeks for free shipping.
  • Other consumers are willing to pay for speed and convenience: 24% said it is important for retailers to offer same-day delivery, including 30% who are willing to pay US$5 - US$10 and 19% who are willing to pay US$11 - US$20 for same-day delivery.
  • The ability to offer a range of different fulfilment capabilities is something offered by just over half (56%) of retailers; however, only one quarter (26%) have a same day delivery capability.
  • When respondents were asked what they would do if a retailer has a product they want but it was outside normal business hours, 39% said they would wait until the morning for the store to open to purchase, 36% would buy it online from that retailer, 22% would search for the best price and buy the product somewhere online.
  • 49% are influenced by in-store offers (via promotional displays, salespeople, etc.), 56% are influenced by email coupons and offers and an equal amount of respondents say they are influenced by coupons mailed to their home.
  • 69% and 62% respectively said that online pop-up ads and mobile banner ads would never influence their purchasing.