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Store Fulfillment Must Become Marketing's Next Great Frontier

Let's begin with a question: Is store fulfillment a logistics and store operations challenge or is it a marketing challenge? If you were to answer based upon recent store fulfillment research, you would almost certainly say that store fulfillment is a logistics and ops challenge. And you would of course be correct. Managing so many moving parts in so many diverse locations is, without question, a logistical nightmare. However, if you were to answer instead that store fulfillment is in fact a marketing challenge, you would also be entirely correct.

And therein lies the problem.

The industry's trade press and thought leaders constantly talk about, write about, and report about the importance of store fulfillment in the omnichannel journey. And when they do, they almost exclusively position store fulfillment as a logistics challenge. Rarely, if ever, do I see, hear or read about the many important, complex and critical marketing challenges inherent in store fulfillment strategies and processes.

Given the number of shopping journeys that now include store fulfillment, I just don't understand why the role of marketing gets so little attention. A recent survey of shopping behaviors from eMarketer highlights just how many shopping journeys take advantage of the store as a fulfillment option:

In the 30 days prior to the survey,

  • Almost 43% of 18-29 year-old shoppers placed an order online and picked it up in a store.
  • More than one-third (35%) of 30-39 year-old shoppers placed online orders for store pickup.
  • Almost half (half!) of 40-49 year-old shoppers placed online orders for store pickup.

That's a lot of orders being fulfilled by stores. Clearly, shoppers don't mind making the trip to the store to pick up their orders. I might even go so far as to suggest that some shoppers may prefer visiting the store to pick up their orders. Obviously, logistical processes and tools have to be well implemented to ensure positive outcomes for all these store orders. There is no doubt of that.

But when we ignore the role of Marketing in this process, we do so at our peril. Think about how many customer journeys, how many brand-building (or breaking) experiences now include the store as a point of fulfillment. As a career marketing professional, I admit I may be biased. But I know that if these were my customers, I would definitely want Marketing involved in designing every aspect of a process that touches so many customers and so many journeys. In fact, I would want Marketing to have an equal seat at the table when these processes are designed.

Unfortunately, experience tells me that far too many store fulfillment processes are driven primarily by logistical expediency and efficiency, rather than by customer outcomes.

In recent months I have placed lots of online orders that I have picked up at lots of stores. And far more often than not, the experiences have been unfulfilling, at best. Many stores sent me to the return desk to stand in line to pick up my purchase. Others forced me to seek out associates on the floor to ask where to go to pick up my order (and a couple especially harried folks looked very tempted to tell me exactly where to go, if you know what I mean). Other stores were well-outfitted with clear signage, but unfortunately those signs all directed me to the back of the store or to long checkout lines.

It was obvious that marketers were not designing these experiences. And this has to stop.

As the evidence shows, far too many customers are impacted by store fulfillment experiences to leave them to chance. I would argue that Marketing's single greatest challenge is maintaining the value and relevance of the store in the modern shopping journey. These store pickup transactions represent low-hanging fruit for marketers in their existential quest for opportunities to bring shoppers back into their stores.

Marketing simply has to have a seat at the table. The stakes are too high to ignore Marketing when attempting to answer so many critical questions relative to store pickup experiences:

  • What is an acceptable promise time for orders to be ready for pickup?
  • Where is the ideal place inside each store for customers to go to pick up their orders? Should we offer curbside pick-up services?
  • How will the orders be packaged and staged? Will promotional materials or personalized offers be included inside the package?
  • Who will be responsible for ensuring that every order is picked complete and packaged appropriately?
  • Who, when and how will we contact each customer as their order is processed and staged for pickup?
  • How long is an acceptable time for customers to wait for help once they arrive in the store?
  • Who should help customers when they come to pick up their orders? Should they be trained in cross-selling? Should they even attempt to cross-sell?

Without question, there are logistical answers to these questions. But there are also experiential answers to these questions. Logistics executives will first and foremost look for answers that drive value to the bottom line, while marketing executives will look for answers that drive value to the experience. And yes, these two objectives can often be in conflict with each other.

But neither objective is more important than the other. Instead, we must strike a thoughtful and careful balance between expediency and experience.

Finding that balance is no easy task, to be sure. Which is why my Marketing (yes, Marketing!) colleagues and I worked with the team at Retail Touchpoints to develop our new "Blueprint for Store Order Fulfillment." Together, we attempted to add a Marketing perspective to the library of thought leadership on the subject. Don't get me wrong, we do discuss logistics, but we definitely tried to…wait for it…balance the logistics content with marketing guidance. Here are a few highlights of the marketing advice we present in our blueprint:

  • Take a close look at your customer, how they shop, where they buy and how they expect their purchases to be fulfilled.
  • Take the time to understand which order fulfillment options best align with your customers' needs and expectations.
  • Be sure to also ask which options align best with your brand and your unique value proposition.
  • Evaluate whether associates are prepared and empowered to enrich the entire store visit with convenience, efficiency and information.
  • Begin thinking about fulfillment as a way to surprise and delight customers — rather than solely meeting their expectations for convenience.

See a pattern here? Every one of these recommendations is centered on one simple thing: the customer experience. So, I will close this post as I began it, with a question: When was the last time you allowed expediency to dictate a customer experience…and how well did that work out for you?

If you haven't done so already, it's time – long past time – to get Marketing involved in the details of this rapidly growing aspect of so many customer journeys. And when you do, be sure to check out our blueprint – I think it could help.