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Andy Houghton, e-commerce director at Unilever, talks about the challenges facing brands and retailers in a multichannel world

Andy Houghton, e-commerce director at Unilever, talks about the challenges facing brands and retailers in a multichannel world


Multichannel retail is not a new concept. Indeed, Andy Houghton said it could be argued that, once shops started taking orders for collection or delivery over the phone, they had become multichannel retailers.


Things have moved on since then, according to the director of e-commerce at consumer packaged goods giant Unilever. And now multi, or “cross-channel” retailing includes bricks and mortar, telesales, indirect, online and, increasingly, mobile.


Houghton acknowledged these different ways of selling as an obviously huge opportunity for brands and retailers – the Centre of Retail Research says that online, including mobile, accounted for 10.7% of retail trade in the UK in 2010 and that figure is set to continue growing, with eBay predicting that mobile commerce alone will be worth £13bn by 2021.


Coupled with this is the increase in smartphone apps that allow consumers to compare prices, product information or make transactions when shopping, he added: “A truly cross channel experience means that brands such as ours are finding that we need to be offering more data in more ways than ever before in order for products to be identified correctly.”


Keeping the data up to date


“Until recently that meant reusing the same limited data, whether they planned to sell the product in store or online,” Houghton continued. “However, this hampers the consumer experience – a kilogram of detergent may be easily identifiable in store, but how many consumers shopping online really know if a kilogram is what they usually get, or whether they want to get the size up, or down? Simply giving a volume is not particularly helpful when it comes to working out how many washes one can get out of a kilogram of detergent powder, or a litre of liquid. In order to enhance the consumer experience and make it as easy as possible for a retailer’s customers to shop online, brand owners need to start thinking practically.”


This therefore, he said, means that Unilever needs to produce more data, which needs to be accurate and kept up to date. “At the moment it is hard enough updating data once it is out into the world – not only do we need to update the retailers who buy directly from us, but also the wholesalers who then might be required to update the hundreds of operations, ranging from chain stores through to corner shops, who get our products from them. The logistics of this are huge, and the potential for retailers to not receive accurate and updated information is substantial.


“When this information is about the latest promotion or new prices, the results are embarrassing and commercially damaging for ourselves and the retailers. When the information relates to dietary and allergy information, the results can be of much higher concern to everyone involved.


“This means that brand owners can find themselves between a rock and a hard place – striving to offer the best cross-channel experience for the consumer, while facing the logistical challenges of ever increasing amounts of data and product information.”


The e-commerce director said one way to get around these challenges is for brands, retailers and anyone else that uses product data, to use services that standardise data and ensure that whoever uses the data always has access to information that is correct and up to date.


Standardising on centralised data


These services, such as TrueSource from GS1 UK, enable brand owners to enter and manage data in one place. Retailers, app developers, and ultimately consumers, all have access to the same trusted information as the brand owner. “As there is only ever one version of the truth and one place to manage the information, it reduces the overhead on brand owners, but importantly it means the information is more likely to be accurate and can be trusted,” he explained.


“Using services that provide standardised and accurate data, we can be assured that the data available to third parties is up to date and correct. Were it not to be, brand owners face damage to both their own and their products’ reputations, and with this the potential loss of revenue. However, this pales in comparison to the possible risks to the consumer when one considers the implications of inaccurate dietary and allergy information.”


Whether one calls it multichannel or cross-channel retailing, Houghton said the fact of the matter is that having different ways of engaging with consumers is a huge opportunity for retailers. “For brand owners such as Unilever, it’s a way of having our products seen by more people in more places than ever before, but we need to make sure the information we provide is accurate and conducive to a quality consumer experience,” he said. “Part of that process is overcoming the logistical challenges that increases in data entail.


“By using services that verify and standardise product information, brand owners can be sure that the data available to third parties, and through them the public, is correct and constantly up to date. If we don’t, yet continue to operate in a multichannel environment, we will have a negative impact on the consumer experience which will, ultimately, have a negative impact on our products and our businesses as a whole.”