How Belk infused its “Southern State of Mind” into omnichannel convergence

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Is the digital revolution comparable to the Industrial Revolution? That’s the question Deloitte’s Alison Paul posed at one of the Retail’s BIG Show keynotes this week, “The Great Convergence.” It’s a thought-provoking question with an undeniable answer that will forever change the way retailers operate. The Industrial Revolution caused a massive reconstruction of the economy, and the new digital revolution is doing the same. We’re no longer talking about retail technology. We’re talking about consumer technology that is overhauling the retail landscape, and retailers need to keep up.

Whether tweeting, sharing brand reviews online, or browsing apps, the shopper is using the smartphone as a primary instrument of change. It’s the bridge between every channel. So how can retailers leverage this consumer technology? To start, it’s important to note that we’re not just talking about mobile retail. We’re talking about customers accessing their smartphones in stores and the need for retailers to be addressing customers’ mobile needs whether they’re in line at the grocery store, laying on their couch or standing in front of a TV display and comparing prices. Is your mobile team currently under your web division? Paul recommends considering moving your mobile team to your stores division.

Belk Chairman and CEO Thomas Belk, Jr., followed up bluntly: “We haven’t mastered omnichannel.” Belk offered an honest account of the retailer’s journey into the digital revolution, one that many retailers in the audience undoubtedly identified with. Just a few years ago, Belk said, the Southern chain was way behind in the digital world, but the numbers convinced them: online-only shoppers were spending $100 a year, in-store shoppers were spending $350 a year, and those who shopped both online and in stores spent $1,064 a year. The decision to change was easy. So Belk invested millions in a plan to improve branding, refine service, remodel stores, build expansions, and enhance technology, all while clarifying its position as a modern, Southern-style retailer.

Just catching up in terms of technology was huge, said Belk, who highlighted four phases of the upgrade that included accelerating sales in e-commerce; investing in mobile; updating infrastructure and merchandise systems (a real “OMG” moment, Belk said); and creating a roadmap to omnichannel, which included replatforming e-commerce, replacing POS systems, expanding mobile, integrating data and establishing enterprise inventory.

Belk also had to decide not just how to catch up, but where it wanted to win. The retailer decided upon delivering modern Southern style and hospitality, both in stores and in the digital world. One example was getting involved with local communities to spread its  “Southern State of Mind” philosophy across multiple channels. The company launched a mobile mammography center that has its own blog, Facebook presence and Twitter hashtag. This omnichannel approach to outreach led the retailer to leverage in-store events, too, such as bra fittings.

Belk’s honesty continued with five observations, not all lessons learned, but honest admissions and tips that any retailer — whether ahead of the curve in the digital revolution or still catching up — could appreciate.

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