The Cross-Channel Finish Line

The holidays are here. And retailers are scrambling to serve customers in all channels. To get an update on how chains like Finish Line are handling it, we spoke with Dean Abbott, co-founder and chief data scientist with SmarterHQ, a provider of multi-channel marketing solutions.

We’re a week away from Cyber Monday. How are retailers like Finish Line gearing up?
The biggest concern is keeping everything running because of the size of the load. Cyber Monday is the bigger draw, but there’s still an online uptick on Black Friday. A firm like Finish Line runs hundreds of programs simultaneously. And they have maybe a dozen or two dozen onsite experiences running, based on how the consumer is interacting. For many firms, it means doing more of the same. Some give deals that get worse and worse as you approach Cyber Monday. But this is an opportunity to engage with new customers. Can you re-engage them post-holiday to make them regulars? It takes nurturing, and recognizing that they are a Cyber Monday first-time visitor.



How important is digital to a chain like Finish Line?
Extremely important. And Cyber Monday isn’t the only big date. There’s also the NCAA basketball tournament, March Madness. It’s hard to develop creative before the teams are chosen. The announcements are made on Sunday, and you have to have it in play on Monday. There may be as many as 68 teams. Finish Line can see everyone who bought in any channel for any of these teams in the last year. They can copy and paste these experiences. But SKUs sunset and go out of stock. They also have to know what the universe looked like a year ago, and what it looks like now, so they can promote the right kind of product.

Can retailers attribute sales to the right channels?
Media mixture modeling is done at the aggregate level. It has to be: It makes a big difference in what you do from a business standpoint. You have to know when ads or billboards ran in a region. If somebody goes online after an ad was played during a movie, you have higher confidence that it wasn’t by there by chance. You get closer to the actual cause, which gets you closer to attribution at the individual level.

What are companies looking for at that level?
For retailers like Finish Line, it’s the multi-channel experience: Store and digital, Web and mobile, sometimes catalogs. They’re trying to unify the channels so the consumer has a consistent experience and ultimately a more valuable one. But it’s based on data. You have to know the persona someone has in shopping. They may go to the store for things they want to try on, and buy other things online. Or they may place an order for a product in the catalog. The consumer gets a home page customized to their experience with the catalog. And it can go both ways: A couple of clients have customized the catalog to reflect the engagement online.

What are some of the challenges?
Returns and exchanges are messy with different retailers — let’s just say it’s noisy. For example, someone buys 10 chairs or pairs of shoes online and returns nine of them to a store the next week. Digital gets all the glory, and the store gets dinged with nine returns. It’s a perfectly acceptable experience, but we want to attribute it to the right channel.

Yikes. How do you handle that kind of behavior?
We’re laughing because it exists, but it’s a concern. It’s a persona that we want to identify. And it’s not unique to one brand. A retailer like Finish Line will fulfill orders through different stores. The source store can change based on updated inventory levels or the supply chain logic they have in place. But we’ve cracked that nut — we can track day-by-day how it changes.

So what should retailers focus on?
Data and channel integration. There’s so much data. The brands see it, and the bigger ones do all this stuff themselves. At the mid-tier level, companies are so overwhelmed with keeping their marketing engines running, it’s hard to scale. They still need help.


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