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How to operate in the age of universal commerce

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The age of universal commerce is here. We know that customers are shopping through more channels than ever before, with mobile and connectivity serving as hallmarks of this evolving stage of retail. On the first morning of Retail's BIG Show 2013, executives from First Data, IBM Software Group, McDonald's Corp., Pacific Sunwear and Yankee Group gathered to discuss the new mindset that retailers must embrace to keep up with customers in a session called "Universal Mindset: Perpetuating the Consumer-Driven Emergence of Mobile Transactions."

IBM's Alisa Maclin describes the "Chief Executive Customer."

The number one fact that retailers need to accept is that the customer is now in control. As IBM's Alisa Maclin said, the "Chief Executive Customer" is reshaping how retailers do business. The retailer's job is to make sure the brand is everywhere the customer wants to be and to make sure the transaction process as simple as possible. Whether that process takes place on a tablet, a smartphone, a computer or a kiosk, transactions must be simple for customers and tailored for the brand.

It's worth noting, as Maclin did, that the majority of transactions still happen in stores, but that doesn't reduce the importance of seamless universal transactions. It simply emphasizes the need for integration across channels and experiences.  You can't forget about the face-to-face experience, says McDonald's Melody Roberts. A poor customer experience in the store will affect a shopper's perception of a brand, regardless of how great its mobile experience might be. It never hurts, though, to know what your customers' preferred channels are and cater to that preference.

For McDonald's, channels vary by global region, with online ordering expanding rapidly in Asia while kiosks are proving more popular in Europe. Across the board, however, self-ordering is the trend, which highlights the "Chief Executive Customer" philosophy. Maclin also highlighted how important it is to focus on customers as individuals rather than segments, but she stressed that digital natives, the newest generation of shoppers, have different expectations for brands than their parents did. For example, more than 50% of digital natives think that the post-purchase experience is more important than the pre-purchase experience. It speaks to the importance of multichannel consumer loyalty and shared customer experiences, which are ubiquitous online, whether shoppers are engaging about a brand on their personal Twitters feeds or on a retailer's own forum.

Digital natives want to know what their peers think about brands, good or bad, and they will share if their experiences are stellar or disastrous -- but rarely in between. While the panelists agreed that mobile is a must, they did caution against introducing new technology just for the sake of it. If a process, such as paying with a credit card, is already fast and easy for customers, then you don't necessarily need to improve upon it. As Maclin pointed out, McDonald's customers don't habitually complain that the payment process at the register is slow -- because it's not. It's vital for retailers to figure out where there is friction in the transaction process and introduce innovative ways to fix it.

Make sure that you're actually addressing a user experience problem. Just because something is cool and new doesn't mean it's going to resonate with customers. First Data's Dom Morea cited contact-less payment as a type of technology that generated a lot of interest, but ultimately wasn't valuable to many customers because it didn't improve enough upon customers' regular payment habit of simply swiping a credit card. Lessons learned: Don't solve problems your customers don't have. And invest in customer experiences, regardless of channel.