What is Omni-channel Retail

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Besides being the main 2015 "buzzword" for retail, omni-channel marks a shift in the the fundamental way we approach retailing. In its simplest form, omni-channel is an approach to sales that seeks to provide the customer with a seamless shopping experience with your store whether the customer is shopping your website from their laptop or mobile device, calling you on the telephone or inside your brick and mortar store.

The push behind this trend is for retailers to allow a customer to shop online on their website, then come into the store to pick it up. Or if the store is out of stock when you are standing in it, you have the order shipped to your home from the online channel. The reason this is so important is that for years retailers have run the different channels they operate or sell within as separate "companies" or in silos. There is a chief of online and a different chief over the stores and still another chief over the catalogue. And with each of these chiefs come large, built-out organizations each one running as its own entity - often times not even on the same software or back office systems. And most times not communicating between each other. In fact, they tend to compete with each other. 

Customers shop a store (brand) so they do not care how they get the merchandise, just that they get it.

They get frustrated when they get a coupon from the website or catalogue that they cannot use in the store. Or they get free shipping from your website, but have to pay for shipping if they buy in the store. 

In one sense, omni-channel is about operating several different "channels" where the customer can shop and buy from you.

So, phone order, in store, online, social media, your app, etc. That perspective, though, is from the retailer side. From the customer side, it's about having a consistent experience with a store or brand - and that is where most fail. 

If you are an independent retailer, you have the same challenges as the national brands. Granted, you may not have a catalogue or phone order business, but you sell in your store and you sell online. The key is to engineer experiences in both locations that are consistent - in other words - remind the customer why they buy from your store (brand.) 

If the experience shopping your website is different than in your store, then you will never gain loyalty with that customer. I remember when we first opened our online store. It had a separate inventory database and separate inventory from our brick and mortar stores. We soon saw the futility in this and purchased a new POS system that treated all the inventory as one company - available for any store or online to sell, but tracked by location. Our "disappointments" with customers went way down because our website now showed merchandise that we had in stock and not just our "catalogue." 

Another important note is to market across the channels you are selling.

For example, if someone tweets about a great experience she just had with your brand? Shoot off a tweet back, thanking her for the kudos and letting her know a 10 percent discount code for his next purchase is waiting in his email inbox. Or if someone visits our website, give them a coupon to shop indoor store when they check out for their next experience. Most times we give offers that simply bounce me back to the original channel. Let me know you are omni-channel by marketing across the channels.