What is omni-channel? Explain it to me.

If ever you have found yourself scrolling through retail news on your desktop, maybe on a lonely afternoon, a hint of caramel drizzle in your beard from the frothy macchiato you so carelessly sipped, office blinds tilted upwards, your wingtip oxfords from Allen Edmonds indenting the supple leather of your reception loveseat, you may have heard it. The latest buzzword, omni-channel.

Omni-channel is a new trend inspiring the retail space. With recent endeavors from Staples, Best Buy, and others, it’s been dubbed the “future of digital commerce” by Forbes and has emerged as a requirement for retailers intending to move forward with a customer-driven focus.

But what is omni-channel? Omni-channel is the seamless, integrated sales experience that unifies all channels: bricks-and-mortar, eCommerce/online, mobile sales, catalogs, telephone, whatever. All of it.

When a retailer employs more than one channel, such as having a website, a catalog and a physical store, they are considered multi-channel. The intention of omni-channel is to weave multi-channel together, so that the retail sales experience isn’t separated or choppy. The customer should experience a single view, even though they may be using multiple channels. There should be no interruption from channel to channel. Bill Davis describes the distinction in an article published this past fall on the Brick Meets Click blog: “In omnichannel, a retailer is working toward a 360-degree view of its customers’ purchases across all channels, in multi-channel they’re just offering customers a selection of channels to choose between.”

Omni-channel will leverage technological advancements to do this. Because of the strong push into the digital world with eCommerce and mobile devices, traditional retailing initially only offered a digital variation of the sales space. Now, this digital version needs to be portable, interact wisely using data and algorithms, and impart a definitively unique, personalized, and thoughtful retail experience to shoppers. Take Alexandra Mysoor’s quote in this article by Kym McNicholas, arguing that omni-channel is a new reality: “Technology is allowing us to create a digital layer that encompasses all channels and creates an experience where the customer is truly at the center and can be delivered a personal experience.”

Nice definitions, but what does it actually look like?

Omni-channel retailing can take many forms. Sometimes it’s something as simple as being able to check online inventory against in-store stock. It can also be as innovative as eBay’s ‘connected glass’ shopping concept (CNN Tech), which marries the now semi-clunky, bricks-and-mortar monstrosity of yesteryear, the mall, with today’s online-focused retail experience. The hybrids range, but most involve the ability to move between mobile, online, and physical retail spaces with ease.

One leading example is Nordstrom. Despite the fact that Jamie Nordstrom, its president, doesn’t know what omni-channel means and doesn’t identify with the term (according to reports found here at Pando Daily and here at Internet Retailer); they are doing it well. The retailer has a strong presence in both the physical and online sectors, but they have successfully overlapped the two. Customers can easily choose to pick up items purchased online in any of their physical stores. Their free shipping and returns can be intermingled both online and in store, with little hassle.

I learned this recently. My mom purchased a sweater at one of their department stores while visiting, but had it unravel once she returned home. There are no Nordstrom stores where she lives, but was able to simply print off a free return label and drop it off in the mail for a no-hassle return. Smart. Simple. Streamlined.

The retailer also has woven social media gracefully into the experience. Nordstrom’s website lets you easily pin items you like, but now has also started showcasing hot items from the Pinterest community in its bricks-and-mortar stores, according to Business Insider. Nordstrom has also actively embraced customer service via Twitter.

And what’s even better? They use mobile POS systems in the store, which creates a personal, one-on-one experience that engages customers. And the future looks bright for new technology: Jamie Nordstrom stated in this article from MultiChannelMerchant that “in the foreseeable future we will not have cash registers in our store.”

While Nordstrom is one particularly comprehensive example, omni-channel retailing can really be just a simple marriage of a couple, or a few, channels. Just adding an eCommerce channel or a mobile POS can mean you are entering the realm of omni-channel, and it might be wise to consider the entire strategy as a whole. Tacking on one channel without giving thought to how they work together could be detrimental to your ever-important customer experience. Retailers now need to consider the implementation of both omni-channel payment solutions and marketing in order to transition to an omni-channel strategy without missing opportunities or mucking up customer engagement.

But why is an omni-channel strategy a smart move? More on that next time… stay tuned!

Photo credit: K B

 

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