When many high street retailers first launched online arms, in many cases they were set
up as completely separate businesses. Conversely, many online retail businesses were
also established without knowing that they would one day transition to the high street.
Viewed in those early days by some boards as a bit of a distraction from the main high
street operation, they nonetheless felt the need to do something in the digital space as
shoppers were beginning to visit online stores in increasing numbers.
Over subsequent years, online retail has often been conveyed as a disrupting influence –
‘decimating high streets’ and ‘cannibalising sales’ from high street stores. While this
impression still prevails, intervening years have introduced a range of new channels and
devices that have made digital far more relevant in what are seen as traditionally ‘offline’
environments. Technology has changed shopper behaviour at a remarkable rate and
the digital and physical worlds have become increasingly blurred, with the channels
offering opportunities aplenty to complement each other in ways that can greatly drive
sales and engagement.
Which is where omni-channel comes in.
Evolving customer shopping journeys
Retailers have sold successfully to shoppers through a range of different channels, such as
high street stores and an e-commerce site, for a number of years – though not necessarily
presenting a fully unified experience across both channels for the consumer.
As supporting technology has developed, shoppers have become more confident in
using alternate means of engaging with retailers – often several in combination as part of
an overall purchase journey. The growth of mobile device use in accessing the web has
been a really key part of this.
Today, a typical journey may run as follows: a user finds out about a particular product or
range from a social media feed or marketing email, and does some preliminary research
through a PC or tablet; this person then visits a store to touch and feel an item and uses
their smartphone to access additional information or compare prices; they then order an
item through any of the aforementioned channels at a later date to click and collect at a
This may sound fairly familiar in terms of a shopping journey, but since the different channels have often evolved separately from each other, the systems that underpin operations have also largely developed in isolation.
This is probably the biggest challenge preventing the move toward omni-channel – when data is not shared between departments with clear strategies for how to utilise it, understanding how to attribute sales within the business remains very complex and customers get inconsistent experiences across channels.
Consistency in service across channels is important
So why does omni-channel matter? In order to answer this question, it is useful to illustrate just a few examples of how customers would expect their engagement to work seamlessly across different channels – and how it can quickly lead to bad experiences when it doesn’t.
• A customer is sent a voucher via email, but when they try to redeem it in-store the staff
do not recognise the campaign – even though it is from the same retailer as far as they
• A customer pops into a store to purchase an item that’s not in stock – the staff are unable
to check whether a nearby store has it, as warehouse data is not shared centrally, even
though that customer would probably expect to be able to find out that information via
the retailer’s mobile site accessed through their own device
• A retailer replies to customer queries via email within an hour, but takes two days to reply to queries via social media – as far as that customer is concerned, immediacy of response is a primary benefit of social media channels and there should not be such disparity between the response rates
As can be seen from these examples, what may be difficult for a retailer to run efficiently and effectively does not matter in the eyes of the customer. They have high and ever-growing expectations of consistency in service and experience across all brand touch-points, irrespective of channel or context of engagement – which all serve to drive the need for seamless omni-channel operations for retailers large and small.
Which, of course, is why omni-channel matters so much.