Omnichannel or Bust: The Retailer's Road to a Customer's Heart

Consumers know what it takes to experience memorable shopping. Retailers have to make the experience happen. Unequivocally.

Burgeoning digital consumption and the proliferation of social media have created a potential 'sky's the limit environment' for consumers who now have more ways than ever to interact with a brand. Whatever their journey--exclusively shopping online or using their many devices and channels to complement the in-store experience--there's one constant. Consumers expect convenient, easy, all-time-everywhere access that's seamless, consistent and, well, personal and contextual or relevant. The best way for retailers to meet this demand: Implement an omnichannel strategy.

Just what is omnichannel?

Omnichannel builds on the many choices available to consumers to experience a brand. It assumes they will interact with a brand and receive marketing information via website, email and online ads, and transact to shop either digitally, by phone, from a catalogue, in-store or via a combination of these channels. Omnichannel adds one singularly important piece to this landscape: integration.

Integration is what separates omnichannel from multichannel and cross channel which do allow customers to connect with a brand via multiple channels, but--and it's an important but--leave them with interactions that are siloed. With the integration afforded by omnichannel, however, retailers can maintain a single, holistic view of their individual customers, regardless of how each customer communicates.

Most consumers visit a website, read brand emails, see online ads, receive catalogues and engage with a brand on social media. Plus, they transact by buying in more than one place--a website, a physical store, or even through wholesale and retail partners like Amazon, Etsy or eBay. The retailer's job is to tie all the transactions from a single customer, via multiple channels, to that single customer. It's the integration enabled by digital connections that makes the customer experience continuous; that makes it consistent across devices, channels and time; and that makes it contextual or relevant even when a customer may transition from one channel to another during a particular purchase. No matter how, what or where the customer is in the shopping journey, the experience is rich and seamless.

Bottom line: If you, as a retailer, can't capture a single customer view of any one customer, you will find it impossible to identify your most valuable customers. This will prevent you from providing a consistent customer experience, leaving your customers disappointed and disgruntled--so much so, that you will likely lose them.

Breathing life into social crm

How well a retailer takes advantage of the many channels available for intelligent engagement can make or break a retailer's ability to attract, convert and retain customers--making omnichannel the engine that empowers game-changing social customer relationship management or Social CRM. Omnichannel breathes life into Social CRM by giving retailers the tools to test constantly, measure everything, and segment individual customers and groups of customers and woo them. Consumers are willing to bend a little on privacy to ensure that a brand reaches out to them in meaningful ways, like rewarding them with perks including loyalist discounts and premium offers, free shipping, or the ability to make exchanges and returns in-store. The endgame: happy customers who trust a brand and are so loyal that they turn into word-of-mouth advocates.

Facebook's businesses on messenger

The social network's entrance into the e-commerce arena speaks volumes for the way an omnichannel strategy breathes life into CRM. With its active tracking of online habits, Facebook is ready-made for personalization, and its credit card and flexible shipping options afford convenience to users. For example, the site's "Businesses on Messenger" platform enables customers to place orders through an instant message conversation with a sales representative either online or via mobile. This humanizes the connection and provides the opportunity to discuss, let's say, shipping options--a discussion that can erode some fulfillment challenges like how long it will take for a package to arrive and at what cost, inconveniences that have annoyed customers, plagued retailers and interfered with the seamlessness of a shopping experience.

The digital/in-store connection

Facebook's foray into e-commerce will also help deepen the connection between digital and in-store, so that essentially consumers can shop online to shop in-store. Messenger's location capabilities will allow retailers to market more localized offers and send promotions based on where a customer lives and what stores he or she frequents. In fact, using mobile to search for a nearby retail location has been shown to be the most common shopping action for smartphone and tablet users when accessing mobile apps and websites.

But the link between digital and in-store doesn't stop there. In-store pick-up for a product purchased online is a successful approach many big-name retailers use to get customers into their stores where customers can see more products and touch and feel them before they buy. And beacon technology and other in-store proximity tools are allowing retailers to exploit the digital-physical connection still further. Mobile point-of-service technology arms in-store associates with tablets. Associates use these devices to access inventory for shoppers, provide product information, send coupons to loyal customers for products they like when those customers enter the store and even give personalized product recommendations.

Omnichannel: here to stay

Why, then, despite omnichannel's all things to all people appeal, are retailers lagging in adoption? eMarketer reports that according to an October 2014 survey by SPS Commerce and Retail Systems Research, only 5% of businesses have executed most of their omnichannel strategies; 37% haven't even begun.

Understandably, concern about spend versus ROI and whether legacy systems will link to newer technologies may be slowing adoption. Still, the development of new devices and technologies will evolve omnichannel capabilities even further. Customers will demand more from the shopping experience. If retailers take advantage of the omnichannel tools available to them, they will be able to deliver on consumer expectations.

The time for retailers to move to an omnichannel strategy is now. In this customer-centric world, survival as a retailer depends on it!