I recently attended a meet-up “Hive Big Data Think Tank”. I attend such meet-ups frequently in the Bay Area, meeting up interesting people and picking up something new. This time was no different.

There was one particular gentleman who happened to be a senior executive from a large retail firm. I decided to pick his brain on my favorite “buzzword” in the retail space – “Omnichannel”. I was shocked BY his statement – “Omnichannel is a case of stillborn; it died before it could live”.

His perspective was that firms did not fully understand or appreciate the nuances of omnichannel phenomenon. The biggest flaw with most firms’ approach was the thinking around “channels” rather than the customer. Omnichannel should not be only about channels or blurring lines between web and offline stores – it should be about customer experience. The goal should be to create an eco-system for customers where they do not feel disjointed from one channel to another, one touch point to another, one product to another. The customer should be able to seamlessly transition from one touch point to another, to complete their buying journey. Rather than make each channel “sexier” (for lack of a better word), the objective should be to make each channel more synchronized and “flowing” with the other channels.

The modalities can vary from business to business, but the idea should be to give a coherent and enjoyable experience to the customer. Some examples of successful implementation of seamless experience:

  • Crate & Barrel, a big home décor and furniture retail company realized that many of their shoppers switch from mobile to tablet while conducting research and completing purchases, hence they introduced a saving of shopping cart feature to bring ease to the transition.
  • Oasis, a big UK based fashion retailer realized that their biggest problem is unavailability of stock at e-commerce site as well as retail stores. Hence they provided iPads to their store associates to order online for customers in case of out of stock. Also if an item is sold out online, customers can use Oasis’ “Seek & Send” service where the retailer searches its stores for the product and ships it to the shopper.

Both Crate & Barrel and Oasis realized and prioritized needs of their customers, which enabled them to build a seamless shopping experience. It takes huge resources – money, time and energy – to achieve such a smooth experience. The firms probably need to strengthen their understanding of their customer profile, before deciding what experience would work the best.

I found his views quite intriguing, and researched a bit on this topic. Interestingly, quite a few others have started talking about this. Most reiterate the issue of “customer vs. channel” thinking. There are some people talking about “Phygital” – Physical + Digital (check links here and here). Some (e.g. check here) have also talked about the challenges with the silos getting created within each of these channels.

All said and done, if I were to cut through the jargon, what has TRULY changed? Not much, in my humble opinion. Agreed, omnichannel thinking has gone through some evolution, and the new ideas are:

  • Focus on the total customer experience and the total results
  • Do not (accidentally) get your different touch-points (or “channels”) to compete with each other; make sure the experience is seamless as well as complimentary…always nudging the customer along the purchase journey
  • Do not let complex metrics and analytics around attribution take your energy away from the customer experience

I do not think anyone amongst the early thinkers around Omnichannel strategy would admit to “not” having considered these new thoughts. However, it is good to have them as a check-list when you draft your retail strategy.

What are your thoughts? Are there any step-changes here? Is there a tectonic shift happening?

Authored by Yatin Bhatia  – Manager Client Services (Retail/e-commerce) at Absolutdata

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