Omni Channel Retail. Practical first steps.

Like all good buzzwords, it gets inserted into every retail related conversation. It’s the new Holy Grail. I doubt you could read an article about the future of retail  without it being mentioned. Interesting though, it’s not all that new as a concept. There are omni channel articles dating back to 2009 and more famously (Terry Lundgren’s article ) in 2010.

So what is it? Simply put, Omni Channel Retail is about providing your customer the same experience irrespective of medium. So your in store (offline) experience should be same as the one your customers can enjoy online (mobile, tablet, laptop, etc.). Simple, but perhaps a little over whelming.

What about the Tech?

Many Omni Channel articles talk about supply chain logistics, tight integration, data sharing, etc. ~ which is great in an ideal world, but no joke in reality. Sure having your backend completely integrated is a marketers dream as far as data is concerned. You’d have the same power that Amazon has to recommend purchases based on customer profiles, purchase histories, current trends, etc. Practically speaking, unless your retail shop is a “digital native”, which most aren’t, this isn’t something that’s going to happen quickly or easily.

The key to omni channel retail may be in the words “customer experience”. Omni Channel exists because the shopper has evolved. They research products online, look for peer validation, and are used to pausing mid-purchase-cycle and then resuming. These elements of their experience are missing when they’re offline.

The starting point

So the question I ask is, how can these online shopping elements be integrated into your offline customer experience? When we look at some of the most common features of online retailers, many of them can be addressed without massive supply-chain-wide integration (though the solutions below do assume a decent online shopping cart with mobile/responsive friendly design). As for a few of the others, maybe you don’t need a complete overhaul as much as yet another bandage whilst you wait for the impending business-wide-update.

  1. Multiple (large) Images; You’ve got the product in front of you, offline trumps online for visual experience. Access to the wider range of colors in this particular product might be helpful. This could be achieved by providing a QR code with a hotlink to your online store, providing color options. A tablet for the customer to walk around with, that provides immediate product information based on QR/barcode scanning. Or go 100% old school, with a simple color card.
  2. Reviews; Again this can be delivered to the customer on a per product basis by QR Code. The data doesn’t have to be yours. You can source your reviews from other sites. Don’t be shy, your customers aren’t. They’ll trust peer review over your suggestions. Don’t forget this is two way, remember to aggressively collect reviews from customers. Hotels are good at this, and restaurants are getting better. Regular follow-up emails (your email marketing strategy is highly relevant), staff equipped with review tablets…
  3. Large Catalogue; No matter how big it is, your store has a tiny amount of space compared to the Internet. Your entire catalogue should be available through your online store. If it is, and your customer can get to it from inside your store, you’ve just added a lot of space to your store. Checkout what Tesco and Addidas  are doing – that’s a massive saving in real estate, and much much bigger stores.
  4. Product Comparison, Product Suggestion, Cross Selling; See solution #1.
  5. Search & Layered Navigation; More complicated. Searching a physical store doesn’t need to be a nightmare for your customer, libraries have been doing it for years. Provide an equivalent of an ISBN shelf reference for your goods and easy tablet access upfront. Your customers can jump straight to what’s exciting them. Keeping this data up-to-date is tougher, so don’t make the references too granular.
  6. Quick Checkout; Apple did it with their mobile check-out-counter-staff. Why can’t you? Yes it’s not integrated to your POS. But would you rather lose a customer to a long queue (be honest, how recently have you walked away from a purchase because of queues?), or just pay an extra percent to have the transaction completed via your online store? As an aside, there’s also a much higher chance of sales if your staff are empowered to immediately close sales.
  7. Coupon options; Everyone is looking for a discount. If they can get them online, give it to them offline. Domino’s does this and it works. Making the deals online exclusives just drives the business out of stores, and potentially to someone else.

Implementing these ideas may get you closer to being a omni channel retailer, but it won’t fix all your problems. It is not a magical marketing plan or technology solution. You’re still going to have to serve cookies at Christmas, create experiences that people want to come in-store (or online) for and actually find ways of reaching them. This is just going to help you increase conversions once they’re there.

Whats your experience been with omni channel retail? Where do you think retailers need to start?