How to Succeed in Omni-Channel Retailing

An Omni-Channel Strategy and Framework

Omni-channel retailing transcends what has been largely siloed, multichannel consumer communications with personalized and consistent engagement across all channels and touch points. The days of simply talking about omni-channel as a theory or future capability are past.

Leading retailers now recognize that omni-channel sales and service engagement is no longer a differentiator but instead is fast becoming the new norm and a cost of doing business if you expect to retain and grow retail consumers – and particularly the most loyal consumers with the highest spend.

Retail Systems Research (RSR) Retail Insight report found that while multi-channel retailing is top of mind with retail executives, 94% of e-retailers have not yet executed omni-channel strategies. "The move toward omni-channel represents a 'reset moment’ for the retail industry," advises Paula Rosenblum, managing partner at RSR, "… rising consumer expectations remain relentless, particularly around omni-channel fulfillment."

Research from Forrester echoes the challenge. A Forrester study titled, "Customer Desires vs. Retailer Capabilities: Minding the Omnichannel Commerce Gap," found that retailers view channel maturity as a key brand differentiator for their companies, and improving their ability to provide customers with a seamless shopping experience across all channels as a top priority but that 94% of retail decision-makers surveyed said that their companies face significant barriers to becoming an integrated cross channel company.

Despite the undeniable mandate to meet consumers in the channels they frequent, achieving personalized and consistent consumer conversations across channels is a complex undertaking.

To meet this challenge, retailers must recognize multiple channels as more than an integration exercise as any technology deployment in the absence of accompanying strategy and supporting processes will result in the all too predictable scenario where systems are always trying to catch up to consumer demands and retailer objectives.

Retailers should further recognize that omnichannel retailing is much more about the consumer experience, not just channels of communication. Omni-channel retailers will interact with customers in stores, websites, chat, tablets, kiosks, mail, catalogs, contact centers, social media, mobile devices, and many more forums. But these channels are just the mediums, not the strategy. The primary omni-channel goal is to let customers experience the brand rather than the channel. The channel is the means to the goal, not the goal itself.

10 Step Omni-Channel Framework

The retailers goal is to deliver a channel-agnostic Customer Experience (CX) that promotes the brand. But seamlessly crossing online and offline channels to deliver a real-time, personalized, consistent and rewarding customer experiences across any and all channels and at every customer touch point is a tall order.

Achieving omni-channel success starts with a retail strategy that understands the needs and preferences of consumers, designs experiences to meet those needs and applies technology to automate and scale consistent delivery.

Here’s a framework to use as a starting point in designing your omni-channel retail strategy.

  1. Business Strategy. For real business transformation to occur, retailers should consider a more holistic view of their business as a whole, rather than as siloed operations competing for revenue. They should further consider how to advance from product-centric to customer-centric organizations. This requires a change from the all too typical inside-out thinking that is entirely designed around the retailers objectives to outside-in thinking, and understanding the consumers’ objectives. It’s a good idea to start with Voice of the Customer (VoC) analysis to understand what channels your consumers prefer for what scenarios. You want to gather, categorize, prioritize and really understand your consumers rational and emotional preferences and habits. Also correlate your channel and use case scenarios with consumer personas or profiles. Consumers are not homogenous and not every channel is needed or appropriate for every consumer use case.
  2. Executive Sponsorship. Adopting a CX strategy, becoming a customer-centric retailer or modifying cross-departmental processes to achieve an omni-channel strategy starts with boardroom buy-in and executive sponsorship. Studies consistently show that omni-channel shoppers outspend their single channel counterparts, but implementing an omnichannel retail strategy requires a significant investment. While many retail leaders believe deploying omni-channel is a prerequisite to compete, directors and CEOs require a business case which aligns investment with ROI. If you don’t succeed with the business case or gain executive sponsorship, stop, retrench and try again. Don’t proceed without executive sponsorship.
  3. Business Processes. Many retailers are still unable to meet even the simplest omni-channel use cases. The Forrester study, "Customer Desires vs. Retailer Capabilities: Minding the Omnichannel Commerce Gap", reported that 71% of consumers expect to view in-store inventory online, and 50% expect to buy online and pick up their purchase in a store. However, only 36% of retailers surveyed said that they can provide shoppers with in-store pickup of online purchases, online visibility of cross-channel inventory, and store-based fulfillment of online orders. The research also shared that in-store pickup of purchases has emerged as a key capability that brick-and-mortar retailers must be able to offer if they expect to compete against online-only retailers. 47% of the consumers surveyed said they use in-store pickup to avoid online shipping costs; 25% use it to collect their order on the day of purchase; and 10% say they find it more convenient to pick items from a store rather than having them shipped to their home. Omni-channel consumer use cases are often designed in what are called customer journey maps and organized along consumer personas and life cycle stages. Traversing multiple channels is a journey, so it’s important to prioritize use cases and make continuous advancements. Another common omni-channel business process is supporting consumer conversations across channels and intermittently. Consumers expect to engage their favorite brands in one channel and continue or escalate to another channel often in separated dialogues. For contact center use cases, this requires retailers to bookmark the consumer dialogue so that it is easily resumed when the conversation continues. Omni-channel success demands that business processes become more consumer-centric and cross-functional. This often represents a cultural change where all departments must be reoriented to support whole company goals and not just goals benefiting individual departments. Adopters should consider cross functional champions and teams to design and deploy more holistic business processes. This change is profound, and in fact many retailers wisely understand that they need to reorganize their company hierarchies to become flatter organizations. Customer experiences are only as good as the people who deliver them. Education, training and coaching will be required. Job descriptions should be updated. Incentives should be considered. Indeed, incentives drive retail staff behavior and omni-channel shopping will likely need to be supported with multi-channel commissions. A shared success incentive model will be extremely helpful for most retailers.
  4. Clear Objectives. When setting business objectives, remember that omni-channel communication is more than delivering the same content across multiple channels and should aspire to achieve the more strategic objective of delivering a consistent and rewarding customer experience across all channels. For example, promoting the brand promise, customer-centric culture, conversational tone or even company personality along with the content needed to satisfy the consumer use case achieves more synergistic and sustained results. To stimulate your thinking, here are some objectives I’ve used in prior consulting projects.
    • Deliver consistent customer experiences from platform to platform, with continuity in branding, messaging, and content, and optimized toward the strengths of each channel
    • Facilitate consumers’ desire to engage their favorite brands and even less favorite suppliers over the channel that is most convenient for them at any given time
    • Create seamless customer journeys with cross-channel engagement continuity to aid every consumer interaction and contribute to the overall consumer experience
    • Enable consumers to access communication channels simultaneously and interchangeably while maintaining dialogue persistence during multi-part conversations
    • Keep customers engaged in individual touch points and as they move among them. Maintain conversation fidelity through intermittent starts and stops and across channels
    • Integrate physical, virtual and mobile sales channels to better deliver frictionless buying experiences
      Omni-Channel Technology
  5. CRM Software. Achieving a holistic or what is often called a 360 degree view of each customer relationship is a prerequisite to delivering personalized and consistent communication which enhances the retailers brand with every engagement. Omni-channel success requires an underlying platform to act as the customer system of record and manage or facilitate all customer facing processes. For most organizations this will be the CRM system and most retailers will define their use cases in terms of marketing, sales and service.
  6. Marketing. Marketers need a unified marketing platform, integrated to the customer system of record, that will facilitate consumer online research to in-store purchases, permit consumers to manage their loyalty program from anywhere (online or in the store) and propagate new promotions across multiple channels simultaneously — on the ecommerce site, the email distribution, the social network pages, the mobile app and in stores whether at the POS, an information kiosk, interactive signage or on the floor via a tablet used in clienteling. Consumers now expect incentives and promotions based on who they are, not how they communicate. It’s becoming increasingly important to deliver the same offers or promotions across all channels. Multiple channel retailing delivers more actionable data to marketers – including purchase patterns, loyalty program behaviors, social media affinities, persona preferences, website interactions and more – in order to deliver more relevant, personalized, contextual and channel-specific messaging and offers. This data rich customer profile results in significantly greater engagement which facilitates revenue goals such as campaign conversions, cross-sell, up-sell and Customer Lifetime Value (CLV).
  7. Sales. There are many omni-channel sales opportunities to consider such as enabling a commerce anywhere approach, an omni-channel shopping basket, personalized product recommendations, next-best-offer automation or online ordering with in-store pickup or returns. A best practice that uses an omni-channel strategy to also promote Top of Mind awareness is to make your brands data and customer experience portable so that consumers can store it on their mobile device and take with them. Some retailers try to prevent consumers from scanning merchandise for fear of showrooming. Don’t fall into this trap. Instead, encourage in-store scanning with a mobile app that not only downloads the item but also supporting information and promotion that stays with the buyer during their shopping excursion.
  8. Service. Omni-channel customer service changes service delivery from a company managed channel (normally the call center) to social networks such as Facebook, Google+ and Twitter. CRM systems have embraced Social CRM in order to support social service, peer based communities and cross-channel escalation. From the customer service perspective, the CRM application must also be tightly integrated with the ERP or accounting system in order to support customer inquiries such as inventory availability, item in transit location, credit balance and transaction history.
  9. Enabling Technology. Retailers must be able to deliver the right content or knowledge to the consumer, employee or engagement point when needed, as well as maintain engagement continuity while seamlessly traversing conversations across channels in real-time. Retail technology management is critical in meeting the right data, right place, right time challenge. Unifying siloed and disparate online and offline/store systems and applications is a perennial challenge. Organizations with siloed systems and multiple customer databases will likely need to consider a data governance strategy such as Master Data Management (MDM) in order to manage multiple views of the customer by standardizing customer data, consolidating data, eliminating duplicate data and even applying rules to prevent or reduce bogus data from being captured at various data entry sources. MDM is often a prerequisite to delivering consistent customer information regardless of location, application or channel. As the number of consumer interaction channels expand – and in parallel so grows consumer expectations for retailers to deliver personalized and consistent shopper experiences across all channels and touch points – using a customer system of record platform with MDM becomes essential and also better enables agile business strategies. The morphing of consumer and commercial technologies is a trend that retailers should recognize in their technology strategies. SoMoLo (Social Mobile Local) devices and services, touch-based interactive signage and more engaging POS systems are just a few of the tools that retailers will most certainly use to beat the competition.
  10. Business intelligence (BI). Consumer analytics deliver the closed loop reporting necessary to design and mature a multi-channel strategy. But identifying the most salient and actionable performance measures is often a difficult task. Pursuing multiple channels doesn’t necessarily change your retail performance measures, but it may impact how they are calculated. From my experience, top retail metrics include same store/channel growth, basket analysis, average ticket size, customer share, cross-sell/up-sell, RFM and CLV. The retailers that best acquire multi-channel data, use that data to interpret customer preferences and act upon that personalized information will be the winners.

Omni-Channel Benefits

Omni-channel is a powerful strategy for retailers to improve their customer experience, sales, loyalty and business performance.

In a research report titled Satisfying the Omni-channel Consumers Whenever and Wherever They Shop, IDC Retail Insights found that while multi-channel shoppers spend, on average, 15% to 30% more with a retailer than consumers who use only one channel, omni-channel shoppers will spend 15% to 30% more than multi-channel consumers and exhibit stronger brand loyalty, often influencing others to patronize the brand. IDC research also found that consumers provided with a seamless experience across multiple channels shop more frequently and make more purchases across a relatively broad number of product categories.

Another potential benefit of a well-defined omni-channel strategy is getting shoppers back into stores. Despite the predictions for the demise of brick-and-mortar stores, research continues to show that consumers still want the social interaction, surprise discovery of new merchandise and instant gratification delivered with the in-store shopping experience.

Research also shows that 60%-70% of offline sales are now impacted by online research and digital offers. Clearly, online channels can be designed to get consumers into the stores. With a smart retailing strategy, one channel can drive another to promote channel-agnostic revenue goals.

Omnichannel is Omnipresent

Consumers are more empowered, connected and informed. The spectacular rise of cloud computing, social media and mobility have changed the channels, devices and methods consumers choose to use. And if retailers expect to engage these consumers they’re going to have to meet them in the online channels and venues where they communicate and shop.

Omnichannel is no longer something to do in the future. Retailers who sit the sidelines will see their businesses deteriorate in equal proportion to the continued rise of omnichannel shoppers.

Shoppers have more choices, competitors are only a click away and consumers publicly share their shopping experiences in social networks that magnify a retailers good or bad brand experience in a way that reaches thousands and stays in the public record indefinitely.