Why the retail experience must be omnichannel

The “future” of retail is omnichannel, let’s get that straight. It’s not wether you pick e-commerce over brick and mortar or vice versa, but rather how you integrate the two together.

I have been in the marketing scene since the early ‘90s and I have seen a certain cycle over and over…In 1994, I had learnt how to create my own website and I could intuitively understand how the concept of “internet” was about to change the world (at the time I was using the short lived Gopher and Mosaic, available to students across the Minnesota University system). Yet, when I approached a number of local eateries located near campus to offer them to create a simple website for a mere US$30 so that they could remind students that they existed, I only got one retailer saying yes, reluctantly and just because I was a nice person. Then Netscape Navigator, America Online and Internet Explorer launched and the rest is history.

In 2011 or thereabout, Facebook for Business launched in Australia giving businesses the opportunity to have a social media presence. At the time, I was marketing manager at the Adelaide Convention Centre in South Australia and I remember the debate at local networking functions…Should we? Should we not? Of course you should invest in developing a social media presence! But so many businesses were cautious and slow to act on it. Then social media turned into an incredibly powerful machine as we know it, redefining the way we market, reach and engage people, creating new professions and businesses…and the rest is history.

Today, or in the last couple of years, I hear and read about the end of the brick and mortar retail model. People want convenience, they don’t have time to go out and shop, they are looking for the best deals and so on. And while that is certainly true, I think someone forgets that we are still humans. Technology has evolved dramatically and changed the way we live, but at our core we are still driven by the same values, one of which is building meaningful and emotional connections.

It is true that online sales have taken a piece of the pie away from brick and mortar to some extent and in some industries certainly in greater proportion than others. However, those who have been quick to open up an alternative sales channel, with the understanding that it can complement your existing presence and bring in additional audiences, would have grown through this omnichannel approach. An omnichannel approach has given many businesses the opportunity to grow sales, expand their product portfolio by introducing new products designed for automated turnaround (products that would cost too much to sell in person) and reach new audiences and markets. Think about the travel industry for example, and how it has been affected by technology. I would say tremendously and continuously. I know this for a fact because I spent two years investigating this industry and market. When I was in charge of Travel Product & Pricing at the Royal Automobile Association (RAA), I created and launched the existing Experience SA platform, which sells hundreds of South Australian experiences and accommodations through a purpose built online booking platform. This little business within the business is bringing in customers and sales for local products, none of which was there before or was profitable to sell in the RAA shops.

So brick and mortar retailers do not need to feel afraid of e-commerce and blame their falling sales to it. Instead, they need to take responsibility, a good look at their business, roll up their sleeves and have the courage to partly reinvent themselves. For all those who work in traditional retail, therefore, thinking about a strong digital presence that enhances and complements personal relationships is fundamental; it is a tool for creating and promoting a strong and meaningful brand and to tell their own distinctive narrative; it is also a great opportunity to collect and mine data. Through this data you can then personalise the individual online experience and create something special for your customers.

The store must be seen as a relationship platform, rather than a transactional space.

When it comes to customer experience, the opportunity to create a human connection that leaves a mark is certainly stronger through a physical shop and through physical interaction rather than an online connection. I think that the fundamental issue is that businesses don’t really always understand their customers, their needs and the journey that they take to see their needs fulfilled. That explains to me why there is an increasing demand for CXm roles in the business world, which is refreshing. Businesses understand that the customer is, has been and always will be at the centre of the picture and now are taking action to unpack what that really means and how the organization can transform itself to respond.

Another key factor is that the customer more than ever is making decisions online. Not necessarily buying, but certainly researching, comparing, enquiring, complaining, leaving feedback and sharing. Digital channels have dramatically changed the customer journey and those channels are omnipresent, they never switch off. So you need to be there too.

If the customer then opt for the brick and mortar shopping option, retailers must make sure that they “walk the talk” in store and provide a valuable experience. Personally, I prefer shopping in a physical store than online, but the majority of my shopping experiences are very bland, with staff that is poorly trained, has very little passion for what they do and sell and sometimes it is obvious that they just can’t be bothered.

It would be a mistake to think that e-commerce is best suited for rational, price-driven transactions. Today you can buy pretty much any luxury online and who hasn’t bought “emotionally” when, for example, we are presented with an irresistible offer (only to maybe regret it later?). Besides, it should be largely understood that if you engage in a price-driven competition game, you are racing yourself to the bottom and that leads to disaster. As a business, cutting your margins to win sales is never a smart decision because someone or something will have to pay for it: employees, service quality, innovation investments, product development and ultimately the customer experience.