Omni-channel is no longer a retail buzzword – it’s the experience shoppers expect

The term “omni-channel” has likely passed through the lips and ears of nearly every professional working in the retail sector. However, we’re going to be hearing this term much less in the near future.

This isn’t because retailers are going to lose interest in it – in fact, it’s because of its near-ubiquity that it’s beginning to lose its value as a marketing buzzword. Shoppers are becoming increasingly accustomed to omni-channel capabilities, so much so that many now take it for granted. As a result, it’s quickly transforming from “the next big trend” and into “the new norm” for shoppers across the UK.

Those in the retail sector will remember the exact same thing happening to multi-channel retailing fairly recently. With nearly all retailers now carrying an online presence, the term simply can’t be effectively used to differentiate one retailer from its many competitors. As a result, the term has since lost its status as the cutting-edge of modern retail, hence its removal from the marketing lexicon.

Alas, it won’t be very long before omni-channel retailing occupies the same space as its predecessor. Omni-channel retailing is all about having a global view of stock and being able to sell from any location and to any customer looking to make a purchase. In the simplest terms, this means that any customer looking to purchase an item through your website should be able to do as long as the item is available somewhere on a store shelf or in an online warehouse. Inversely, any customer who enters a brick-and-mortar store only to find the product they are looking for is out of stock should be given the option to have the item shipped from another store or an online warehouse, either to their home address or to the physical shop closest to them. The guiding principle of this being that if you limit your market, you also limit any potential sales.

While some retailers are doing very well in enabling omni-channel functions – and have already begun to reap the many rewards that go along with them – many have only just begun to embrace them, and are at risk of falling behind the curve. In order to keep pace with this rising trend, retailers need to deploy the right range of technologies, which ranges from radio frequency identification (RFID) to wearable tech, and they must do so as soon as possible. 

By doing so, they can quickly achieve a global view of their stock, enabling them to operate down any channel they have. Failure to do so will severely limit sales, placing retailers in the queue behind other big names that have already been declared redundant by consumers accustomed to quick or even instant fulfilment. In order to achieve omni-channel excellence, and the many benefits that go along with it, retailers must enable an agile and seamless connection between all of their digital channels and physical outlets.

The benefits of enabling such connectivity are immense – by providing a single view for customers, retailers can grant them a wide array of efficient and convenient options, leading to greater physical and online footfall and rates of retention. When using a retailer’s website, for example, shoppers gain the ability to shop at any time they want from a number of devices – such as PCs, smartphones and tablets – create wish lists and shopping baskets that carry over into physical retail stores, receive personally tailored promotions and marketing material based on their previous shopping history and online activity, receive updates on their current orders, gain access to popular click-and-collect services and take advantage of the retailers’ membership or loyalty schemes that can even carry over to other brands in the same retail group, exposing them to all of the organisation’s brands through advanced and highly effective cross-promotion.

Another important, though commonly overlooked aspect of omni-channel retailing is wearables. If the core of omni-channel retailing is enabling customers to make purchases via whichever method they find most convenient, having compatibility with emerging payment methods such as Apple Pay, the newly introduced Android Pay and even smartwatches and other wristbands could be considered mandatory for ascending to the title of a true omni-channel retailer.  

Retailers must be able to cater to shoppers with Apple Watches, Samsung wristbands and other devices, as more consumers begin shifting away from Chip and PIN payment cards when making smaller purchases. Doing so is not as daunting as it may appear. If a retailer has PIN entry devices (PEDs) that are already capable of taking contactless payments, then they can take payment from Apple Watches and some of the other smartwatch payment systems currently on the market or in the pipeline, without the need to drop hefty investments into costly new hardware.

Doing so isn’t all about increasing customer convenience and enabling quicker checkouts, either. Enabling payments via wearables also gives retailers the important advantage of achieving increased loyalty from their current and past customers. Customers can be enticed to sign up to loyalty programmes and build up credits that can be easily monitored and redeemed through a smartwatch or wristband.

One channel that retailers can utilise for loyalty schemes is smartphone applications. Those who branch out beyond bricks and clicks and enter the mobile app arena can offer exclusive discounts and rewards through these programmes while interacting with their customers on an increased number of devices, all at the customer’s leisure. A vital aspect of the shopping experience that is mostly overlooked by strategists is the headaches caused to customers and retailers by returns, which almost becomes a dirty word due to the connotations of hassle and struggle that comes with it. Brands who have all of their channels linked will be able to receive unwanted goods through any of their channels, no matter how the customer purchased the items in the first place, removing the risk of negative experiences in any part of the customer’s journey.

Many retailers across the UK are moving towards omni-channel retailing, casting it from its former buzzword pedestal and into the ranks of other offerings customers take for granted. With this technology now more accessible than ever, it’s vital that retailers deliver the convenience and efficiency of omni-channel before they are relegated to the past.

James Pepper, technical services director, Vista Retail Support

Image source: Shutterstock/Pretty Vectors