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Will 2017 be the master of omnichannel?

How cool is technology? It is now possible to remotely order a coffee from Starbucks so it is waiting for you, steaming hot, at your nearest outlet, ready paid for through your app-based loyalty card. This enables those of us in a perennial rush to beat the queue and eliminate the need to wait for the order fulfilment.  

In New York shoppers at Rebecca Minkoff can alert sales assistants that they need an alternative size of garment or a different item by using their mobile app from the dressing room. Additionally, RFID tags in the clothes automatically upload them to the app so that shoppers can purchase them immediately in-store or buy them online at their convenience.  

Whilst in the UK Waitrose is trailing new technology that allows customers to scan barcodes at home adding them to their online shopping basket so they can place an online order wherever they are.

Revolution of the shopper's experience

And even more mind boggling is Amazon’s patent for ‘anticipatory shipping’. The retailer reckons it knows us so well it will be able to ship our next package before we even order it! It believes this new technique will cut delivery time and encourage increased levels of online shopping as it thinks the lag time between clicking ‘buy’ and the item’s delivery is a barrier for many shoppers. And if anyone can Amazon can. Having a joined up experience is at the heart of their offering. For example, their customer service is second to none. 

Their agents have all the relevant information to hand and can troubleshoot accordingly meaning you only ever have to speak to one person. This is rare! I was on the phone to a broadband provider a few weeks ago and was put through to eight different people none of which had my account details to hand let alone my order history. This made the experience agonisingly painful and led to me switching supplier. 

Without a shadow of a doubt new media has revolutionised the shopper experience. Long gone are the days of 28-day delivery periods or pounding the pavements looking for that elusive gift. It can all be done by a swish of the finger from the comfort of our desk, sofa, bus journey or bathroom break. The common denominator of the above examples, however, is surprisingly not the innovative application of technology, but actually the strength of the underlying brand. Without exception the shopping experience marries with the brand promise of the organisation. 

Starbucks stands for convenience; Rebecca Minkoff for luxury; Waitrose for ease and Amazon for speed – the technological applications facilitate this. Imagine being able to summon a shop assistant from the changing room in Primark… it just doesn’t tally. 

Comprehensive understanding wins the day

Retailers that are winning in the omnichannel environment are those that have a comprehensive understanding of their brand and put it at the heart of the customer experience. Bells and whistles are great, but only if they make sense to the consumer. Having mirrors in-store that eradicate the need to try an item on by superimposing the garment onto the customer’s reflection is a nice to have; but if the customer can’t ‘click and collect’ if that’s what they want to do then the mirrors are merely an expensive gimmick.  

John Lewis; often hailed as an omnichannel paragon, understands this. It has spent time, effort and money getting the basics right. It knows its customers and what they want and it provides this – all in the context of its brand. The ability to order online and have the product delivered to a Waitrose store the next day has bolstered sales by 45 per cent. This isn’t a fancy technological advancement, but a sensible distribution decision that fits with the trusted relationship customers have with John Lewis.  

Despite the exciting examples above, omnichannel is actually a rather boring backend process. It is supposed to enable consumers to start a purchase through a channel of their choice and finish it through a different channel. However, recently its definition has morphed more into the ‘showrooming’ space – i.e. enhancing the in-store customer experience with a raft of multichannel experiences. 

The issue for the industry is that many organisations have become distracted by the latter, rather than concentrating on the former. This is a classic case of tactics winning over strategy and its impact is being recognised by consumers. A new report by Rockpool Digital outlines that only a third of shoppers believe they have had a ‘fantastic’ or ‘good’ omnichannel shopping experience. Eighty per cent think retailers good do better. Another study, this one by Forrester, shows that 71 per cent of customers surveyed consider it important to be able to view local inventory information for an item online. 

In fact, 39 per cent of survey respondents went so far as to say they would not shop at a store whose online presence lacked this information. But only five per cent of retailers in the UK were found to offer this capability. The conclusion of both studies is that consumer expectations are not being met.

A growing demand

Omnichannel is not a flash in the pan. Demand for greater multichannel shopping experiences is growing as technology becomes more deeply entrenched in everyday life and organisations that fail to get it right will find diminishing returns from their customers. 

2016 provided some incredible examples of what is possible in the omnichannel space, but as the research shows there is still some way to go. The key for 2017 is getting technology and marketing to work closer together to provide that elusive omnichannel experience that consumers crave across the board – so that it becomes the rule, not the exception. 

The technology is more than capable but its ensuring that the technology works seamlessly and relevantly. Ultimately, what is clear for the New Year is that moving forwards omnichannel strategy must be viewed through a brand lens. By doing so it will ensure that the experience works and makes sense to both the customer and the organisation.   

Image Credit: Nito / Shutterstock
Manfred Abraham, Managing Partner,

Manfred Abraham is the co-founder and Managing Partner of BrandCap a next generation business consultancy specialising in solving business issues through brand expertise.