What is Omni-channel Retailing?

What is omni-channel retailing, and what is its true impact on retail customer trends?

What Is Omni-channel Retailing

We hear the phrase everywhere. Yet few ask explicitly: what is omni-channel retailing, really? Omni-channel is defined by TechTarget as “a multi-channel approach to sales that seeks to provide the customer with a seamless shopping experience whether the customer is shopping online from a desktop or mobile device, by telephone or in a brick and mortar store.”

In marketing and technology, you know that something is still new when you can’t find one unanimous way to spell it. Ecommerce, eCommerce, e-commerce – remember those days? We now find omni-channel, omnichannel and omni channel across the web, each time usually describing the practices of a prestigious brand. Instead of arguing about the correct spelling, we just see it as an indicator of something new and yet to be decided by the masses.

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But what is omni-channel retailing, really? Omni comes from the Latin word omnis, which can mean all or universal. Omni-channel is about true continuity of the customer experience. Being omniscient is perceiving and understanding all things. Not all things at Best Buy. Not all things at Gucci. Omni is perceiving all things. The best way for a customer to perceive everything is to allow them to own their own data and experience, and then give them the ability to use it to guide the creation and context of every shopping experience. When brands think about customer experience, they need to think omni. It’s not about your customers or their customers, it’s about ALL customers.

It’s important to distinguish an omni-channel user experience from a multi-channel retail experience. It comes down to the depth of the integration. All omni-channel experiences will use multiple channels, but not all multi-channel experiences are omni-channel. You can have amazing mobile marketing, engaging social media campaigns, and a well-designed website. But if these elements don’t work together, it’s not omni-channel.

The multi-channel experience is what most businesses invest in today. Brands boast a website, blog, Facebook page and Twitter account. They use each of these platforms to engage and connect with customers. However, in most cases, the customer still lacks a seamless experience and consistent messaging across each of those channels.

An omni-channel approach, on the other hand,  thoughtfully considers each platform and device a customer will use to interact with the company. That knowledge is then used to deliver an integrated experience. Companies using this technique align their messaging, goals, objectives, and design across each channel and device.

Below are some companies who know how to answer the question What is omni-channel retailing? (and have been incorporating it effectively into their consumer strategies):

Disney. Disney gets omni-channel, down to the smallest details. It starts with the consumer’s initial experience on their beautiful, mobile-responsive website. Even their trip-planning functionalities work well on mobile devices– something you don’t see often. After booking, you use the My Disney Experience tool to plan your entire vacation, from choosing where you will dine to securing your Fast Pass reservations. Then comes the Magic Band wearable. This tool acts as a hotel room key, theme park admission ticket, photo storage device for pictures you take, and the capability to order food. Disney is truly leading the way in omni-channel experience.

REI. At least 43 percent of customers have used their mobile phone while shopping in a brick-and-mortar store. For that reason, a retailer has to be sure that each of their shopping channels works instantaneously with one another to provide something truly powerful. REI does this well through their many shopping touch points. With the company’s omni-channel initiative, a customer will find up-to-date and accurate product information at every turn. That experience will keep customers happy, satisfied and returning to REI again and again.

Starbucks. A quick look at the Starbucks Rewards app reveals why many consider it one of the top omni-channel experiences out there. First, you get a free rewards card that you can use whenever you make a purchase. But unlike traditional customer loyalty programs, Starbucks has made it possible to check and reload your card via phone, website, in store, or through the app. Any change to the card or your profile gets updated across all channels, in real-time.

Chipotle. We have all probably had the experience of ordering food online, only to find out that the restaurant hadn’t received word of your purchase by the time you arrived. Chipotle seeks to eradicate that frustration with its online experience. Their online system and mobile ordering app allows a customer to place an order wherever they are. With omni-channel, it’s all about making the customer’s life as easy as possible. While Chipotle has faced some other challenges lately, their easy-to-navigate tools that provide on-the-go ordering access is a true omni-channel home run.

So what is omni-channel retailing going to look like in the long run? It’s true that omni-channel user experiences have a long way to go, and the scale of some of the integrations described above may make the entire endeavor feel out of reach for smaller companies. But technology has come a long way over the past decade and is still improving at a rapid pace. That improving technology will no doubt make it possible for even the smallest companies to engage directly with customers – no matter where, they are, what they’re doing, or what device they’re using.

This article was originally published in 2016 and was updated October 24, 2017. 

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