Is Omni-Channel the answer for retail?

There have been a few articles around recently warning retailers not to rush into multi-channel or omni-channel retail, given the differences in the model and challenges in distributing product.  In fact, one commentator who I admire and normally agree with on most things labeled “Omni-channel is a pipe dream”.  In the article he states retailers should focus instead on “being the best physical retailer there is”, and “Just because everyone is doing it doesn’t mean that it is right for you”.

Online-shopping-cartWhilst I agree with the sentiment expressed above, the article misses a fundamental point.  That is retail is undergoing a massive structural change which is being driven by a move by consumers to shop online and on mobile devices.  Retailers who don’t respond to the change will indeed be in danger.   Just doing more of the same, better – will not work with structural change.  Retailers need to respond to the change or face the prospect of being left behind or worse.

In a report titled “The Future of Retail – Consumer adaptive retailing” the authors from PWC and Frost & Sullivan state “Online retail is now embedded in consumers behaviour and will force changes to the traditional retail operating mode; those retailers that do not move to the new model will not survive.”

A new approach is required, which is hinted at in the PWC report. It is an adaptive and agile approach to utilising technology to implement a new responsive business model which addresses how consumers will be shopping in the future.  This model is characterised by new open, cloud based offerings covering all of the retailers customer facing systems (in store, online and mobile).  Structural change is not going to be addressed by just putting up an online store (ticking the multi-channel or omni-channel box) and hoping that it will work.

Re-visioning all of the retailers customer facing systems is required; from in-store Point of Sale, to an integrated Online Store and Consumer Apps for smart phones and tablets.  All these customer facing systems should be integrated, sharing the same cloud based back-end pricing and promotions engines and sharing all customer information and insight from each of the channels.  This will provide in-store staff with the tools and information in their hands (with mobile Point of Sale) when customers first enter their store,  letting them know what the customer was interested in and discussing online and on their mobile device before they arrived.

Retailers must give customers the convenience and flexibility to shop the way that they want.  The flexibility to browse online, on mobile or in-store; to buy online, on mobile or in-store; to pick-up in-store or have delivered and provide ongoing after-sales services for returns and refunds so that the customer has confidence to shop when, where and how they want.  All with the same great, consistent customer experience of course.

Technology is driving structural change in retail as it is in other areas of life.  It is disruptive change, the fuse is short and the bang will be big for retail.  For retailers to survive the structural change they must also respond with technology – focusing on how the customer shops, now and in the future to ensure customers have the consistent, convenient experience across all channels.

So is Omni-Channel the answer for retail?  I think it is definitely part of the answer, the full answer is to ensure that the customer experience is consistently great, where ever and when ever they shop that will keep them coming back for more.

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