In the last few years, I’ve found myself in many a boardroom hearing the phrase “omni-channel experience” uttered in that urgent, reverent tone that alludes to big things on the horizon. I first heard the term in 2012, when the parlance of retailers switched from “multi-channel” to “omni-channel” seemingly overnight. Strategies to remove the walls between traditional and digital channels began to dominate conversations. In this new omni-channel world, the dialogue went, retailers would never miss an opportunity to get a product into a customer’s hands.
An omni-channel retailer can promise shoppers, “You want it? You got it!” And where “it” comes from matters not. Shoppers can browse and buy products online but pick them up in their local store. Or, in the store, they can virtually peruse items that aren’t in the building, and make a purchase to be shipped to their home or office. In short, any product is always available—it just may not be in the same place as the customer when he or she discovers it or buys it.
But for shoppers, making an in-store purchase of virtual merchandise requires giving up a key benefit of the in-person store visit: the ability to see, touch, and try out the merchandise. Ship-to-home purchases also require patience, which cancels out another big advantage of visiting the store—the immediate gratification of leaving with product in hand. It remains to be seen how attractive to shoppers browsing and purchasing from an “expanded assortment” actually is. But as companies like Amazon and Google raise consumer expectations for same-day or overnight delivery, the location of inventory matters less and less, at least for certain types of purchases.
None of this may sound like innovation to the average person. In fact, it seems fairly straightforward for customers to expect retailers to provide the goods they have for sale, regardless of how they are stocked: in the back room of a store, or warehoused through an online fulfillment center. For a customer to have seamless access to more than one sales channel in a single “shopping mission” or transaction seems like a no-brainer.
But for traditional retailers that originated as brick and mortar stores, omni-channel can be difficult because of legacy infrastructure, databases, inventory systems, pricing structures, and operational limitations. The walls between channels exist because of the way organizations developed, and now retailers must find ways to break them down while meeting the needs of connected consumers who use a mix of smartphones, websites, and store visits for a single purchase, and who don’t think in “channels.”
As retailers solve inventory issues and the experience of “channel-free shopping” is really dialed in, location will become truly inconsequential; the shopping experience will have no “starts and stops” and flow as seamlessly as the thoughts and impulses we have as we explore products. The experience will unfold without interruption, regardless of device, place, or time.
As cool as this sounds, truly transformational shopping can only emerge when retailers switch their focus to the more emotional or experiential aspects of shopping by offering personalized experiences. By understanding how an individual shops over time, retailers can predict and meet each person’s needs at the moment they arise—if not before. With a holistic, 360º picture of the customer, they can engage him or her in the most relevant, satisfying, and memorable ways by adjusting how service is delivered and which products are presented.
Imagine every single person having completely individualized relationships with each brand he or she engages with, and a corresponding shopping experience that is his alone. On the surface it sounds futuristic, but it’s really an old-fashioned sentiment, which is what fascinates me. When towns were smaller, and the pace of life was slower, people had more familiar relationships with shopkeepers and merchants—not unlike the connection you have with your hairstylist or your neighborhood barista today. These people greet you by name when you walk in the door, and know what you like; you have history together and a strong bond. As channels become a thing of the past, every one of our retail interactions—whether with a mom-and-pop shop or a multinational clothing brand—could be tailored to our individual needs and hearken back to the personal, meaningful relationships of the past.
In the post-omni-channel world, what should this retail strategy be called? I think the name should have a more expressive and accessible characteristic, like “adaptive store”. It’s the focus on experiences that react and respond to individual shoppers in each unique moment of engagement. And discussing how to get there should be the dominant conversation in every boardroom.