INSIGHTS AND PERSPECTIVES

Taking the seams out of omnichannel

BY David Orgel

The business world has a language all its own, and some of its words are problematic. Take “omnichannel” for example.

The word is fine on its face. It’s fairly understood in retail references. It indicates activities that span online, brick-and-mortar and other channels. Retailers are investing large sums to accelerate these strategies. So why is this word a problem? It’s because omnichannel defines retail strictly from an industry — not a consumer — viewpoint.

It underscores how the industry thinks and classifies. In fact, the word “channel” itself has a long history in retail. It’s been used to describe different types of retailers like grocery, drug and mass.

Again, all of this is about classifications. It has nothing to do with the actual customer experience.

Consumers, on the other hand, just want retailers to serve their needs with an experience that’s as satisfying and efficient as possible. They don’t recognize all the classifications. Many want a retailer to know who they are wherever they shop. This means they require a seamless experience across so-called channels. But that’s hard because channels do have seams. This means omnichannel will never fully describe the kind of experiences consumers want.

That said, omnichannel is universally understood and may be the best word we have at present. Channels will be around for a while. Retailers need to make customer experiences better and more consistent across their sprawling operations. This point came up recently at the NGA Show, a retail forum geared to independent grocers in San Diego.

“What are those stories you can bring to life in your store that no one else can?” Suri Mishra, vice president of services at Merchants Distributors, asked during an NGA Show presentation. “How can you bring these stories to life across all channels?”

Mishra’s presentation, “Creating Seamless Omnichannel Experiences,” offered solid guidance aimed at achieving this. Among the ideas: Make sure the retail message is clear. Make sure it’s the same message for e-commerce, social media and in store. Ensure that employees are living the brand and knowing what it stands for.

Here’s my favorite piece of advice: “Don’t add a channel just because it feels cool.” While it’s important to deliver messages that are consistent across channels, sometimes the specifics need to play out differently in different places. This is especially true when retailers want to take advantage of experiences that only can be accomplished in a particular environment, such as a physical store.

“We have a cheese monger, an artisan bread salesman, and seafood and meat specialists,” said Bob Harmon, vice president for the customer at Utah-based food retailer Harmon City, during an NGA Show presentation. “Customers are looking for these things. They want the interactions. These will always be differentiators.”

Returning to the word omnichannel, one of the ideas offered at the Food Marketing Institute Midwinter Executive Conference in January came from A.T. Kearney partner Randy Burt, who suggested viewing the customer as a channel. I asked Randy to explain what this means. “It means understanding how to connect with consumers where they are,” he said. “All those access points are available to them, but they are really thinking about their needs, whether it’s convenience, value, variety or price. So this is about being consumer-centric. Your core shopper is evolving, and you need to shape your offering
around this.”

I believe Randy is talking about the imperative of building a retailer’s compass around the shopper. This may sound simple when said, but it’s complex in practice, especially in this fast-changing retail environment.

So regardless of what you call it, omnichannel or something else, it’s important for retailers to go down this road. It won’t eliminate all the seams, but it definitely will help smooth things out considerably.


David Orgel is an award-winning business journalist, industry expert and speaker. He currently is the principal of David Orgel Consulting, delivering strategic content and counsel to the food, retail and CPG industries. To read last month’s column, click here.

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