Why Omni-Channel Shopping is Commerce's New Reality

Why Omni-Channel Shopping is Commerce's New Reality

“Ah, so sorry to hear about that,” he says. Each syllable deflating what little bit of excitement you initially felt. 

Two weeks ago, you ordered running shoes online. Last night, they arrived with the beautiful neon mesh that attracted you to them in the first place … ripped.

You called the retailer first thing today, they answered promptly, and you explained the problem. Judging from his distant apologetic comment, this call sounds just like all the others. You think you know where it’s going, so …

Before you’re even off the phone, you start scrolling their competitor’s site for the same shoe. Crap, you should’ve bought from them — you’d have saved $15.

“Well, what can we do about it?” you prompt, as your blood pressure rises. Let’s just get this over with.

“Sorry for the silence, I was just pulling up some details.”

“Sure.”

“You can go to the closest store to make an exchange. Err, let me see here. It’s just a five-minute drive away from your shipping address. I’ve texted the address to the phone number you gave us for shipping, and the store will be open til 9PM today.”

Wait ... did they just handle the problem? You close out of the competitor's website.

“Oh, okay. Thanks.”

“When you get there, the returns booth is by the front, on the other side of the cashier. Just tell them your name, they should be expecting you. And as a token of our apology, they have a gift and a $50 coupon waiting for you.”

Whoa.

“Hello? Are you there?” he asks.

“Thank you so much,” you say after a pause.

“My pleasure. Here’s my direct line in case the return doesn’t go smoothly, my shift’s over at midnight.”

Despite even the most exceptional customer agent’s intentions, this experience is simply impossible if your store’s not set up for omni-channel shopping. Although the outcome would be the same, imagine how different it would be if the agent had to go on hold to call the retailer to verify stock, or if they asked you a bunch of questions about your order.

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In this case, the agent could quickly verify your order from your phone number, share a bunch of information from their product information management system so you don’t have to do the work, and offer something more for their mistake.

You didn’t know they had a store that close to you, and when you got there, an employee says hi and offers you a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.

You navigate to the return booth, but notice ample seating area in the back with speakers and a vinyl player. You suppress your curiosity — you’re here to make the return. It went as smoothly as it could, and you had a look at the replacement pair before it went in the box. You even got a free squeeze bottle out of it, and you used the coupon to buy that micro thread t shirt you wanted.

The clerk rings you up, then asks, “Do you run often?”

“I’m kinda new to running.”

“Oh, cool. Every Wednesday at 6:30PM, a small group of us go for a run around the neighborhood. We’re all pretty new to it, you should join us sometime. You can drop in whenever you like.”

“Great, I think I might.” Given that this is not your first time trying to pick the habit up, you really mean it as well.

“Awesome. We have a big calendar over there, but if you sign up at our online member portal, you get free shipping on all products and event invitations straight in your inbox.”

Wow. You go home, sign up, and start browsing the rest of the site to see what else you can use your coupon on …

“Why Can’t You Do That?!”

According to a report from Capgemini Consulting entitled, “Making the Digital Connection: Why Physical Retail Stores Need a Reboot,” nearly a third of consumers would rather wash dishes than visit a retail store, and nearly a half (and over half their respondents from Sweden) see in-store shopping as nothing more than a chore to undertake.

While the “retail is dying” narrative hit mainstream press a few months ago, the truth is a bit more complicated than that…

In the same Capgemini report, 57% of respondents wanted …

“[S]tores to serve a higher function than simply selling the product. In China, almost 80% of consumers want other activities in a store. One store manager we spoke to summed it up by saying: ‘Consumers want to be entertained in the store; stores need to engage the five senses.’”

Whether you want to call it online to offline (O2O) or click-and-mortar, a global survey by the CBRE Group Inc. showed that 70% of millennials prefer shopping in stores.

Plenty of businesses test the offline market with pop-up shops before investing in a more permanent, traditional, brick-and-mortar store. Consider how Indochino created the Traveling Tailor campaign and tested in a bunch of different markets before investing in their offline locations.

As an example of a store experience, consider Lululemon’s Hub Seventeen in their flagship store in New York City. According to Business Insider, their “5,000-square-foot space will be used for fitness classes, monthly dinners, concerts, art shows, and more.”

And while that might be a glitzier example, there are hundreds of Lululemon stores that host similar events for their communities.

On a related note, Nordstrom will test smaller local stores without any inventory, at sizes of 3,000 square feet (less than Lululemon’s Hub Seventeen space, and a sliver of their standard store size of 140,000 square feet).

Visitors can still try on Nordstrom’s clothes, but will only be able to make purchases online. There’ll be a bar for thirsty shoppers to order juices or wine, and stylists to advise on selection. Similarly, department store Sears is experimenting with stores that only sell appliances and mattresses.

And from a more logistics-driven perspective, consider how Home Depot enables shoppers to order online, and pick items up from their stores instead of paying for shipping. That means a chance for the buyer to inspect an item that might’ve cost them a lot of money, or that they feel uncertain about, and an opportunity to ask questions.

As consumers, our expectations are higher than ever before. And because awareness is greater than ever through media and social platforms, we’re conditioned by great experiences we hear from others, and see for ourselves, to expect them from the rest of our shopping experiences.

Chances are, we’re conditioned to at least check Amazon to verify if the price is right…

Not only that, but we also hold each of our shopping experiences to the standard Amazon commerce experiences (e.g., flash sales like Lightning Deals, free standard shipping after a price threshold) they create and the convenience they provide (e.g., one-click checkout). When other retailers don’t have those things, we all notice.

And nobody is perfect. While Amazon’s customer service is great, it just isn’t the same as talking to someone in person or the assurance that I can walk into a store and make a return. If I’m not digitally-savvy, this would be a barrier to me shopping there (a feeling similar to an aversion to Internet-only bank, despite high interest rates on savings accounts).

Here Are Some Experiences for Merchants to Consider…

Reactions to “experiential marketing” typically range from excitement and passion, to skepticism and eye-rolling. Make no mistake:

Experiences in the context of omni-channel shopping are equal parts creative and commercial. Visitors want the right information at the right time, but don’t want to give up the data to do it. Shoppers want shopping to be an experience, not a transaction — but might not necessarily pay a particularly high premium for it. Visitors, buyers, and customers need information to make a decision, but the information might not be available everywhere.

Each of these scenarios are opportunities not only to create an experience, but to gain critical insight into why people buy and how to sell more:

1. Use Devices to Negotiate the Data Paradox

Accenture reports that nearly 60 percent of consumers want real-time promotions and offers from companies, yet only 20 percent want retailers to know their current location. And only 14 percent want to share their browsing history. (I’m surprised so many are comfortable with that last one, to be honest.)

The paradox is this: The majority of consumers want promotions tailored to them and at the perfect timing, but few of them want to share information crucial to making those experiences happen.

In a survey of over 10,000 people in 11 countries (U.S., U.K., China, Brazil, Mexico, Chile, U.A.E., France, South Africa, Spain, and India), McCann reports:

“71% worry about the amount of information that online stores know about them. This concern is lowest in the U.S. (58%) among the countries studied. However, because things are changing at such a rapid pace and people are focused on the technological benefits, there are some contradictory attitudes that emerge with regard to privacy. For example, 59% of people around the world would be open to a store that is able to recognize you when you walk through the door.”

We’re starting to find a happy medium. Joseph Turow, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “The Aisles Have Eyes,” says in an interview with the Atlantic that although we’re skeptical of getting tracked — especially in-person — we’re less creeped out with having companies track our activities on mobile devices.

As Turow says:

“Because phones are so close to us—and this is going to happen more with wearables, down the line—that the closer we are emotionally as well as physically to our devices, and the more relevant or targeted or personalized the messages are, the less people will see this as a scarily or creepily intrusive. That’s the idea, anyway.”

Whether it’s in person or online or at a different channel, err on the side of visitor expectations. They implicitly know you’re tracking their digital activities. There’s no need to surveil them in-person for marketing. Once you have a general idea of what visitors are looking for, you can create experiences in different channels to capture more data, but also to meet their expectations.

2. Create Experiences to Capture Data

In January 2016, Timberland debuted its TouchWall — a device that would transfer product information from the wall to their phones with a few finger taps and save them for later purchase. It would also display items that sold online-only, and transfer information to visitors’ phones as well.

Image via Retail TouchPoints

Melding the digital experience into brick-and-mortar was unique (moreso then than now), but it also served a useful purpose: Timberland would get firsthand insight into products visitors wanted to learn more about.

“You are engaging with the consumer on an intimate level—they are telling you what products are interesting,” said Kate Kibler, vp of direct to consumer at Timberland to AdWeek. If visitors input their email addresses, Timberland would be able to easily retarget them. It’s not necessarily to make something as hardware-centric as a TouchWall to make an impression.

For example, if you choose to price match other retailers, you could win some shoppers over — but also crowdsource pricing across the board and see where you stand relative to your competitors.

3. Make Information Flow and Apply Everywhere

You ordered a great pair of glasses online, but they feel a little loose around your ear. You know the brand has a local store, and that they have an optometrist to tweak your glasses. Unfortunately, you’re also pretty sure that they’re busy — what time would be best to come in? Simple question.

You try to call your local store’s number, but it redirects to their general support line. You simply ask, “Can I book an appointment for today?” but the agent doesn’t know, and tells you you’ll have to go in person.

You’re annoyed. You don’t have time to wait an hour — or more — so you don’t go. Your product experience worsens by the day, and your frustration amplifies. If only you could figure out their peak hours…

This type of information discrepancy is completely unnecessary. It’s the same type of policy or deliberate silo that makes it difficult to return online purchases in-store, or not being able to check inventory levels for your local locations.

Imagine if your visitors could search for an item and add it to their cart, and make a request to hold the item. If you’re a merchant, you don’t have to make this available to all customers — just the loyal ones.

Or, a simpler ask: Imagine ads stopped retargeting your buyers once they actually bought the item.

These little details matter, and they add up to the overall omni-channel shopping experience.

Final Thoughts

Omni-channel as a buzzword can be annoying … at best.

But omni-channel shopping as a commerce reality is fascinating. And the possibilities vary so greatly, as does the opportunity, that it’s difficult not to ramble about.

You just saw some really concrete real-world examples, and the business objectives supporting them. Now it’s your turn to get creative with omni-channel shopping.

About the Author

Herbert Lui is the creative director of Wonder Shuttle. He was a staff writer for Lifehacker, and his writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, the New York Observer, and Fast Company.