Beyond the buzzwords: straight talk on what omnichannel retail means for small businesses
You’ve probably heard the terms “omnichannel” and “omnichannel retailing.” Omnichannel is reported breathlessly as a powerful force defining the bleeding edge of retail, a synthesis of the best that Silicon Valley, Madison Avenue and Wall Street have to offer.
Indeed, omnichannel retailing is often framed as aspirational, an almost mythical business ideal. From mobile ordering for drive-through pickup via branded apps, to customer service via social media, automated shopping assistants, or curbside delivery, fantastic tales of multimillion dollar omnichannel campaigns are seemingly everywhere. “Omnichannel—it’s retail, at the speed of light!”
Retailers of all sizes are repeatedly told that you need an omnichannel strategy. But it’s tough to know exactly what that means, sifting through jargon like “channel-agnostic,” “frictionless commerce,” or “seamless integration.” Being hip to the latest marketing buzzwords isn’t going to add a cent to your bottom line. If you run a small or medium-sized business, you just want to be smart about navigating the latest emerging trends that can help your business compete.
So let’s go beyond the buzzwords for some straight talk on “omnichannel retail” for small businesses.
What does “omnichannel retailing” mean for small businesses?
Omnichannel retailing is an approach to retailing that seeks to create consistent personalized experiences across every channel where retailers connect with customers.
As anyone who competes for customers knows, serving the needs of the sophisticated modern consumer is anything but simple. But it is possible, and you needn’t be a large business to succeed at serving customers well. “Omni” means “all” or “universal,” hence omnichannel = all channels. In 2018, serving your customers across all channels can mean meeting them via desktop or mobile, social, website, email, third party selling platforms, and branded apps, in addition to in store.
Of course, not nearly every business interacts with their customers via all of those channels. For a small business, an omnichannel approach doesn’t have to mean trying to be everywhere. Omni may mean all, but omnichannel is not about ubiquity. Omnichannel doesn’t mean doing more than your small business is capable of. Omnichannel is about creating consistently excellent experiences for your customers in whatever channels you do serve them.
Are my customers demanding omnichannel solutions?
Today’s sophisticated consumer has access to everything that is knowable about a fantastic array of products and services at their disposal. They can purchase almost anything, anytime, from anywhere. So what does today’s empowered consumer really want?
Your customers want… the ability to interact with your business anytime, anywhere. Your customers are more connected than ever before—and they expect you to be, too. That doesn’t mean that your small business needs to deliver 24/7 online customer service or virtual reality shopping assistants.
Omnichannel means creating business infrastructure that delivers value to your customers wherever they are. You don’t need the latest statistics to know what your eyes tell you every day: people spend a lot of time online, especially on their mobile devices. Omnichannel means that the days of the “brochure website” are long gone for retailers wanting to be taken seriously. Omnichannel is a recognition that modern retail commerce demands a meaningful, interactive online presence, even for small businesses.
Your customers want… personalization. The ever-increasing use of customer data has forever raised the bar for customer service. Personalization became most famous via product recommendations from Amazon or movie recommendations from Netflix. But personalization is no longer a high-end luxury reserved for the largest retailers. Knowing your customer isn’t enough—today’s consumer expects that you’ll not just remember them, but that you’ll be able to anticipate their needs before they even realize they have them.
Personalization is an essential part of the modern retail experience. An omnichannel approach means accumulating knowledge about your customers across all channels, and leveraging that data to serve your customers better.
Your customers want… a unified and consistent experience. Whether they come in to your store, visit your website, access a mobile app, or interact via a social channel, your customers expect consistency. You’ve worked hard to gain their attention. You don’t want to lose them by providing disjointed, inconsistent experiences.
Consumers experience your business as an integrated whole, regardless of channel. Consistency goes way beyond visual branding or singing from the same promotional hymn book. That’s important, too, but creating a successful omnichannel strategy is about creating a consistent experience, online or off, big screen or small.
What practical omnichannel strategies can help me better serve my customers?
Up until recently, keeping up with the changes in technology meant capturing the best parts of the in-store experience and replicating them online. That’s often still true in an omnichannel world. But just as often, an omnichannel approach means upgrading the in-store experience to reflect best practices, tools, and techniques developed and refined online.
Review your e-commerce capabilities. The world of eCommerce continues to evolve at a breathtaking pace. Whether investing in homegrown solutions or leveraging the services of capable eCommerce vendors, the landscape of affordable eCommerce infrastructure options continues to grow every day. You can learn a ton from data about your business that you never thought possible, even from surprising sources like your payments provider.
Reassess the in-store experience. At the biggest levels of retail, convergence is the word of the day. Amazon’s 2017 purchase of Whole Foods is only the most prominent of many examples that highlight the importance of online/offline convergence.
For smaller businesses, an omnichannel approach might mean beginning to use browsing data gleaned from shopping behavior online to more intuitively select and organize merchandise in-store. Upgrading your point-of-sale infrastructure is a great way to provide your customers with consistently excellent checkout experiences while simultaneously taking action to protect them (and you) from payment fraud.
Calibrate expectations about customer service, then exceed them. Perhaps the greatest of all challenges posed by an omnichannel world involve the provision of customer service. Your customers are ever more demanding. In today’s hyper-competitive world, you can be sure that if you aren’t continually reassessing your capabilities, that your competitor will provide a better product, at a better price, and with better service than you. Worse, the expectations of your customers are set by the biggest and best-funded competitors, and the customer service you provide will be judged by those lofty standards.
Omnichannel's challenges and opportunities for small businesses
Small businesses have always faced huge challenges, even more so now in an omnichannel world. But there is more than a little good news for small business. Omnichannel emerged as a set of strategies to help large retail organizations integrate what often developed as separate online business units. It’s far easier to create consistent experiences when you are smaller and can exert more direct and immediate influence over your organization. New businesses that start with an omnichannel approach baked in will be well positioned for the future.
Omnichannel retailing strategies are far from a panacea—there are no easy answers to solve the kaleidoscope of challenges every business faces. Omnichannel strategies can, however, help you create shopping experiences that keep customers coming back for more, no matter how they choose to shop. An omnichannel approach is about making sure the right hand and the left hand are working together to provide the best possible experience for your valued customers. Simple, right?