I have attended quite a few conferences over the year where omni-channel -- the promise of a seamless experience across touchpoints -- pervaded throughout every conversation. While these conversations are valuable, they tend to lose sight of what must take place today to deliver the customer experiences of tomorrow.
Let's say that I find a sweater in Nordstrom’s online store that I like. I want to check if it’s available at my local Nordstrom so that I can buy it online, pick it up in the afternoon and wear it to dinner that night. Luckily, Nordstrom is ahead of many retailers in regard to the shopping experience. As a result, I can view the current inventory at local stores, purchase the product and then have it waiting for me at the store.
More and more, shoppers expect an increased level of service and experience -- buy online and pick up in store is just one example. We’re getting close, but we are not there yet. And we’re still years away from omni-channel becoming a reality for many retailers.
Nevertheless, retailers can build toward omni-channel now by breaking it into manageable pieces. Here are five steps that retailers can focus on today to drive better customer experience with the goal of omni-channel:
1. Connect two channels: Omni-channel means that all channels are connected (Latin lesson of the day: omni means “all”). If I’m a retailer and none of my channels are connected, trying to build an omni-channel future can be daunting. Start simple -- connect two channels. Build a mobile app that provides shoppers with tools and improves customer experience. According to Forrester, the four functionalities that every app should have are push notifications for stock availability; personalization, such as allowing mobile users to save sizes or store locations; mobile self checkout; and in-store navigation. Mobile is increasingly becoming a necessary part of every shopping experience, and is essential to any omni-channel experience.
2. Assess how you organize information: Most retailers still maintain the same organizational systems as ten or twenty years ago. For example, in-store inventories are managed in one silo, while online inventories are managed in another. Omni-channel won’t happen if key information is not shared across these channels and across your company. Reorganize and unify your selling channels under one group, as in-store and online inventories need to be managed under the same umbrella.
3. Make your Web site mobile/tablet friendly: How good is a Web site if I have trouble viewing it from a smartphone or tablet? With advances in HTML5, Web sites are able to provide more compelling Web experiences AND identify user devices. This means that if I’m looking at a retailer’s Web site, there is technology that will automatically render the Web site to my device. There are still advantages to building native apps, but all retailers need to have mobile functionality built into their sites to provide an optimal user experience regardless of touchpoint.
4. Borrow from the “Apple experience:” Traditional “point of sale” systems are dying. If you go into an Apple store, a sales associate can check inventory and execute a transaction from anywhere in the store. As a shopper, this makes it easier for me to purchase an item, as I don’t have to wait in line to speak with a sales associate. Setting your store up for this type of agility will bring you one step closer to omni-channel.
5. Think local, act globally: I recently saw a jacket that I liked at Nordstrom. Unfortunately, the store didn't have my size, but the sales associate was able to check inventory, locate the jacket in my size at another store and ship it to my house for free. That’s pretty cool. Empower your employees and your shoppers with real-time inventory information. In this experience, I was still able to shop locally, but the sales associate enabled me to do so by having global access to inventory.
Omni-channel is the future of retail, but it may not be right for everyone just yet. However, by taking one or more of these steps in 2013, your organization will be closer to achieving an omni-channel reality and demonstrate to your customers that you’re serious about building the ultimate customer experience.