With the prospect of wary consumers remaining reluctant to shop in stores during the upcoming holiday season, online sales began in earnest with Amazon’s October Prime Day. Other large retailers, like Walmart, also announced they were canceling traditional Black Friday sales promotions in favor of season-long, online sales campaigns. Although these efforts don’t discount in-store shopping, they certainly highlight the significance retailers are placing on omnichannel operations. Bonnie Cliff, Content Coordinator at SHD Logistics, explains, “For individuals and businesses alike, COVID-19 has had an extraordinary impact. Day-to-day activities which we once took for granted have become alien thanks to the huge disruption we’re experiencing. One of these is the ability to purchase non-essential items in-store, leaving retailers little option but to move the shopping experience online. Consumer buying habits have become increasingly focused on ecommerce for a few years now. However, the pandemic has certainly seen this process accelerate rapidly.” She adds, “To meet the demand of this ‘omnichannel imperative’, retailers will have to redesign their supply chains, as well as focus on demand driven processes to deliver the needs of the new consumer.”
Meeting the omnichannel imperative
Jason Vaughn, Vice President of North American Distribution at UPS Supply Chain Solutions, observes, “When the global pandemic first rocked the retail industry, scores of companies struggled to cope with the fallout. There are myriad reasons why retailers, including iconic department stores and brands, floundered or shuttered operations during the first half of 2020. However, one trend is clear: Companies that did not have digital channels or operated only limited e-commerce platforms were not prepared for the upsurge in online shopping.” Lack of or limited e-commerce capabilities meant some retailers had neither the agility to pivot nor the resiliency to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. Antony Lovell, Vice President of Applications at Vuealta, believes agility and resilience are essential for survival in the current business landscape. He explains, “To effectively prepare for tomorrow, retailers should consider an omnichannel approach, which is the key to building agility and resilience. This approach unites sales and marketing for a unified customer buying experience, and accounts for the spillover between channels. If retailers adjust their supply chains to handle possible fluctuations in how and where products are sold, supply chains can actually complement an omnichannel strategy.”
Lovell goes on to warn, “If retailers instead choose to stay the course, they are likely to endure additional challenges — even if the world suddenly goes back to normal. Online sales have been gaining on physical retail for many years as more consumers shop from home. Retailers need to be prepared to adapt to these market changes whether they are gradually brought on by evolving consumer preferences or delivered suddenly by unforeseen circumstances.” We know the world isn’t going back to normal any time soon. As a result, retailers and brands are facing an uncertain holiday shopping season. Vaughn notes, “With an unpredictable 2020 holiday shopping season approaching, it’s critical that retailers and brands navigate the rising tides of e-commerce. An omnichannel logistics strategy, which requires an integrated fulfillment and delivery experience across all channels, gives brands the flexibility to lean into e-commerce in a way that makes sense for their business.” Cliff agrees brands and retailers need to bolster their omnichannel operations. She also knows many of them are asking, “How do they achieve this?”
“To succeed and thrive in this retail shift,” Cliff writes, “organizations will also benefit from being more demand driven. They must be able to predict where demand will occur across all channels, and efficiently fulfil the right quantity of products to multiple locations.” In order to become more demand driven, Cliff suggests organizations need to implement cognitive technology solutions. She explains, “Demand sensing makes use of Machine Learning (ML) techniques to enable pattern recognition and eliminate supply chain lags, by continuously learning and reducing the time between demand signals such as order frequency, order size, distribution center/store inventory, POS and the response to those signals.” She goes on to note that cognitive technologies can help organizations in other ways as well. “AI offers one of the most significant ways for retailers to respond to this step change in ecommerce,” she explains. “It encompasses a whole range of algorithms supporting business processes like optimizing web search, targeting advertisements, approving consumer loans, routing delivery trucks, forecasting consumer demand and allocating inventory. Essentially it can help retailers manage all aspects of the supply chain design for the digital age, while optimizing the online shopping experience for consumers to drive business profitability.”
Implement omnichannel best practices
Omnichannel operations require a seamless customer experience across channels and great service for consumers throughout their digital path to purchase. Chris Woodard, Co-Founder and CMO at Handle.com, explains, “Top of mind for customers is swift and consistent support — hence the rise of omnichannel customer service. Today’s customers no longer simply rely on calling customer support for assistance. They now make use of whichever channel they can get the best and swiftest help, be it through knowledge bases, live chat, website, social media, SMS, and email.” To achieve the goal of providing the best possible customer experience, Woodard suggests implementing some proven best practices. He note, “The push toward omnichannel strategy across different areas of business is not entirely new, but it has now become imperative for businesses to form and execute a plan to give customers a seamless experience.” He recommends implementing the following five best practices.
1. Understand your customer’s most preferred channels. “An effective omnichannel customer service strategy begins with a solid foundation — a blueprint. First, understand where your customers are. This is done by using relevant data to know which platforms your customers often use. … Effective omnichannel customer support … allows multiple channels to work together to provide impactful customer experiences throughout the customer’s journey.”
2. Improve your response time across all channels. “Today’s consumers are empowered consumers. For your business to thrive, you must figure out what makes the modern consumer tick. They’re after high-quality products and experiences; nothing less. … Make your customers feel important by faster responses. The modern-day consumers expect (and demand) speedy replies and resolutions.”
3. Integrate customer support channels with your systems of record. “Implementing a potent contact center software that integrates all channels, which are part of your omnichannel efforts makes it easier for agents to keep track of customer concerns and issues, whether they called, emailed, texted, or left a comment on social media and review sites. It streamlines the customer service handling process through automatically assigning unique reference codes or numbers; allowing agents to quickly run a search of previous communications and interactions from the same individual.”
4. Provide self-service options to empower your customers. “Gone are the days when it’s still considered normal for customers to call about minor issues and the most trivial things. Today’s consumers love scouring for answers on their own. The least a company or business can do is to make the information available to them in the most accessible way.”
5. Hire employees that understand and embody your company culture. “A fully functional team requires teamwork and cooperation from different individuals that are passionate for the same goal. This is the reason why the hiring and recruitment process is crucial to a solid omnichannel customer service strategy. More than the technology is the people behind it.”
Lovell adds, “COVID-19 forced retailers to rethink their strategies. Operational practices that were once acceptable — even profitable — needed to be reexamined and realigned to meet consumer needs in the ‘new normal.’ By taking an omnichannel approach, retailers can unite sales and marketing for a superior customer shopping experience. This will result in businesses that are more agile and more capable of meeting goals and fulfilling customer needs in any climate.” It remains to be seen whether this year’s pattern for online holiday sales becomes the norm (i.e., Omnichannel becomes the new Black Friday). One thing is for certain: Mastering omnichannel operations is a must-have for successful brands and retailers.
 Bonnie Cliff, “Rethinking retail: the omnichannel switch,” SHD Logistics, 10 September 2020.
 Jason Vaughn, “Omnichannel Solutions for a New Era of Retail,” Longitudes, 14 August 2020.
 Antony Lovell, “Why an Omnichannel Approach will Help Retailers Improve Agility, Resiliency,” Supply Chain Best Practices, 7 August 2020.
 Chris Woodard, “Omnichannel Customer Service: 5 Critical Best Practices,” Business 2 Community, 3 August 2018.