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Omnichannel is the New Black of Retail

March 3, 2020


This year, like last, has witnessed retailers declare bankruptcy and close brick-and-mortar stores — continued consequences of the so-called Retail Apocalypse. In my mind, what’s happening is more of an adjustment than an apocalypse. Many analysts attribute recent events to three things: The rise of e-commerce; retailers overbuilding; and, taking on too much debt. The rise of e-commerce resulted in significant changes in consumer behavior as they abandoned traditional shopping journeys and began using the digital path to purchase. Aaron Orendorff (@AaronOrendorff), Vice President of Marketing at Common Thread Collective, explains, “If you’d have claimed ten years ago that retail shopping would be conducted on phones, social platforms, tablets, interactive kiosks, and more you would have been laughed at. Today, that’s exactly what’s happening. Retail is anything but dead. And, yes, people still buy in-store. But people don’t just shop in-store … even when they’re inside a store. Instead, shoppers check prices, compare products, research reviews, and consult social media before buying. If you’re not available everywhere, your limited presence will derail both the user experience and your bottom line.”[1]


You could substitute the word “omnipresent” for the term “available everywhere.” The combining form “omni” means: “of all things” or “in all ways or places.” The retail sector has come up with its own term “omnichannel” to describe the current retail landscape. Orendorff notes, “An omnichannel retail strategy is an approach to sales and marketing that provides customers with a fully-integrated shopping experience by uniting user experiences from brick-and-mortar to mobile-browsing and everything in between.” You could say omnichannel is the new black of the retail sector. If you’re not familiar with the term “the new black,” it was popularized in science fiction to mean “something which is suddenly extremely popular or fashionable.” Sandy Smith explains the evolution of the retail space in recent years. “Those who have been in the retail industry for any length of time,” she writes, “no doubt remember the transition from single channel to multichannel, so retailers could sell via the internet. Multichannel gave way to omnichannel, which promised a seamless experience no matter how the shopper encountered the retailer.”[2]


Consumers are driving omnichannel strategies


Redicka Subrammaniam, Founder and CEO of Resulticks, writes, “Today’s technologically savvy customers are channel agnostics who inhabit a constantly expanding world of digital devices, touchpoints and channels. Though their behavior scrambles traditional concepts of the customer journey, one thing remains certain: their insistence on personalized experiences.”[3] Today’s consumer is demanding. Their expectations include the ability to shop online and/or in-store without encountering stumbling blocks or hitches in the process. Subrammaniam observes, “To succeed in omnichannel, marketers need to roadmap the customer journey, develop a comprehensive customer view and learn to embrace new channels. With a holistic approach, omnichannel orchestration can leverage the most relevant channels and interactions to deliver a seamless experience that reflects the individual customer’s interests, habits, purchasing patterns and more.”


In order to provide the seamless experience Subrammaniam describes, retailers need both a solid technology underpinning and a good understanding of consumers. A good technology base is important because consumers are going to use technology both in and out of the store. Analysts at Inkxe explain, “Omnichannel commerce means store owners have both physical and digital presence, yet providing a seamless shopping experience across their online and offline presence. It should provide high-quality service and experience between the contact channels. It could also mean using the same digital devices in-store to give a digital experience.”[4] Both the Inkxe analysts and Orendorff cite a study by McKinsey Research and Harvard Business Review that found 73% of consumers use multiple channels when shopping.


To maximum the benefits of an omnichannel strategy, Subrammaniam believes the place to start is with an understanding of your consumers. She explains, “Developing a comprehensive view of each customer is foundational to a successful omnichannel strategy. Brands have increasingly focused on using data to develop 360-degree views of their individual customers. An aspirational goal of completely understanding customers and their path to purchase, it’s easier said than done and can require a mountain of customer data from both the business itself and third parties.” Many retailers are turning to cognitive platforms, like the Enterra Cognitive Core™. Cognitive platforms can handle many more variables than traditional systems and can, therefore, provide deeper understanding. For example, the Enterra Shopper Marketing and Consumer Insights Intelligence System™ can leverage all types of consumer data to provide high-dimensional consumer, retailer, and marketing insights.


Beyond omnichannel


Steve Dennis (@StevenPDennis), a strategic advisor and founder of SageBerry Consulting, writes, “I’m calling it. ‘Omnichannel’ is dead. And in my mind it’s long overdue.”[5] Dennis’ beef with omnichannel seems to be with term itself. He writes, “I’ve been bashing the term for quite some time now.” His preferred term is “Harmonized Retail.” He explains, “While I’m loath to add to the over-crowded stable of buzzwords — and admit to being more than a little bit biased — I think harmonized has important advantages over omnichannel, unified commerce, seamless integration or any of the other terms being used to describe and tackle the changing nature of shopping. Moreover, when we look at the retailers that are doing well right now in this age of vast digital disruption, we can see how harmonized retail is more evocative and prescriptive and therefore, I would argue, more useful.”


Dennis is not alone in believing it’s time to move beyond the term omnichannel. Chris Shaw, senior director of product marketing and analyst relations at Manhattan Associates, prefers the term “unified commerce,” which he defines as, “a single technology solution that offers an identical experience to consumers regardless of how or where they choose to engage with a retailer.”[6] He admits the differences between unified commerce and omnichannel operations are “subtle.” He states, “Omnichannel refers to being able to provide that seamless and similar experience regardless of channel, but it was often provided with a lot of heroics on the backend to connect disjointed systems in the store, the contact center, online, and social, etc. A unified commerce platform offers a much nimbler and more scalable place to start because all the components used to deliver a personalized common experience are part of the same solution.” Whether you call it harmonized retail or unified commerce or omnichannel operations, the idea is the same — consumers need a seamless customer experience and supply chain operations need to be just as seamless on the backend. Regardless of what you call it, the seamless online and in-store experiences are the new black of retailing.


[1] Aaron Orendorff, “Omni-Channel Retail Strategy: The What, Why, and How of ‘In-Store’ Shopping,” Shopify, 9 January 2018.
[2] Sandy Smith, “Defining and Embracing Unified Commerce,” MHI Solutions, 24 September 2019.
[3] Redicka Subrammaniam, “Three Top Things Brands Need To Succeed In Omnichannel,” MarTech Series, 3 January 2020.
[4] Alex, “Omni-Channel Commerce in Today’s Market,” Inkxe Blog, 8 October 2019.
[5] Steve Dennis, “Omnichannel Is Dead. The Future Is Harmonized Retail,” Forbes, 3 June 2019.
[6] Smith, op. cit.

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