Omnichannel Retailing: On Commerce and the Internet of Things

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Owning your own business in the 21st Century is a whole different ballpark from what it was like even just 20 years ago. On top of managing sales, products, expenses, and shipping, the savvy entrepreneur also needs to keep up on the ever-evolving vocabulary of the Internet economy. Of all the words and phrases to remember, there’s two that, on their own can make or break your business: if you haven’t guessed by now, those words are none other than omnichannel retailing.

Otherwise known as multichannel retailing or simply omnichannel, omnichannel retailing is defined by a customer’s ability to purchase from a single business via multiple channels. You might already be familiar with earlier omnichannel schemes, such as a brick-and-mortar store offering a product catalog that customers can order remotely from, either by mail or over the phone.  Starting in the late 1800s, numerous businesses like Sears & Roebuck took advantage of these kinds of catalogs, offering greater convenience for their clients and another way to reach out to them.

This coupling of physical stores and paper catalogs was a formula left mainly unchanged until the rise of the Internet and eCommerce in the early 1990s. As more households across the globe had access to the Web, companies like AOL, CompuServe, and Amazon took advantage of this unprecedented reach. Now, instead of just the local market that received order catalogs, anyone who could get to a company’s website could buy directly from them through cyberspace. Instead of relying on phone calls and mail-in orders, credit cards could now be used to purchase products through encrypted transactions, refining the process to what we now see today across tens of thousands of businesses, both digitally- and physically-based.

A Brief History of Omnichannel RetailingBut omnichannel isn’t just about the channels themselves; it’s about providing a “seamless shopping experience whether the customer is shopping online from a desktop or mobile device, by telephone or in a

[brick-and-mortar] store.” Half social marketing, half-programming and analytics, great omnichannel strategies focus not only on attracting customers, but making the process of buying that new solar-powered grill with built-in phone charger and margarita maker so easy they can do it in their sleep — or at least with a few button presses on their phone.

Ease of access, however, does not mean oversaturating the customer with 110 different ways to buy one thing. It means finding what channels work best for your customers and optimizing those channels to get them through the shopping process faster and more efficiently. Amazon is one great example of clever omnichannel retailing. Having started with just a retail website, the multi-billion online shopping behemoth offers features to make ordering products even easier, such as one-click purchases or a mobile app that alerts the customer on the progress of their packages’ delivery and allows them to interact with the store on the go. Think about it: all of your customers carrying a direct link to your business in their pockets, as accessible as their wallet, car keys, or that old stick of gum.

Omnichannel retailing, however, isn’t just limited to retailers. A growing list of banking institutions have been adapting this philosophy for their own use, chiefly in mobile banking. Reading your bank statements or making transfers or bill and credit card payments online isn’t all that new anymore, but with dedicated apps, certain banks now allow you to not only perform these actions from smartphones, but you can even deposit checks remotely by scanning both sides of the check with the phone’s camera. Just like that, putting your paycheck into your bank account is no longer an errand you have to run on your way home from work. Heck, you could probably deposit it before you even leave the office — that is, if you don’t already have direct deposit anyway.

Oh, and remember those reward and loyalty cards from your favorite restaurants? Now it seems every eatery, coffeehouse, and diner these days has an app for that too, allowing customers to interact with their loyalty accounts from their phones as well as providing a barcode that cashiers can scan to credit their accounts directly. And for those that still use rewards cards or refillable gift cards, you can add funds to those accounts from your phone, online, or in-person too.

Whatever your business or industry, omnichannel isn’t going away any time soon. In fact, as our understanding of technology and the Internet’s architecture advances as well as how we interact with it, there’ll only be more ways to reach out to potential customers and make shopping easier for the ones you’ve already won over. The question has become less about how to get your products to your customers; instead, it’s how to get your customers to you without them actually really going anywhere (unless they want to). Really, the sky’s the limit on how to interact with your customers. Finding what works best for both you and them is the trick you ought to master. But how? Well… that’s up to you.


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