What Is Omni-Channel Retail (and Why Is It So Important)?

How to give shoppers a seamless, consistent experience wherever they engage with your brand

Time to read: 6 minutes
 
Lauren Wallace
Editorial Lead, Commerce Cloud

Convenience and flexibility are the dynamic duo of retail shopping — and omni-channel retailing takes these concepts to new heights. Here’s what omni-channel retail looks like to customers: If a shopper adds an item to their cart on desktop, they can purchase the same item later on their mobile app — without having to search for the merchandise all over again. If a customer wants to purchase an item online, but pick it up at a nearby store instead of waiting for it to ship? Omni-channel retail can make that happen, too.

A whopping 78% of customers expect consistent interactions at every touchpoint. As consumer expectations rise, a smooth shopping journey across all channels is no longer a nice-to-have. Fifty-two percent of customers will switch brands for a more personalized experience.

 

78% of customers expect consistent interactions at every touchpoint

What, exactly, is omni-channel retail?

Omni-channel retailing is a model in which shoppers can interact with multiple physical and digital sales channels at once, and have their information retained by the retailer as they move between them. This enables truly asynchronous shopping: Customers can resume their transaction wherever they left off, even if it’s much later on a new channel. Essentially, omni-channel retail provides a seamless, consistent shopping experience wherever a customer engages with your brand.

Omni-channel retailing allows your customers to browse on a desktop, compare prices on a mobile device, then visit your brick-and-mortar location to finalize a purchase — all without having to restart their customer journey. This links together all channels, combining your physical storefront with your website, retail app, and social media channels to create a single, unified experience.

Omni-channel versus multichannel

Omni-channel retail strives to unify several separate channels, whereas multichannel retail is made up of disparate (and often siloed) operations for each platform. The key difference between the two models is that omni-channel retail involves integration, while multichannel retail does not. Let’s look at examples of each to get a clearer picture.

In a multichannel model, a retailer will list the same products on (you guessed it!) multiple different channels. This can include ecommerce websites, social media, mobile apps, and more. If an apparel brand uses a multichannel model, this gives shoppers more choices about where to purchase shoes and shirts, but doesn’t provide for any connection between them. Every channel is starting the conversation fresh. That’s where omni-channel retail comes in.

A brand that uses an omni-channel model also sells the same products across all platforms, but the customer can switch between channels without having to repeat or re-enter information, search for the same items again, or create a new profile.

The benefits of omni-channel over multichannel retail become clear when you consider that 67% of customers say they use multiple channels to complete a single transaction. The unification of the entire experience creates a smooth customer journey — with none of the frustrations or hiccups of a multichannel model.

 

The benefits of omni-channel over multichannel retail become clear when you consider that 67% of customers say they use multiple channels to complete a single transaction

Why is omni-channel retailing important?

Is a consistent customer experience really that important? In a word, yes. In fact, 73% of consumers say that an experience with a brand is a more important factor in their purchasing decisions than price and product quality. Customers demand speed, personalization, and convenience — and if they don’t get it, they’ll shop somewhere else. Eighty-eight percent of shoppers would ditch a retailer after just three bad experiences.

Omni-channel retail helps brands put customer experience at the center of all they do. With a customer-centric approach that spans all channels, brands can create experiences that are

 

73% of consumers say that an experience with a brand is a more important factor in their purchasing decisions than price and product quality

  • Consistent: Shoppers want to bounce between mobile, web, social, and more — without interruptions or inconsistencies. Seventy-eight percent of customers expect consistent interactions during every touchpoint. Omni-channel retail is the only way to deliver uniform experiences at scale.
  • Personalized: Seventy-one percent of consumers expect personalization — and 76% get frustrated when they don’t receive it. By activating real-time data collected across every channel, retailers can provide deeper, more impactful personalization — efficiently and at scale. 
  • Convenient: Shoppers expect fast, easy experiences on every channel, no matter what. And these expectations encompass more than just purchase — customers also expect seamless service at every touchpoint. Omni-channel retail allows customers to buy online and pick up in store, purchase in store, and have items shipped, change orders after they’ve been placed, choose between multiple pickup and delivery options, and return items to any location without the usual hassles.
 

Seventy-one percent of consumers expect personalization.

Omni-channel retail and unified commerce solutions can help your business turn every visitor into an engaged, satisfied, loyal customer — no matter which channel they prefer for browsing or purchase.

Now that omni-channel retail has taken the main stage, brands are experimenting with new ways to differentiate their experiences and push the envelope. Omni-channel trends are already emerging.

The rise of social commerce: The concept of selling products on social media has been around for years. Instagram introduced a shopping feature in 2016. However, social buying has hit an all-time high. In 2020, orders generated from social referrals were up a record 104% year over year. It’s estimated that the social commerce opportunity will reach $1.2 trillion by 2025.

Brands optimize in-store service: With a single view of customer activity across digital, social, and more, sales associates can offer personalized, data-based service tailored to each shopper. They can identify a customer’s shopping habits, provide personalized recommendations, and access inventory from any location — including online — to help shoppers find exactly what they’re looking for.

The line blurs between physical and digital spaces: Digital and physical channels are continuing to merge into one connected shopping experience. For example, nearly one in three shoppers have researched a product online using a mobile device while in store, and one in four have scanned a QR code to learn more about a product.

As more brands enter the realm of omni-channel retail and explore innovative ways to engage customers anywhere, anytime, on any device, the customer journey will continue to grow more complex. Brands need a decisive omni-channel strategy to stay ahead.

 
 

104%

YoY growth of orders generated
from social

 

$1.2 trillion

Estimated social commerce
opportunity by 2025

Steps for building an omni-channel strategy

1. Map the entire customer journey

Make sure there are no dead ends for your customers — only green lights. When creating an omni-channel strategy, make sure to put yourself in the customer’s shoes as they navigate all different touchpoints. Is every channel optimized to put the customer at the heart of the experience?

2. Identify the right tools and software:

Choose a solution that helps you create compelling experiences on desktop and mobile. Bonus points if your vendor provides consistent updates to help you stay ahead of the curve. The right solutions will help you create mobile shopping interfaces that scale naturally to various screen sizes, give you options to include push notifications and location-specific offers, and simplify customer checkouts with auto-fill forms and single-touch payments.

3. Manage user data:

Decide which tools you’ll use to track shopper activity as customers move from channel to channel. The most powerful tools will offer a 360-degree view of each customer along with real-time insights as shoppers move through the journey from discovery to delivery. With in-the-moment information about every customer and every channel, you can scale automation and personalization, and create operational efficiencies.

Omni-channel challenges

Launching a single retail channel is hard enough. Setting up multiple channels with a consistent user experience across the board? That’s a tall order. Here are some common hurdles brands face when making the move to omni-channel retail.

Channel conflicts: New channels, by definition, have no sales history to help commerce leaders forecast demand, proper inventory levels, or possible disruptions. While that is a challenge in itself, it can also lead to forced prioritization of one channel over another, or conflicts between channels. To overcome this obstacle, retailers can take a minimum viable product approach when building new ecommerce experiences. This allows you to test the market, collect feedback from customers, and properly forecast for the future.

Data, data, data: Think of all the information a retailer must collect to bring truly connected experiences to life. They need to identify the shopping habits of customers, inventory details across each location, usage details and analytics by channel, and more. The best way to do this? Use tools that ensure ownership over first-party data so you can easily — and quickly — uncover the right insights. After collecting all the data, commerce leaders need to decide on a data strategy that puts customers at the center.

The logistics whirlwind: Most brands already know that adding new channels can expand their reach. But managing all the orders that roll in from your website, social media, and app? That’s another story. Inventory visibility, order management, and logistics become more complex with every additional channel. Retailers need an integrated system across all of them — online and in store — to give shoppers the power and flexibility to choose how and when orders are shipped, where they are delivered, and how they might be returned.

The good news? A unified commerce platform can help you tackle these challenges and take your brand to new heights. The right solution will integrate commerce with your CRM, unify data across channels, and streamline order management.

Connect the entire customer journey with Commerce Cloud

To earn the loyalty of more customers, you need a single, comprehensive solution that unifies all aspects of commerce. Salesforce Commerce Cloud integrates the world’s #1 CRM with store innovations, distributed inventory management, cross-channel data integration, and a rich set of capabilities across mobile, social, and web.

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