“The omni-channel experience (is) where a retailer can use many ways to reach customers… What (companies) need to focus on is connecting together the in-store experience with their own online offering and the follow-up customer service.” – The Huffington Post

The core of retailing has never really changed, it is simply about having the right product at the right place, price, and location in a way that customers want.

What has evolved and changed considerably is the manner in which customers seek that product out via all the passageways and networks that were never previously available.

Equally, to communicate with these customers and to really prepare for a true omni-channel retail offering requires a very different approach to build around the core that is retailing.

Some have said that adding an online offer, for example, is like adding a room to the house. We would not agree with this, rather to add the necessary prerequisite for retailers today in having an omni-channel offer is more like rewiring the house.

So what does the rewired organisation look like?

1. A culture of research, possibly resourced in this area and certainly understanding the significant importance of consumer insights to help gain competitive edge as competitors invariably intensify.

Recently I read an interesting article from Francesca Nicasio from Vend and with thanks I have shared a couple of her retail shop examples:

This is a nice example from Ikea of understanding customers as an important ingredient to customised product development.

Ikea devotes tons of time and resources studying the cultures and habits of their target markets. For instance, Fortune reports that the company once did a study of 8292 people in eight cities to learn more about their morning routines. Doing so enabled Ikea to figure out what stresses people out when getting ready for work and what keeps them from getting out the door during the morning rush.

Ikea gained valuable insights from its study and it helped them come up with a product called the Knapper, a full length mirror that comes with a built in rack and hooks for hanging clothes and jewellery. The product is supposed to help people get ready faster by allowing them to put together their outfits the night before.

2. Consider the evolution in your shops to be more facilitative of a social hub or community environment – using the supporting channels including social media and online to bring customers to the shopping space – this requires freshness in design through to merchandise, new product ranges, creating much more of a buzz. We now live in a space where it may well be about building less stores, rather investing more into the brand and customer experience DNA. Building more showcases less storerooms.

The lifestyle furniture and homewares retailer, West Elm, is a wonderful example.

West Elm’s locations go from mere ‘stores’ to ‘community hubs’, by encouraging associates to forge genuine relationships with their customers.

Rather than just selling them stuff, for example, associates and consultants could recommend great restaurants or other establishments.

In addition, West Elm started running classes that encouraged locals to gather around and learn new skills. These classes were non-sales; instead of trying to subtly push people into buying products, West Elm focused on strengthening their local communities. Running classes for their customers produced greater customer returns and expenditure.

3. Customers are researching, shopping, and buying across multiple channels, which means you have to be present at every touch point.

It’s not uncommon for shoppers to move from one channel to the next (e-commerce, brick and mortar, mobile) and back when shopping around, so mobility of customer and information such as record of purchases, inventory visibility supporting customer mobility is essential. Allowing transparency and promoting the customer shopping to be entirely informative and mobile.

One of the best examples of a homeware retailer doing omni-channel right is Crate and Barrel.

The company is aware that shoppers often switch from tablet to smartphone to desktop when browsing, so they’ve made it easier for users to switch from different channels when shopping on their site.

When users are logged into the Crate and Barrel site, the products that they’ve browsed are saved into their account, so they can easily switch devices and pick up where they left off.

Omni-channel demands capital, our capital reinvestment approaches over the years have been generally conservative, a culture that legitimately places the customer at the top of the apex with an environment that challenges all the systems and assumptions that has bought the business to its current point.

Three ingredients for a fit “omni-channel” retail business are:

  • Understand and research customers because we are changing quickly, fuelled with mobility and open to new consumer offerings and experiences,
  • The growth pre and post purchase environment supported by a high experience physical shop – Having the BIS (Business information systems) underpinning the integration of mobility and customer transparency,
  • Placing the customer first cannot be something that is talked about, it must be invested in – this is the essence of a truly omni-channel ‘Fit’ retail business.

Brian Walker is founder and CEO of retail consulting company, Retail Doctor Group. RDG builds business fitness for its clients. Interested in building your business results? Brian and his team can be contacted on (02) 9460 2882 or brian@retaildoctor.com.au.

First published in Inside Retail on the 20th of May 2015