When Amazon first went live back in 1995, customers flocked to online shopping. And shopping malls soon saw their crowds of visitors decline. This was hardly surprising at the time—for many retail products, ordering online was immensely more convenient than looking for them in-person in a brick-and-mortar store. But since then, those brick-and-mortar outlets have learned to embrace the reality of e-commerce, so much so that shopping online and in-person are no longer mutually exclusive. On the contrary, consumers now increasingly expect that the two modes fit together into one seamless, symbiotic “omnichannel retail experience.”
A customer browses for a product online and finds the retailer that offers it at the best price. Then he places an online order but, instead of awaiting a delivery, he picks it up in-person at the store. Another customer visits a store in-person and, as she sees items that she likes, she consults her smartphone to look up each feature and option instead of looking for an employee to give her all of the specifics.
The two scenarios above are examples of omnichannel retail sales in action. The first customer is taking advantage of the store’s cross-channel inventory, e.g., the store’s full brick-and-mortar inventory being visible for browsing and ordering on the store’s website. The second customer is one of the growing numbers of customers who are utilizing their mobile phones to aid their buying decisions in-store.
The store from the first example is in a forward-thinking minority: Only 34% of major multi-channel retailers reportedly offer cross-channel inventory visibility. However, it may become an industry standard in the near future, as more companies invest in integrating and improving their software infrastructure.
Retail personnel are, like the rest of us, well-acquainted with smartphone technology. But this, too, is an area where retailers can and must improve. Retailers in every market are increasingly discussing how they might tailor their marketing efforts to mobile devices, with due consideration going to developing mobile-friendly email and search ads. Some retailers are also creating phone apps that offer in-store rewards. Those retailers are also beginning to offer in-store Wi-Fi to make sure that customers review the store’s website while they browse the physical aisles.
Customer-care hotlines are also evolving. According to eMarketer, around 8% of major retailers now provide synchronized customer-care, by which a customer representative can access the same inventory in-store and online while speaking with a customer in real-time. Expect this small percentage to grow. A few other trends to look for:
- “Wish lists” and “collaborative shopping carts,” by which a customer can create a shopping cart or list online and continue shopping with it in-store.
- “Showrooming,” an industry term for showcasing new products in-store that customers can order online.
- Retailers accessing customer online and in-store buying histories and preferences to know their preferences and offer better recommendations.
These omnichannel developments may all sound like bold new directions for retail commerce. But at their core, they are a part of what businesses everywhere have been doing for generations: providing customers with what they want, when they want it, in the most efficient ways possible. This time, the adaptation will involve even more software engineers and mobile application development than ever before. And it’s in every retailer’s best interest to make the effort—firms that do not roll out omnichannel retail strategies risk losing their customer relationships to those that do.
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