The omni-channel is an enabler, not the answer to a successful customer experience journey

Author: James Hendrickson, Senior Manager, Consumer Workflow Solutions at Honeywell Sensing & Productivity Solutions.

Over recent years, the pursuit of omni-channel perfection has dominated the strategies of retailers and supply chains across Asia Pacific. The term omni-channel itself has not been clearly defined and can mean many different things to retailers. For our purposes let’s define it as simply as possible: omni-channel focuses on the ability to interact and serve the customer on the customer’s terms through the use of traditional, web, mobile, and other channels.

The need to implement an omni-channel strategy has pressured many businesses to support online shopping, click-and-collect, mobile, and many other buying options in the hope of meeting the omni-channel customer. However retailers who have focused on setting up their omni-channel operations have done so in a reactive and disjointed way – they have approached omni-channel as an operational problem rather than as a metaphor for the customer experience. This has resulted in retailers and their staff being distracted from their key goal of ensuring that the shopper is satisfied with their shopping experience – marketers call this the customer experience journey.

Retailers should instead look beyond the hype of omni-channel to refocus on achieving customer satisfaction first and foremost, while understanding that their omni-channel strategy can support the business to best meet customer needs.

The omni-channel is also constantly evolving as customer needs evolve, therefore retailers shouldn’t be building their operations around how they currently define omni-channel. . Retailers should aim to invest with vendors like Honeywell that offer solutions that combine hardware, software, and services in a way that delivers a flexible and scalable option that can evolve with the business into the future.

Here are some ways that I have seen retailers reposition themselves to emphasise customer experience journey and have more efficient and flexible operations include:

Taking e-fulfilment pressure off retail stores

Many retailers that have begun to offer online shopping options put the responsibility for e-fulfilment onto their store staff. However, in many cases this has resulted in a lowered level of customer service for in-store consumers, because the staff are distracted by the need to pick and pack online shopper orders in the midst of the shoppers.

A more realistic option that many retailers are looking at is to make both distribution centres and physical stores responsible for omni-channel fulfilment, to even out the pressure and give store staff more time to help customers.

Some retailers have also begun experimenting with the concept of warerooms as part of store that have the highest moving e-commerce items and are used exclusively to pick click and collect orders without interfering with shoppers in the store.

Turning traditional store layouts upside down

Warehouse managers are constantly making changes to ensure their workers are as efficient and productive as possible so that customers receive an accurate and fast delivery. Grocery stores responsible for e-fulfilment are increasingly looking at how they can follow the warehouse model of better servicing online customers with efficient and fast picking.

While it is unlikely that stores will change to a more utilitarian design, the concept of treating store operations more like warehouse operations is growing in popularity. This means that metrics and work tracking will be more prevalent in store operations and that will drive the need for solutions that can support that operational acuity.

Add-ons: Giving consumers more

Looking at the success of Amazon’s model; it’s not about their ability to stock thousands of SKUs, but the way in which they compel people to buy add-ons. The concept has also started to make its way into the rest of the retail world. For example, ‘click and collect’ not only offers consumers another choice, but also gets shoppers to the store so they can buy more or staff can recommend other things.

Once retailers get a handle on their simple e-fulfilment tasks and don’t have to spend so much time worrying about getting people what they have already ordered, they can then start to focus more on increasing the level of customer service and achieving add-ons. For online groceries this might be making customers’ lives easier by recipe building. For hardware stores, this might mean making recommendations on entire DIY projects.

We will also start to see retailers individualising the shopping experience for consumers. The next emphasis in the retail world is likely to involve a form of online flip board, like Pinterest, where consumers can build a journey of what they want into the future for upcoming events (weddings, holidays, renovations) in their lives. This might involve multiple retailers partnering together to give consumers exactly what they want for a project or outfit.

Standing out from the crowd

Rather than building a reputation on offering the lowest price, many retailers are creating unique differentiators that appeal to different types of shoppers. This can be enabled by omni-channel and is, in fact, the logical extension of omni-channel. Costco emphasises customer and employee loyalty by offering a money back guarantee and making people feel like they are part of a big family. They also pay their employees three times the minimum wage so that their staff are motivated to give a very high level of customer service.

One size does not fit all

Many retailers are put off delivering an integrated omni-channel due to the belief that they need to invest in a grandiose solution that comes with a huge price tag. Additionally, they believe that the new processes that will be brought in will require them to put on extra staff, and the roll-out will be long, so it becomes impossible for them to see any kind of return on investment.

However, many businesses receive pressure from top management to rush a new omni-channel solution out within set deadlines to keep to current trends. The impact on the retailer is often overwhelming and cripples their ability to provide customer service. One experience I have heard involves a retailer being crippled by ‘click and collect’ to the point where they would just wait for a customer to arrive with their receipt and then remove a point of sale worker to go and pick the order straight from the receipt. Of course, this is highly inefficient and disruptive to in-store customer service.

To make matters worse, we are seeing a lot of retailers using test stores to trial a new solution that they want to roll-out across all of their stores. But this approach ignores the fact that all stores have their nuances and need solutions that work best for their unique customer needs. Rather than finding a one-size-fits-all solution, retailers need to be flexible about finding an optimal model that will fit in each different store. After all, there’s always a new omni-channel addition coming and retailers can’t just build a solution around online shopping.

It’s all about the customer journey

While the retail world got a bit caught up in the omni-channel, we are now starting to realise that it is the enabler, not the answer. Importantly for retailers, the focus needs to shift to making achievable and flexible improvements into the future that change the customer experience journey. We have so much information at our fingertips about customers that the emphasis should be on understanding the customer and finding ways to serve them better – that is omni-channel excellence!

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