The future of omni-channel retail (iMedia Connection)

“Omni-channel” is omnipresent in retailers’ discussions today. The rate of mobile adoption has skyrocketed, and the number of consumers using mobile data via apps and the mobile web continues to grow across all demographics. Eighty-seven percent of U.S. adults own a cell phone, and 45 percent own a smartphone. Additionally, 31 percent of American adults own a tablet. Consumers are using phones and tablets before, during, and after their retail experiences.

Some retailers are charging into the space, while others are looking to learn from the early adopters. Regardless of the pace a retailer prefers, omni-channel presents a huge opportunity for brands. But that opportunity comes with a number of important factors to consider. Great initiatives are coming from some of the least likely suspects.

Walgreens is a great example. The drugstore chain, which has been around for more than 100 years, is a fresh face that is using both mobile and social to drive loyalty and sales. By connecting the customer across web, mobile, and in-store, it drives more purchases through ease of use. Shoppers at Walgreens and brands under its umbrella, including and Duane Reade, can acquire and use points across channels, use mobile to upload photos for in-store printing, and receive coupons that can be used both on and offline.

On the home electronics front, Best Buy was one of the first to integrate in-store availability online. It’s a convenient feature to use at work when you need a new device or toner, but have little time to shop around or wait for delivery. The latest version of its app integrates with the company’s Reward Zone. Many app users are now pining for the company to integrate that feature into Apple’s Passbook for even more seamless shopping.

Geofencing, or targeting shoppers near the point of sale, is also catching on. Express offers coupons to those in and near its stores with its mobile app. The North Face offers deals not only to those near its stores, but also to those in recreational areas, via its VIPeak program. Its app offers lots of product info and great videos that the company’s shoppers can engage with even when they are not shopping. Although, mobile video’s top use is a time killer, if you can engage with people while they are in line at the DMV or on the ski slopes and build loyalty, there’s value.

Other retailers are leveraging the multi-device landscape to improve their internal selling tools. Nine West put mobile technology to work, beginning with the 2012 holiday season, by rolling out an in-store iPad app that enables employees to show the company’s Lookbook style suggestions to shoppers, retrieve product info, place orders, and provide training materials. The pilot program was a success on many fronts. It was the best Black Friday ever, sales increased, and the company saved both money and the environment by shifting reams of paper documentation to the iPad.

As retailers take the tool for sales associates to the next level, they are aiming to integrate CRM information in order to create personal experiences for their best customers and convert sometimes visitors into loyal patrons. This is also known as clienteling and requires good planning and cooperation across divisions of the company. This is what omni-channel is all about.

These are just a few examples of how an omni-channel approach is changing retail. Brick-and-mortar businesses aren’t dead, but brands need to accept that their customer is their customer (whether online, on the phone or tablet, or in store), and the customer needs to be delighted with a consistent experience. Those who continue to silo and refuse to innovate will ultimately be left behind.

With that in mind, here are some key things to consider when planning for omni-channel:

How does mobile fit in with my offline and web initiatives? Can they be integrated?
Does a program like this delight the consumer through more selection, faster ordering, or other benefits?
Do my retail outlets have the hardware and network to make this successful?
Are my online and offline rewards and loyalty programs integrated so shoppers are getting benefits both ways?
Are my employees incentivized across channels so that I get the most out of them and drive the sales?
Also, whether you’re creating consumer-facing apps and experiences or providing mobile tools for your employees, be sure that all apps and sites work well and provide a great experience. You might build a great app with shopper benefits, but if it works poorly or has a confusing interface, it represents one step forward and two steps back.

Omni-channel provides a huge opportunity for retailers — one that delivers ROI. Retailers need to begin thinking about mobile as a seamless part of a broader shopping experience to fully harness the power of mobile.

Marci Weisler is COO of EachScape.

Read more at iMEDIA Connection

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