Jonathan Sockell

Before retail was called “retail,” making a purchase was simple: go wherever the thing you wanted was sold (or traded for) and buy it. That was it — and it couldn’t be more straight-forward.

But speak to someone in retail today, and they’ll tell you that world is long since gone. Today’s consumers have many potential paths to a single purchase, and they don’t just expect to be able to make that purchase in any channel. They’re expecting more.

They’re expecting what we call an omni-channel experience.

Multi-channel vs. Omni-channel feedback

So what is omni-channel? And what is the difference between it and multi-channel?

Multi-channel treats each channel — like in-store, online, or call center — as a mutually exclusive experience. Customers come in on one channel, but when they switch to a different channel, it feels disjointed — almost like interacting with a separate company altogether. The reasons is: The organization is focused on optimizing within the channels, rather than looking at the overall customer experience.

Omni-channel, on the other hand, creates persistence for customers across every channel. Rather than treating the web experience as entirely separate from the in-store experience, Omni-channel treats them as one. When done properly, it’s seamless — regardless of the number of channels a customer crosses. The company is optimizing across all its channels.

This approach, of course, will be more complicated for a company to execute. It’s much easier to silo channels and let them operate in isolation. Getting each one to harmonize with the others to create a consistent experience is no small task. But in today’s world, not doing so means you’re gracelessly pushing your customers between channels — often making them feel like a different customer interacting with a different company at each touchpoint.

Multi-channel might be easier for a company to manage. But for the customer, there’s no doubt that omni-channel is easier.

And delivering a better experience for your customers pays off. According to Deloitte, omni-channel customers spend 93% more than those who shop online only — and 208% more than those who shop in-store only.

Nailing an omni-channel experience: Crate & Barrel vs. Williams Sonoma

So what does a properly executed omni-channel experience look like? Today’s wedding registry process is a great example of the difference between the approaches.

wedding_registry_journeyIf you’re getting married and creating a registry, you need to create an online account with a company. You go into the store to look at the items you want, and perhaps scan them in there. You might go back and update update your registry again. You’ll receive gifts through fulfillment in the mail. And if something gets damaged in the mail, you’ll need to call in for support. In other words, you need to touch a lot of different channels.
Crate & Barrel and Williams Sonoma are both companies that do a lot of business for folks getting married. And how they deal with it illustrates the difference between an omni-channel and multi-channel experience.

After creating an online account with Crate & Barrel, you can walk into one of their stores and they seamlessly sync their store scanner to your online account. This makes it very easy to add new items in-store. In fact, they even provide an in-store computer to edit your registry. Front-line staff are empowered their call center to quickly resolve any issues.

It’s a great experience.

Williams Sonoma, on the other hand, takes a different approach. You create a registry online — but go into a store, and associates are surprised your experience started online and fumble to link accounts. Certainly no self-serve computers á la Crate & Barrel. And I wouldn’t suggest you mention this to a sales associate as something that could be improved — my experience was that you’ll get reprimanded by sales associates for not understanding their process.

Williams Sonoma failed to understand how customers are actually engaging with their products and their brand — and the experiences customers are looking for. Planning a wedding is stressful enough, and Williams Sonoma missed an opportunity to make it less so. With these very different approaches — if you found out that Crate & Barrel was carrying the same items as Williams Sonoma, where would you take your business?

Contained in that fairly obvious answer is proof of the value of omni-channel customers.

This example also highlights how retailers that get omni-channel are creating lifetime customers. For Crate & Barrel, there seems to be a clear understanding that a wedding registry has the potential to be just the beginning of a lifelong relationship with two customers (and perhaps a growing household). A relationship that sounds kind of like a marriage…

Companies aren’t measuring the omni-channel experience

Crate & Barrel got it right, but if they hadn’t, how would they know? The company doesn’t survey after every touchpoint — let alone connect feedback across each of these touchpoints to understand the entire several-month interaction. They had the intuition to create a more seamless customer experience, but they still likely have a more “multi-channel” picture of it. They don’t have the ability to perfect experiences for omni-channel shoppers, the ones who spend the most.

So how do companies achieve true omni-channel customer experience status? We’d like to show you how. Join us on Thursday, August 21st for the fourth part of our retail webinar series. We’ll discuss design and data considerations for building an omni-channel customer experience, provide examples of companies tackling the issue today, and take your questions.

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Photo credit: Phil Hawksworth