How Retailers Can Bridge the Divide with Omni-Channel Strategies

08/30/2016 04:33 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2017

As the popularity of online shopping has grown over the past decade, ecommerce has become more than just a buzzword for progressive retailers. It's quickly become a viable addition to the traditional brick and mortar setup.

Whereas it was something unique and innovative for a physical retailer to have an online presence a few years ago, it's now highly unusual for a major retailer not to have an internet storefront. In order to be competitive in 2016, retailers have to think seriously about omni-channel strategies that bridge the divide between in-store and online.

What is an Omni-Channel Strategy?

In the most basic form, an omni-channel strategy is about establishing continuity of experience. It doesn't matter if customers are accessing your mobile site via their smartphone or walking the aisles of your store, an omni-channel strategy respects each touch point and seeks to establish seamless connections between these various points.

In other words, an omni-channel strategy isn't just about having a physical store and an ecommerce storefront - that simply means you have a multichannel infrastructure in place. Omni-channel refers to the way in which you create effortless continuity from your website and various digital elements to your brick and mortar store's physical components.

Where Do You Start?

Assuming you already have the basics in place - a store and an ecommerce website - how do you get started with an omni-channel strategy? According to Julie Krueger, Industry Director of Retail at Google, it all begins with gathering data and understanding who your customers are.

"Omni-channel shopping presents a dramatic shift in how we think about retail, but it's a change that comes with huge opportunity," Krueger says. "Start your journey by understanding the specific traits of these shoppers. Get to know who they are and what propels them to shop online and in-store by using the tools that will help you measure online and offline purchases effectively across channels."

The key to creating an effective omni-channel strategy is understanding how your customers interact with your brand at each step of the customer journey. Do they research online and buy in store? Do they test products in the store, pull up their phone to look for coupons, and then decide whether to purchase now or later based on price changes? Do customers spend a lot of time on social media getting the opinions of their peers prior to or during shopping?

Establishing a plan for collecting and analyzing relevant data is one of the first steps to creating a fluid omni-channel strategy. Krueger discusses this in more detail in her article, but just know that every business owner has access to the information they need to identify brand-specific details regarding their customers' journeys.

What Brick and Mortar Stores Can Do

Let's start with some of the ways in which brick and mortar stores - i.e. retailers that began with physical storefronts - can successfully carry out omni-channel strategies.

1. Simplify Checkout

The biggest reason people shop online is the convenience of the process. From searching for products to checking out, everything is streamlined and effortless. When developing an omni-channel strategy, your goal should be to translate the simplicity of online shopping to your physical store locations.

Brian Sutter of Wasp, a leader in inventory software and management systems, believes arming sales associates with iPads or mobile POS systems on the floor is one effective way to increase the efficiency of the in-store purchase process. Furthermore, should a product be out of stock, associates can use these POS tools to immediately place an online order.

2. Create Virtual Touch Points

Savvy customers - particularly digital natives who are accustomed to advanced technologies - crave virtual experiences, even when they're in a physical store. Instead of trying to distance your physical store from ecommerce, work on blending the two together.

For example, could you find a way to use virtual reality technology to allow customers to put themselves in specific situations? Could iPad kiosks be used to let shoppers customize products or place orders? There are plenty of opportunities for merging physical with digital - don't overlook them.

3. Develop a Unified Loyalty Program

Finally, you can connect the dots of your omni-channel strategy by developing a loyalty program that functions both with in-store and online shopping. By rewarding customers for both forms of shopping, you can encourage them to increase purchase behaviors.

Specifically, you should find a way to encourage primarily in-store shoppers to go online, and vice versa, by giving generous rewards to customers who make purchases via both channels within a given cycle.

What Online Stores Can Do

What about online stores? How can ecommerce companies dip their feet into the physical realm and create meaningful omni-channel interactions with customers?

1. Allow for In-Store Pickup

While not all brick and mortar shoppers are online shoppers, all online shoppers do (at least occasionally) shop in physical stores. Understanding this gives you an advantage. You know that if you get a customer to shop online, you should also be able to encourage an online shopper to visit a physical storefront in the near future.

One strategy for accomplishing this is to allow for in-store pickup of online items. This is something large retailers like Walmart and Lowes do. They actually allow customers to place orders for items that are at the store location, and then pick and pack those items for pickup (usually within 30 minutes or an hour). They know that by getting customers to walk inside, they have the opportunity to upsell.

2. Create Physical Experiences

You don't need a permanent storefront to be able to utilize an omni-channel strategy. You can bridge the divide between online and in-person by creating non-traditional, physical experiences. These include things like pop-up shops and physical experience zones.

Pop-up shops- as the name suggests - are simply stores that pop up in vacant shops or street kiosks for a few hours, days, or weeks. With the right placement and an appropriate pre-launch strategy, pop-up shops can be very successful. Physical experience zones are simply mall kiosks or isolated displays in other shopping areas that feature a very limited number of products that customers can touch, feel, and try.

3. Nail Real Time Customer Service

Finally, you really need to nail the customer service aspect of ecommerce. One of the primary reasons people go to a physical store is for the ability to touch the products and speak with sales associates. While a question can be answered within seconds in a store, it may take hours or days to get the same answer online. You can overcome this by establishing real-time customer service elements - such as online chats.

Ensure Continuity With an Omni-channel Strategy

Today's customers don't just shop online or in-store. Most move freely between the two and you must reach them where they are. An omni-channel strategy is the answer.

It's not enough to simply have a physical store and an ecommerce storefront. Almost every successful retail brand has some semblance of a multichannel strategy in place. In order to be successful and profitable, you need an omni-channel strategy that irons out the connecting wrinkles and establishes continuity between both important aspects of your business model.