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Omnichannel vs multichannel: Providing a seamless experience

Alexandra Cain
Business Journalist

Alexandra Cain writes regularly for the small business sections of The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and Australian Financial Review

Alexandra Cain
Business Journalist

Alexandra Cain writes regularly for the small business sections of The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and Australian Financial Review

  • Technology is key to providing a seamless experience online and offline.
  • Omnichannel is replacing multichannel in the B2C world.

Customers increasingly expect an omnichannel experience. But what does that actually mean and how might it differ from a multichannel retail strategy?

“You say multichannel,

I say omnichannel,

Let’s call the whole thing off.”

It would be easy to throw our hands in the air, declare both as rather similar business buzzwords and move on. Yet, while your customers would never use those words to describe the experience of shopping with your brand, they can certainly tell the difference.

Woman waiting at bus stop whilst working on tablet
Omnichannel is the way forward for seamless retail experiences.

“Multichannel is [about] channels of distribution for discrete groups of customers” says Gareth Jude, retail industry executive at Telstra. “This is the idea that you can actually select groups of customers to be served in the appropriate way for them.” 

In short, one customer segment may regularly use the website while another may prefer to shop in store. Mail order catalogues, mobile apps, sales reps, even home shopping TV advertorials, each channel provides a different and separate path to purchase designed to appeal to a particular customer type. Even so, they can still find themselves in competition for the same customer.

Largely due to the rapid rise of mobile devices, the idea that we can corral each group into shopping within distinct and controlled channels is no longer valid. “In an omnichannel philosophy, a customer will move between channels as it suits them,” says Jude. “Therefore, the correct design approach is to provide multiple touch points for a single customer.

“For example, in a multichannel approach you have your online team working separately from your store marketing team. Well, that doesn't make sense, because it is the same customer. The two messages have to blend.” So, omnichannel is a blended experience that allows the customer to freely move between channels, while multichannel remains a more siloed approach.

For retailers, an omnichannel approach means every element of the business and its marketing must not only be consistent and on brand but also each channel should, where possible, seamlessly hand over to the next without requiring the customer to start again.

“We did some research last year into how people feel as omnichannel shoppers. The big risk if you don't get equivalent experiences online and in stores is that consumers will mark you down on the gap,” says Jude.

He explains that providing a seamless journey starts with knowing your customer. “You have to be available to a customer when they want to shop. Today, that's all waking hours and probably some of people’s non-waking hours, given we are shopping on our smart phones when we wake up in the middle of the night. So you need to make the same experience available to them at any time, wherever they are,” says Jude.

I’ll get that to go

An added consideration for omnichannel marketing is implications for fulfilment. It’s important for customers to be able to pick up purchases in store or have them delivered, whichever their preference.

“It’s also a good idea to have stock levels available online. That way, customers know that items will be there when they get to the store. When you get to the store, have a service that allows them to ship products home,” he adds.

Another way to ensure a seamless experience instore and online is to have a service that allows customers to browse online while in the store. “We have that in our stores. Let’s say you‘ve been researching online for a new iPhone7. You come into the store but you’re not sure you want to buy it today. We provide a tap-and-go card that you tap on the display of the iPhone7. It links the information on our display to that card. When you go home you can pick up the conversation about that product,” he explains. This closes the loop between browsing online and visiting the store.

Digital features drive sales

Technology is paramount for businesses that wish to offer a seamless online and offline experience.

“One of the most effective ways to do that is to connect instore. Then it’s about providing online experiences in the physical world. That means touch screens in store,” he says.

Telstra makes use of digital feature tickets—digital version of price stickers —that contain not just the price of an item but also all the product specs.

“We have them on touch screens so customers can dig down into the deepest features on the screen while they are instore. It gives them an online experience in the store and it allows us to track the information customers want to know.”

Another effective component of the omnichannel environment is an app. “It should facilitate functionality like click and collect, so you can browse and buy online and pick up your order later. The reverse of that is buying in store and having your purchases delivered,” Jude explains.

Gathering information on customers through their use of the app also allows businesses to build up a series of data point on stores the customer has visited, to predict where you are most likely to buy from next.

“So when you go into a store, we can see you have been there and that you’re ready for an iPhone7. We could message and say, “You’ve passed the store, why don't you pop in? David is ready to talk to you about a special offer,” he explains.

Omnichannel marketing is a concept that has evolved over time. But only now, as retailers become more sophisticated in combining both online and offline marketing, is it really coming to the fore.

So, is there still a place for multichannel? “In a retail context, omnichannel is replacing multichannel,” says Jude. “In the business-to-business world, there are arguments for a multichannel approach in [large] organisations like Telstra, where we have big groups of discrete customers. We have a government group and we approach them differently to our enterprise commercial customers, because of the nature of our business and how they acquire goods.

“But in the business-to-consumer world I don't think there are any arguments at all.”

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