If you sell stuff in your and your partners’ stores and via e-commerce, you have probably heard today’s buzzword -- “omnichannel” -- meaning that your customers should be able to use any part of your commerce chain as if it were a single entity: find and buy anywhere, pick up anywhere, return anywhere, all of this working seamlessly for the customer and integrated so that transactions anywhere are recorded and available everywhere.

You’re being told that your customers want and will soon demand this kind of transparency, and that if you aren't there now, you had better get cracking. You’re also hearing that getting there will take time, a lot of it -- Macy’s started in 2008 and is just now beginning to reap the benefits -- and will be a complex, expensive and “significant technology integration challenge.” By this time, you may be feeling that rush of panic as you contemplate how you can possibly keep up with this brave new world of real and virtual commerce.

You’re not alone.

It All Depends on Where You Start

If you’ve already automated your supply and commerce chains through integrated systems from one vendor, you’re in pretty good shape. You are among the few for which fielding a seamless omnichannel experience should be, if not simple, at least manageable.

But what if you’re a part of that majority with automation at the channel, division or even operating system level: some from vendor A, some from vendor B with band-aid patches, some home-built and some not yet automated at all? If that’s you, then you certainly have reason to be concerned. So just what are you facing?

We Have Seen the Enemies … and Some of Them Are Us

First, there’s the technology you are using: vendors like to build systems that integrate with each other but not someone else’s, erecting barriers to competition that, while perfectly legal, can create all kinds of difficulties in a world obsessed with doing things “seamlessly.” If your commerce chain uses different vendors, you are facing the need to get them working together, something they probably don’t want to do.

You probably also face problems that are organizational, even human, in nature: each of your divisions or groups or whatever, loathes giving up its approach to technology in order to integrate with its peers. In some cases, the mantra actually becomes: “sure we’ll integrate … as long as everyone else uses our approach and infrastructure.

If you’re facing the need to offer an omnichannel customer experience, Macy’s experience -- five years from start to reward -- may seem virtually forever. Likewise, Walgreens Pharmacy’s experience, hailed as successful but at the cost of “investing heavily” in its omnichannel strategy, can seem pretty daunting if, unlike Walgreens, you aren’t in the Fortune 50.

So What’s the Answer?

Nevertheless, if you want to grow, or even keep your market, you must move toward omnichannel capability, and getting all the various technological solutions you have in place working together is probably not going to be your path to success.

If you can’t easily make all the disparate parts of your supply and fulfillment technology work directly with one another, and experience suggests that you may not, then how can you offer your customers and vendors a unified and seamless experience?

No matter the difficulties, doing nothing is not an option so what should you do? Here are a couple of things to keep in mind.

Demand for Omnichannel - Says Who?

Keep in mind that most of your customers will never use the seamless channels you are trying to provide, and many who notice their lack will stay with you even if your system isn’t the perfect example of convenience. So when your IT group presents its plan for omnichannel implementation, along with an activation schedule in years and its astronomical cost estimates, remember this: if you are doing a good job of satisfying the bulk of your customers, you will get credit for any improvement you make even if it doesn’t qualify as full omnichannel, and if you aren’t, no amount of omnichannel elegance will save you.

Content to the Rescue?

The answer, or at least part of it, may be an approach that few technologists would consider out of the box but that has a long record of success achieving integration in disparate technological situations. That approach is to achieve integration at the “content” level, allowing the core technology to remain largely the same but asking each player to provide a gateway from its software to a common content “hub” where records of transactions, inventory and customers reside.