The world of multichannel commerce is a very fascinating one at the moment. Just like an old steam locomotive, the multichannel train has taken some time to gain speed, but now that it’s moving, there’s no stopping it.

It may even have gone over the top of the mountain to careen down, just a bit too fast, slightly out of control… an exciting ride no doubt, but are we doing enough to keep it on track?

From the supplier side, multichannel has now reached all the big players: consultancies, software vendors, system integrators, etc. The realization that the question (and solution) is a big one has ensured that new multichannel “specialist” teams have appeared out of nowhere.

For the companies (retailers, etc.) that are implementing multichannel retail strategies, the challenge of doing this and doing it properly is hard enough, but with executives easily excited about the latest iPhone app or concerned with why the website doesn’t work on their iPad, the focus may not always be on the things that truly matter in order to become a successful multichannel organization.

Throw in the added complexity of the naming game (is it multichannel, omni-channel or cross-channel?), and it’s no surprise that we may have lost our way a bit and sometimes forget about the basics.

So, I decided to take a step back and look at the foundations of multichannel -- it may not be as exciting as m- or f-commerce, but quite necessary all the same.

So, First Things First, What is Multichannel Commerce about These Days?

Whatever you may call it (omni-, multi- or cross-channel commerce), for me they are all the same; it is all about engaging with your customers in a consistent and relevant way, over whatever device or touchpoint your customer wants to engage with you.

And where it used to be “respectable” to be available via many touchpoints, including an app, Facebook, etc., or you may even have linked some of them, for example, by offering “reserve online, pick up in store” type services, these days the winners will be the ones who provide a coherent and relevant story across all of your touchpoints.

Converting a consumer from a browser to a buyer no longer happens on a single channel; it happens across a multichannel journey. And at each step of the way during this multichannel journey you will have to make sure that:

  • The information you provide, regardless of channel or touchpoint, is accurate, consistent and relevant.
  • A customer touchpoint is easy to access and use.
  • Each touchpoint has a clear role and fulfills specific customer needs as they travel on their journey, whether this is information or transactional capability.
  • You provide enough reasons for the consumer to want to use your touchpoint next in their multichannel journey (and a little incentive such as a discount may just help).

So, next time you’re in that multichannel discussion and are debating if you should be doing mobile or Facebook or an iPad app, go back to basics and ask yourself “why?” and ”what is the role of this touchpoint in the grand scheme of things?” Because, above all, you want to provide your target consumers with a positive experience -- and one that drives sales for your business.

The Basics may be in Place, but a Change in Thinking is Required as Well

Now, the message that the user experience needs to be spot on is not new, but the fact there now needs to be a coherent story across all channels provides a whole new challenge, and neither our systems, nor our organizations, may be ready for it.

Organizations have typically been very channel oriented, and traditionally this focused on only one, maybe two channels, per organization. In retail, it was the store or the catalogue; in B2B, it was the direct salesperson, a catalogue or a branch.

With this and associated cultures firmly fixed in the “mind” of the organization, additional channels haven’t always been welcomed with open arms, or even if they were, there may be a lack of understanding about the way that they operate, which is different from the traditional channels we may be comfortable with.

Even more challenging is the lack of clarity about how we combine the “old” and “new” channels, not just to co-exist, but also to contribute to each other to achieve customer conversions across multiple touchpoints.

A required mind-shift is needed to start moving away from “online” and “offline” channels. Nice and easy concepts for people that feel more at home in one camp than the other, but the reality is that soon ALL channels will be “internet enabled.”

Mobile POS technology driven by e-commerce software has already made an entry into the stores of more forward-thinking retailers, for example, and more and more printed materials these days come with QR codes to link the reader straight to a mobile or web presence to investigate the product further, or even to buy it.

The internet enablement of life is a fact, and until this is embraced by a retailer, it cannot truly be effective as a multichannel merchant.

What’s Ahead? Requirements for Success

A growing need to enable, support and manage this new multichannel experience will drive a significant change in the IT landscape of retailers, brands and manufacturers, especially where it concerns the customer touchpoints.

Consistent delivery of content gathered from across multiple channels and re-distributed across others, as well as centrally orchestrated and personalized user experiences, again driven by data gathered from all channels, are the new standards of the very near future.

I don’t think it’s too long before we can say goodbye to the traditional e-commerce platforms and hello to a new breed of customer interaction platforms -- ones that are built to manage multiple touchpoints, including the traditional offline ones, as well as ensure the consistency of content across all channels, from a single platform. To be a truly multichannel organization, this type of solution will need to be part of your future.

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