According to a report by Salesforce, 55% of shoppers say their retail experiences are somewhat disconnected as they switch between different channels, and yet a separate study by Statistica, shows that just 22% of North American retailers consider omnichannel experiences a top priority. So while consumers are noticing this disconnect, retailers are failing to grasp the significance of the issue.

Perhaps before we jump to asking how retailers can plug the gaps, we should start with the basics, defining what omnichannel retail is and why the other 68% of North American retailers should care.

With the help of industry experts and practitioners we explain what omnichannel retail is, why it matters and how brands can take steps towards develops their own omnichannel retail experiences.

What Is Omnichannel Retail?

Omnichannel retail refers to a multichannel approach to selling products. The approach aims to provide the consumer with a seamless, continuous and integrated shopping experience as they switch between channels the retailer is involved in. Clare Bittourna, marketing designer at Codal, explained omnichannel retail unifies both online, which includes mobile and tablet devices, and offline, which primarily involves in-store experiences. “Omnichannel retail is a fully-integrated approach to ecommerce that extends to mobile-browsing, ecommerce marketplaces, in-person storefronts and social media,” she said.

The term omnichannel is often used “interchangeably” with multichannel, but the two terms are distinct as multichannel refers to “separate and disconnected” channels, explained Mike Callender, executive chairman at REPL Group. “When it comes to the omnichannel, you are talking about connecting the digital to the brick-and-mortar, having each work together in a way that improves the buying experience for customers,” said Callender. “For example, a consumer who checks a retail app on their mobile phone has real-time visibility into inventory at the nearest brick and mortar store and can make purchasing decisions in a more efficient way.”

Matthew Ritchie, a marketing specialist at Foko Retail, added that multichannel and omnichannel have different objectives. “With multichannel retailing, the end goal is ultimately the sale, and retailers and brands will do whatever it takes — even host their products on a competitor's site, like Amazon — to get there. Omnichannel, on the other hand, merges a brand’s physical and online world together to improve customer retention and provide an easy-going, memorable and consistent shopping experience.”

Related Article: Omnichannel Customer Experience: How Much Is too Much?

How to Deliver Omnichannel Retail Experiences

The first step to delivering a true omnichannel retail experience is to invest time in understanding your consumers’ behavior and becoming familiar with their journey across multiple channels, including online, ecommerce, social, mobile and in-store. This involves obtaining access to the relevant technologies that will help you gather this data in real-time so you can deliver a personalized experience. “[Omnichannel retail] is about understanding the customer and what influences, drives and keeps them coming back to your store. Brands must adopt technology that not only shares inventory and product data with customers in real-time, across any channel, but one that collects data to help personalize the shopping experience for buyers,” said Callender.

Callender added that as brands get a deeper understanding of their customers, they need to then increase their number of touchpoints in a “meaningful” way and deliver what the customer wants before “they even know they want it.”

Learning Opportunities

Sara Hicks, CEO of Reaction Commerce, advised brands that in order to cement this experience across all channels, retailers should focus on seamless integration between digital channels and brick-and-mortar stores. “Integrating aspects such as inventory and pricing is essential. Streamlining customer brand experience at each point of the purchase journey, whether it’s desktop, mobile, social, marketing or in-store interactions, is key to retaining customers," said Hicks.

Related Article: The IoT Brings New Meaning to the Omnichannel Customer Experience

What Does the Future Hold for Omnichannel Retailing?

Callender highlighted that future generations will expect to receive omnichannel experiences. “Customers are looking for deeper relationships with the brands they engage with. Future consumers will expect a shopping experience that gets them what they want, when they want it, quickly and efficiently and if they can’t find it from one brand, they will move on quickly,” said Callender.

Based on Callender’s comments, it seems omnichannel retail needs to become the top priority and needs to be implemented much sooner to maintain a competitive advantage.

But while omnichannel is considered to be a “culmination” of everything that has been developed in the field of customer experience and digital technologies, it is important to maintain harmony between “digital employees” and human employees in future omnichannel experiences. “With artificial intelligence (AI) as an overarching new paradigm of software and technology, we are now in an age where computers are learning to "speak human" vs. the other way around [and] that can cause anxiety and fear of job loss [negatively impacting employee experience],” said Tobias Goebel, VP product marketing and emerging technologies at Sparkcentral. “If done right, however, it is an opportunity, as it will become clear that AI has its limits and cannot match human empathy, judgment, creativity or problem-solving capabilities.”

Goebel added that when omnichannel is seen as omni-talent, which achieves the “best of both worlds” of the digital employees and human employees, omnichannel retail can become a reality.