We've sent flowers and written a nice note. I think the eulogy was kind.
But Omni-channel is dead, and retailers need to focus. It was a problem of omni-channel versus the right assortment, right price, right channel, right time in the customer journey for the right customer. The idea of omni-channel homogeneity of everything being a miasma of mediocrity was clearly crazy and lazy.
As Lincoln Steffens didn't say, I've seen the future and it doesn't work.
This was all acerbated by the constrained scarce resources of retailers. Wasn't it obvious that they needed to choose their bets? The 2018 retailer chooses when, where, and how to win. They call their shots.
The ideas of omni-channel were a dangerous promise that was; a) wrong, and b) expensive. There is every reason why your assortment and pricing should be different online. Five minutes of analytics would tell you so... I don't mind a well thought through patchwork of multi-channel, with each part of the jigsaw doing the right thing (not the same thing) for the right customer at the right time in their purchase journey.
Retailers are not gods, just as their customers are not unwavering loyal followers, so why would a retailer attempt to offer everything to everybody in every way possible? Surely this contradicts any basic business model.
Omni-channel isn’t a learning period, or a new catchphrase, it was retail madness.
The customer may be king and it is right to want to tempt as many as possible into shopping with you, as long as they are ultimately valuable to your business.
I have worked with some retailers who calculate this value as a discrete transaction, taking online grocery in the UK as an example, which is seen as one of, if not the most advanced markets, these discrete transactions do not add up at all; for many banners, every delivered order costs the retailer money and yet this has been the case for more than a decade.
I have seen other verticals look towards brand building and reference the tantalising potential lifetime value of the customer, justifying any losses as investments towards future sales and bringing new customers on-board; but rarely have I seen evidence of this happening in practice and even if so, I am yet to be convinced by any quantification of this value.
So why is omni-channel even a thing? Is it a case of not being left out when everyone else is seen to be doing it, rather than a considered, supported business decision.
One size does not fit all, and this applies to channels as much as products.
A range of channels exist and indeed, continue to grow and fragment, but they are different channels used by different customers for different purposes. One size does not fit all, the proliferation of products in stores demonstrates retailers’ understanding of this phrase and we have worked with many clients to streamline these offers. Yet, I still see retailers applying the same broad proposition across each channel. Channels are not the same, so why should the offer be.
To benefit the total business retailers need to understand each channel and how to best leverage it to play a beneficial part in their customers’ journey. To do so means that they must first understand their customers and the stages of their journeys, what matters when and why in their research and purchase considerations. I have spoken with many retailers where this factual understanding is in fact assumption and rhetoric, often refined internally over many years, predating the existence of some of the very channels themselves.
Embrace channel hopping, it’s part of the journey.
Many years ago in the UK, the second highest web traffic for grocery, behind Tesco’s online shopping platform, was for a retailer who did not offer online shopping. Customers flooded the Aldi website simply to check on new deals before going to a store to make their purchases. The online equivalent of weekly promotional brochures dropped through letterboxes.
In today’s market the purchase journey needs to be as straightforward and simple as possible to ensure you win as a retailer. A customer’s pre-purchase research and decision making will happen across many channels depending on the product and person. And they will not consider all of these as sales channels, so neither should the retailer. These channels will not all belong to the same retailer, some won’t belong to a retailer at all. This is ok, it is perfectly normal. What matters is that you are the retailer that they chose to make their purchase. This time and the next.
Pick your targets and merchandise wisely.
This doesn’t mean that business rules and sensible merchandising practice do not still apply, in fact they are more important than ever, but they must be tailored by customer segment and channel for maximum affect.
Customers are sensible, the will understand that a small store cannot stock the entire range a website can show, but make sure that they definitely know that before they come into store to make a purchase and find that it isn’t in stock. Communication and transparency is paramount to build trust. Real time stock checking and ordering to store are now vital conversion tools, especially for items where customers want to touch and feel the product before purchase, but they are tools that have to work accurately otherwise they simply impart an extra financial and logistical burden on the store.
There is still a human connection in stores that is not attainable online, the theatre of retail where the difference between a sale or not, is the influence of the colleague and the environment. Many of the purchasing population are not able, not comfortable, or simply not willing to make remote transactions, they want the store experience and to see the products and interact with other people; and for many verticals, these people make up the majority of sales revenue. Physical space is as essential as it has ever been, it’s just going through a transition of how we use it most effectively.
While in some markets there is a perverse expectation that online should be cheaper, driven by the pure plays and auction site accumulators, this is simply not feasible for the B&M operators with huge overheads. I have experienced customers who are willing to pay increased prices online for the added convenience of delivery and others who expect price parity with stores, but don’t think twice about the incremental delivery costs. What is vital is that the process is sensible to the customer and operationally viable for the retailer. I like to think of customers as being less price sensitive and more value sensitive, after all you should really get what you pay for.
Targeted boldness wins in retail. From our previous Google-OC&C research we know retailers need to invest at dramatically higher levels in technology to win, and you need to be much more aggressive in investing in business-model innovation focused on particular customer/ channel opportunities. Mushy omni-channel thinking saps this focused boldness.
James Walker is a Partner at OC&C Strategy Consultants, and Global Head of Analytics