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What does omnichannel mean for retail?

29 June 2016 / by Gavin Clark, Commercial Director for Snapfulfil

In this era of constantly changing tides, there are many new concepts being discussed, some of which whose exact meaning could get lost in translation from theory to practice. One of the terms that's seemingly lost its lustre, according to Information Age, is the omnichannel concept. While it may seem like jargon, the ideas and implications wrapped up in the omnichannel revolution are incredibly important for supply chain professionals.

"The idea of multi-channel retail is fairly recent."

The idea of a "channel" in itself is a fairly recent concept. Up until around 20 years ago, the only channels that existed in any meaningful way were the physical store and the mail-order catalogue. It's natural to adopt the view that things were easier in the past, but in the case of retail distribution, this is true in a sense.

According to Accenture, with the advent of multiple channels through which consumers can research and purchase goods, the dynamic has shifted completely, and in very little time.

"Shopping today is no longer a question of 'where' the customers are shopping, but 'how' they are shopping," Accenture noted in a report on channel integration for retail. "Regardless of the original touchpoint, customers expect their interaction with retailers to be uncomplicated and relevant."

More than meets the eye

At first glance, many may assume that this means honing in on web design and product variety to attract customers and make shopping a painless affair. In some sense, this is a key priority. But to really master the omnichannel realm, retailers have to go a step further by perfecting the parts of their business that remain mostly unseen by consumers. According to Information Age, this makes the use of a best-of-breed warehouse management software absolutely vital to growth in an omnichannel world.

While a flashy Web page and great selection of products may work well to entice first-time customers, nothing gets them to return more reliably than prompt delivery. Consequently, there's no mistake more grave than failing to ship an order on time, having items out of stock due to unexpected demand or not following through on promises. Return customers comprise the lifeblood of any retail business, and in the new e-commerce world, that requires a much greater emphasis on logistics.

Tapping into multiple channels means multiple growth opportunities for retailers.

Without product visibility, these obligations can be much harder to fulfil. The new demand of easy, often free returns placed on retailers by customers adds yet another dimension of difficulty in visibility and planning. Information Age noted that returns serve as a major selling point for retailers who offer them and execute them well. However, they could also pose a threat for businesses that either don't offer free returns, or those that don't make it easy for customers to do so.

All in all, omnichannel retail means more challenges for retail, but these hurdles can be surmounted with an easy-to-scale cloud WMS running the show. With the right tools, even the complex balancing act that is omnichannel will become easy in short order.