If you have even the remotest connection to the retail or commercial real estate business then you’ve undoubtedly heard the unending comments about its inevitable decline. If you’ve done your research however, you’ll also understand that though some of these comments warrant concern, they are for the most part, unfounded.
Once upon a time the retailer held almost all of the power in a purchasing relationship, the consumer was confined by the constraints they set forth. Nowadays however, the narrative has shifted in the complete opposite direction. The channels that are available to consumers allow them to break free from the limitations of location, time or payment method. Online shopping means that a consumer can use Bitcoin to buy goods from a store across the country at 3:00am instead of having to visit the local alternative during their designated business hours.
What this albeit simplified scenario ignores however, is the consumer’s path to purchase. In many cases their customer journey didn’t begin and end on that website at 3:00am in their pajamas.
The Consumer's Path to Purchase
In all likelihood the first steps towards that 3:00am purchase began well ahead of time when the seeds of purchase intent were planted. There are four main stages to this customer purchase path:
- Research - How did they land on that particular good or service?
- Purchase - Where and how are they going to buy it?
- Fulfillment - How do they receive it?
- Post-Purchase Experience - How did they use it? What was their experience like?
Each of these phases is impacted by the retailer in some way, shape or form. Whether this is in-store or digitally is up to them. When a retailer is completely reliant on one or the other however, is when they begin to experience serious negative impacts on their financial statements.
Physical retailers that do not embrace the shift to online experiences will lose sales to their competitors who are more accommodating of their market’s purchasing preferences and trends. Businesses that rely solely on e-commerce by contrast will experience unique but equally negative results as well. Small barriers to entry crowd their space with competition and without tangible interactions with customers, they will have trouble creating the trust necessary for many consumers to pull the trigger on a purchase.
If neither method is able to provide a solution then there must be another way. A way that combines the strengths of both brick-and-mortar and e-commerce to create a retail channel that supports every stage of the customer purchasing path. Enter the Omnichannel.
The Rise of the Omnichannel
Despite what The Onion might have you believe, the divide between online and in-store retail is not so disparate (or self-deprecating).
In order to address the growing prevalence of digital experiences among consumer preferences, retailers have begun investing in the “Omnichannel”. Not a device from a science fiction series, the Omnichannel instead refers to the intersection of digital and physical experiences for retailers. Being able to blend together the online and offline world into a single, cohesive experience has become a chief concern for brick-and-mortar retailers everywhere.
Build-a-Bear Workshop for example, a staple at malls across North America has invested in the creation of online experiences that extend a shopper’s in-store experience to their homes and devices. Adherence to the traditional methods of retailing left Build-a-Bear with declining sales and revenue numbers. Since implementing their interactive online gaming center they have been able to not only correct their course, but they are gaining valuable data into the usage and spending habits of their target audiences. The Build-a-Bear Workshop example is a perfect display of a retailer adapting their methods to support the post-purchase stage of the customer journey.
The rise of the Omnichannel has allowed retailers to alter the objectives of their stores from being pure sales outlets to spaces where they deliver experiences that influence and alter consumer perceptions. Microsoft began opening their own brick-and-mortar locations, not because they weren’t achieving enough distribution, but because they wanted a physical pillar for their brand. A place where consumers can immerse themselves in Microsoft’s entire suite of products. Touching, feeling and testing products are still very important influencers of purchase intent.
Unique Experiences - A Connection to the Brand
A company that can successfully leverage the Omnichannel when marketing its products is able to deliver experiences that draw in buyers and engages with them in a place that connects with their values and interests. The Omnichannel goes beyond simple cost and benefit value propositions and into the realm of extrinsic value.
Retailers can manipulate each stage of the customer purchase path in an effort to create unique experiences for its customers. Microsoft is able to reach its target market both online and offline during the research stage by having a physical location for consumers to test their product. Wal-Mart has altered their purchase and fulfillment stages by having consumers purchase their products online and then pick them up in-store at their convenience. Finally, the post-purchase phase can be impacted by companies conducting activities like proactive support or online communities and moderated forums.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, brick-and-mortar retailers project to own 90+% of all purchases over the next four-to-five years. The in-store retail experience is not going away any time soon but digital’s effect on the customer journey is only growing; and those companies that embrace using the Omnichannel stand to realize huge benefits in both sales and customer loyalty.
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