Earlier this month we looked at ten interesting trends that those in ecommerce need to consider as 2016 approaches. At the top of that list was the importance of multi-channel shopping. Out of all the trends that require close attention next year, this is likely the most important due to – as we write in the post – its capacity to make or break any ecommerce business.
Over the last few years setting up an ecommerce store has become easier and easier as web host providers (like 1&1 for example) offer domain registration and site building tools that can be initiated and expanded upon in a matter of a few clicks. However once the site is up and running, the challenges of sustaining and optimizing that ecommerce site begin. Indeed, once you have grabbed the tiger’s tail, all you can do is hang on. Integrating your ecommerce site with other online retail platforms and any brick-and-mortar outlets you may have is one of the greatest and most important challenges any ecommerce company will face from the outset.
So what exactly is Multi-Channel Shopping?
Multi-channel shopping (sometimes referred to as ‘omnichannel shopping’) is essentially the practice of offering customers a variety of platforms from which they are able to purchase your products. Traditionally, multi-channel shopping, or multi-channel retail, would refer to businesses that offer their products both online and offline, via mail order, catalogue and telephone. Therefore it had little relevance to those business that were operating solely online. However today, (and even more so in 2016) multi-channel retail is becoming a vital factor for those who have no catalogues and no physical shop aisles, but are operating in the same virtual world as multi-merchant online platforms.
The fundamental principle of multi-channel shopping remains the same however: in optimizing your business across multiple channels you are aiming to maximize revenue by offering your customers greater choice, allowing them to engage with your business in the most convenient method.
The trajectory towards multi-channel online shopping has been led not by ecommerce businesses but by consumers themselves. The fact is that online shoppers increasingly expect to find the products they are searching for on one specific website on a multi-merchant platform as well, Amazon naturally being the most prolific of these. The attraction to buy products on sites such as Amazon, Etsy or ThemeForest is that they offer a comfortable user-experience (as they are both trusted and familiar) and one is also able to buy a basket full of items from different vendors while only having to make one payment.
One particular risk for retailers in multi-channel shopping is muddying the data conglomerated on the customers. It is integral when embarking upon multi-channel retail that the channels utilized are integrated so that instead of splitting your customer profiles you can harvest a 360° view of them.
As well as the back end processes being integrated, it is vital that the ‘front of house’ experience for the consumer is recognizable across all channels. Maintaining a reliable experience and brand consistency will be a big driver in ensuring customer loyalty leading to repeat sales. From design templates through to customer service, packaging, delivery and refund policy, you want as few shocks as possible to greet return customers who are now purchasing products via a different channel for the first time.
Although customers who shop on Amazon and its competitors are unlikely to ever wholly depart from using their service, you still want to ensure that the shoppers are simultaneously relating to and building up a relationship with your company. It is important to foster a sense of your brand through the shopping experience; the aesthetic, the product descriptions, the quality of the customer service etc.. Naturally there are certain restrictions when using third party channels. For example, when using Amazon and eBay there are certain requirements in terms of product category and attributes that have to be entered.
Incorporating your Bricks-and-Mortar Outlets
Following on from the aforementioned, multi-channel retail is integral for those business that also operate offline. Although showrooming (whereby a customer checks out a product in store and then returns home to purchase it online) is becoming more and more common, a significant number of consumers still take the approach of researching products online and then making the final purchase in store. Either way the seesaw swings in 2016, the salient point is that consumers are continuing to engage both digitally and in person with merchants. One must ensure that their ecommerce site corresponds with their bricks-and-mortar store, and not make the foolish assumption that the customers of each fall into two separate and distinct groups.
In 2013, of the 70% of shoppers who used a cell phone while in a retail store (and 43% of them did), 62% accessed that store’s website or app (Source: Phunware). Now, imagine a potential customer walking into your store in search of an item that the website or app claims is in stock, only to find that this is not the case. In the future this individual is likely to trust neither website nor store. It is important therefore to make the online and offline channels work simultaneously together with real-time updates. There should be an automated inventory system whereby each channel has real-time access to product availability to ensure up-to-date accuracy as these products are being sold through a multitude of different outlets.
An up-to-date ecommerce site will also allow businesses who have brick-and-mortar stores to embark upon practices such as arming their employees with tablets, allowing them to offer store visitors on-the-spot comprehensive product information. This will also allow staff to instantly put an order in for customers if an item is out of stock.
The final point on multi-channel retail between online and physical stores takes us to point 3 of our 2016 trends post. Off and online technology are enjoying an ever closer union with the introduction of beacon technology. Beacon technology allows companies to send deals or promotions directly to a store visitor’s cell or tablet when they walk into (or indeed past) the store. Naturally, it would be embarrassing if it was to transpire that the sent deal or promotion is not actually running or available in that particular store.
Essentially, the challenge posed by multi-channel shopping is to provide a seamless, comfortable and efficient service across all platforms, allowing your customers to shop when and how it is convenient for them, and ensuring that the multiple channels do not fragment your brand identity, but bolster it.
Feature image curtsey of Kris Hunt