“Omni-channel” has been the hot topic in the retail industry in last 5 years. It is a concept most retailers are still trying to grasp, and to understand how to enable both physical retail and e-commerce to integrate.

I was recently invited to share my perspectives at a roundtable discussion. During which, I spoke from my experience in an omni-channel task force at a physical retailer.


Most “omni-channel” definitions are long, and packed with jargons and big words.

Our recent roundtable discussion referred to a 30-word definition for ‘omni-channel experience’ which reads:

Marketing to customers in a data-driven, holistic approach across online and offline touch points, delivering personalized brand conversations and value, to drive consideration, conversion and loyalty, while respecting personal data privacy.

Most of us tend to zoom in on different aspects of omni-channel – “online and offline”, “Integrated”, “seamless experience”, etc.

It will remain a cryptic buzzword unless we distill and simplify it.

Where did “omni-channel” come from

Let’s go back to the birth of “omni-channel”.

The term was first coined by Darrell Rigby in 2011. In his article for Harvard Business Review, he wrote about the future of retailing. Darrell presented a fictional scenario where a consumer (Amy) made her purchase decision across multiple channels. Even though she had e-commerce and online platforms as her touch points, her experience was seamless and integrated.

“Omni-channel” was used there to describe the seamless and integrated experience Amy had.

Customer at the core

In order to decode “omni-channel”, we need to first decipher what consumers need.

Over the years, technology has enhanced connectivity, made consumer more mobile and brought about influx of information.

As such, consumer has changed their path to purchase and decision-making dynamics. Over time, they have lower threshold for nonsenses and inconsistencies.

The retailer that wins, is one that addresses customer pains. It makes things simple and easy for customers in a complex and stressful world.

An omni-channel strategy makes all channels serve as ONE single entity.  As a result, customer has uninterrupted experience as channels are transparent to them.

What omni-channel experience looks like

Let me explain with 2 simple scenarios.

Apple Note

I have the Note app in 3 devices – iphone, ipad and macbook. While on the move, I could start a memo on the Note app on the iphone, and then finish editing it using ipad or macbook. This is possible as all 3 devices carry the same content at its latest state of being written.

I never had to remember where the memo was written. To me, NOTE is one single entity.


I might be watching a show from Netflix on my ipad before it ran out of battery. Fret no, I could pick up from where I left off using another device as long as I stay logged in as the same subscriber.

In both scenarios, I am recognized as a unique individual and I enjoy uninterrupted experience, across devices.

As far as I am concerned, there is only ONE channel, and the brand is THE only channel.

Platforms and devices are transparent to me.

Sounds simple? Therefore,

Omni-channel is about, ONE experience across ONE channel for ONE unique individual.

Is it possible for retail brand to deliver a unified experience, where consumers no longer do not see online or offline platforms?

Sadly, we are still a far cry from this state.

Why physical retailers struggle to catch up

Here are my observations on why the omni-channel journey has been challenging.

1. Putting technology before people

Instead of deep-diving on customer needs and pains, retailers are obsessed with the latest technology that drives new conversations and eyeballs.

Technology is useless if it does not make the life of customer simpler and easier. And, business should remember that they exist to deliver value to their customers.

True innovations are the ones that solve real problems.

2. Not getting the right talent to lead omni-channel transformation

Omni-channel transformation should be led by a strong customer advocate. Someone who understands how to build insights and understand consumer dynamics.

There are companies who rushed to hire CIOs or experienced technologists, but they may not always be best people to lead this.

However, technology, operations and experience design are key enablers towards omni-channel experience. Together, they form the key pillars of an omni-channel A-team.

A good omni-channel leader understands how to work these pillars and rally the team.

3. Aiming to improve instead of redesign

Companies striving to deliver an upgraded retail model make one recurring mistake. They aim to build on from their current states of operations and legacy systems, which have their limitations.

Trying to drive change bit by bit will not work in the quest for omni-channel.

Transformation calls for a redesign. 

Doing omni-channel right

I suggest these pre-requisites in embarking the omni-channel journey:

1. Invest in experience design

Design an experience that aligns with what consumers want at different touch points, as well as what they think, feel and act.  In addition, consider how to address pains and bring delights at each stage.

This sets the blue print from which operations, logistics and technology can be organized.

2. Build insights on your customers

Go beyond the conventional consumer research methodologies as these are inadequate. Instead, adopt empathy testing, customer journey mapping, customer analytics, platform behavioral data analytics, etc.

3. Align all key functions to collaborate

For omni-channel retail to work, logistics and procurement functions must collaborate and integrate. The end goals are to deliver unified assortments and promotion portability, on all customer touch points.

Setting omni-channel goals as shared KPIs will help to mitigate inherent organizational silos.

4. Develop and acquire the right suite of technology to enable omni-channel experience

Use data and technology to enable seamless service offerings, working from a single truth of customer.

5. Win fast to gain support

A good omni-channel leader should find ways to achieve quick wins so as to rally more pragmatic supporters for the longer run.

Last but not least,

there must be mandates from the top management and commitment to invest on the right talent and resource. Nevertheless, one should also anticipate resistant to change.

The epitome of omni-channel

I don’t think there is an ultimate end-state for omni-channel strategy.

However, we should work towards achieving ONE unified experience by being,

  • Accessible across channels
  • Knowing what customer needs

It is important to prepare for multiple iterations. Sometimes, there is a need to kill the sacred cow if it stands in the way of transformation.

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