How Unified Commerce Helps Retailers Avoid the Pitfalls of Omnichannel

Recent studies from BCC Research indicates the global e-commerce market is set to more than double between 2017 and 2022 to reach $5.8 trillion

As the increasingly crowded online sector continues to steal customers away from physical retailers, how can businesses differentiate themselves from the competition? James Baker, Digital Customer Experience Lead at Columbus explains how a unified commerce approach can deliver world-class customer experiences and future-proof business operations.

Access to a wider range of products at the touch of a button and receiving highly personalised shopping recommendations based on past buying habits has led to a major shift in customer expectations. Today’s customers expect, as standard, a highly responsive, top quality service from retailers across all available channels.

As the volume of goods sold online continues to rise, UK retail stores on the high street look set to shift from holding large volumes of stock towards being more of a physical showroom for online outlets.

Tackling retail industry challenges

The increasing dominance of internet retail sales necessitates a strong online presence for all retail businesses. This in turn requires a reliable eCommerce platform. Despite a strong level of investment and willingness to adopt emerging technologies in the retail sector, there are budgetary constraints, capacity limitations and sometimes retailers simply don’t have the technical capability to connect disparate business processes and systems together.

We have seen some businesses attempt to roll out ambitious digital commerce projects without notable success. Therein lies the first – and arguably the killer – problem… the word “project”. Projects are dangerously slow and, in terms of digital, are all too frequently driven by fear and the perceived need to be doing something innovative. The harshest of critics simply label this as guesswork.

Additionally, the dependencies introduced during a programme of works create negative siloing and trickle-down effects on day-to-day business activity, limiting the potential to seize opportunity. This can largely be attributed to a mis-appropriation of agility: there needs to be a shift in internal thinking away from the methodology and into BAU.

Rather than look to omnichannel, retailers need to start to think of a Unified Commerce approach as the next logical step beyond omnichannel for their business – one that avoids major ‘rip and replace’ projects in favour of integrating and streamlining existing business systems and processes through the easy deployment of APIs and if required, the cloud.

Revenue depends on strong customer service – no matter the purchasing channel

If businesses can’t deliver a consistently high level of service across the customer’s platform of choice, they will struggle to drive revenue growth or develop brand loyalty. The customer experience must be highly personalised and seamless – if a customer switching between platforms loses their selected discounts or is presented with a different set of offers, the customer journey risks being disrupted.

But it requires more than this. For retailers to be successful, they need to be able to react much quicker to market opportunities – and threats – to better serve customers. Is there a major demand for seasonal products due to unexpectedly warm weather? Is there a market gap that urgently needs filling – and if your products can fill this gap, can you promote this fast enough?

The businesses that are on the right path are the ones that think like their customers and understand their needs. They achieve this by building complete personas of their customers. However, although this is a good customer experience exercise, there is a chance that it remains exactly that – an exercise which all too often ends with a wall covered in high level customer type CVs.

To execute and achieve success faster, businesses must work with “personas in context” which evolve and are frequently re-tested. This is continual integrated thinking between digital, trading / merchandising and customer service teams which delivers the capability to both react and proact to influencers and market condition. The goal of accurate customer personalisation at “point in time” creates its own journey, upon which every business should embark.

We strongly recommend businesses map out a pathway of all possible customer touchpoints – digital or physical – to identify if all stages are linked and, if not, how to better integrate systems and teams to ensure the customer journey does not falter or end prematurely.

Unified Commerce avoids the disconnect of omnichannel

To address customer demands, retailers need to look beyond the now almost ‘traditional’ omnichannel approach and move towards unified commerce. This will leverage existing systems and processes at every level and department of the business to ensure any customer engagement results in a consistent experience each time.

This is not in any way a disruptive approach for a retailer. A wider unified commerce approach evaluates the suitability of existing systems across the business and integrates them using simple APIs. By linking together systems spanning e-commerce, CRM, inventory management and POS, employees are presented with business-wide visibility and can avoid a disconnect between individual departments.

Tracking customer interactions this way provides a single version of truth for employees and management, helping to identify browsing and purchasing habits, and provide the more personalised recommendations customers love. At the business level, this approach helps retailers avoid errors and duplicated efforts across departments – leading to significant time and financial savings.

De-siloing and information management essential to connect the dots

Central to the unified commerce approach is the need to undergo business-wide ‘de-siloing’. Data may be gathered at every available opportunity – but beyond this, is it being sorted, filtered, stored and analysed? If it’s not, you won’t be presented with accurate insights in real-time, and you won’t get a complete centralised view.

Businesses need to know that product information is up-to-date across all platforms, and that the latest offers and promotions are visible and correctly applied at the point of sale. Consistent communication across all departments is required to ensure assets, campaigns and offers are accurate across all possible channels and points of entry. It is essential that businesses harness a Product Information Management solution to gather, manage and feed product data into ERP and eCommerce systems as required. We have seen the benefits of this first hand.

One of our longstanding eCommerce clients is an online business that successfully shifted from being a vitamins retailer to a health and wellness provider. Product information, branding and marketing assets all had to be updated accordingly – and this could only be achieved by ensuring all systems and channels were linked and updated with accurate content.

Rise above today’s competition through unification

It is important to note that this degree of business transformation is not limited to the largest of businesses – thanks to a SaaS deployment model that minimises the cost and maintenance time typically associated with deploying various e-commerce solutions.

Moving forwards, the retail sector looks set to adopt emerging technology such as AI at an even greater pace. Today however, unified commerce represents the next logical step beyond existing omnichannel strategies. By taking a measured approach and engaging with all departments and existing systems, businesses can begin to realise the end goal of a consistently high customer experience across all channels.

About the Author

James Barker is digital product and customer experience lead at Columbus. Columbus is a global IT services and consulting corporation with more than 2,000 employees serving our customers worldwide. We bring digital transformation into your business and position you to thrive far into the future