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How Anticipatory Omni-Channel Will Define The Retail Sector's Winners

Retail

Only an idiot would take a winter vacation to Florida and forget to pack any shorts. Which is why, one bright sunny day in Naples recently, this particular idiot found himself super-excited to see a Winners at a strip mall near the side of the road.

I thought the store looked a little strange when I walked up to the front door -- all the windows seemed to be papered over in black -- but then I went in and instead of clothing racks, I saw row after row of slot machines. This particular “Winners” was not my favourite discount apparel chain, but a place where gamblers redeem their prizes (and apparently go right back to gambling).

Almost immediately, I remembered that Winners is owned by TJX but does not operate under that brand in the States. I shouldn’t have been fooled because the “Winners” logo was different from the one I’m used to seeing in stores, online and anywhere else.  But to me as a shopper, Winners is a “global” brand because I could conceivably travel the globe. My experience with Winners has been so consistent I just took it for granted -- until it wasn’t what I expected.

That moment of confused disconnect is similar to what happens when omni-channel retailing goes awry. We’ve all had these experiences. You can always find something worth buying in a certain store, for example, but when you try shopping through their web site nothing ever seems to be in stock. Or you download the app for a retailer known for its fast, friendly service and find the app slow to load, or it makes your entire smartphone freeze. Or it’s the brand that treated you like an individual person when you asked for support via social media but which continues to send you completely generic, irrelevant e-mails every week.

Being consistent across various touchpoints is just one omni-channel challenge, of course. As Fierce Retail recently reported, the latest research from Forrester suggests there are four key areas that merchants need to master before they can ensure that customer experience excellence will be truly pervasive. These include boosting personalization, enhancing fulfillment (like buying online but picking up in-store), harnessing data analytics and deploying digital technologies in physical stores more effectively. This was the call to action:

The study recommended that retailers focus on investing in innovation that drives greater customer experiences, starting with prioritizing what will best serve the brand's unique customers. Then, invest in technology that can scale and generate ROI across the organization. 

If I could add something to that, it would be that retailers feel a sense of urgency -- not just to meet consumers wherever they are, but to be proactive in thinking about where they will be.

Despite all the rapid changes technology has brought to consumer behaviour back in the late 1990s, the move towards e-commerce was by no means immediate or seamless among many retailers. It took years of experts repeatedly warning about the sales they would miss out on -- and the customers they would ultimately lose -- before real progress was made. Many are still worrying about digital-first rivals such as Amazon and Alibaba rather than aggressively aiming to optimize their omni-channel strategy so they can adapt to whatever the future holds.

Think about how voice-activated tools like Siri and Alexa are already changing the way people discover and buy goods and services. What will it be like -- what should it be like -- ordering something from your favourite retailer while being ferried around in a driverless car? Just because virtual reality can look a lot like the real thing, should VR shoppers plan to stand in virtual lineups at the cash register, or should we be imagining a completely different customer journey?

Success in omni-channel used to mean, at a minimum, that you showed up in all the appropriate channels. Now it’s a matter of recognizing the need for great experiences no matter how customers choose to engage. I’m calling the next era the “anticipatory omni-channel” -- where the smartest retailers think ahead about how they’ll make the most of new and emerging touchpoints. And you know what we’ll call the ones who make the right bets? Winners.

This article is brought to you by our sponsors at SweetIQ

Shane Schick tells stories that help people innovate, and to manage the change innovation brings. He is the Editor-in-Chief of B2B News Network, an Editor-At-Large withSwagger Magazine and a content marketing consultant.