Omni-channel and order fulfillment is the next big IT challenge

While bricks-and-mortar stores aren’t disappearing, retailers must incorporate digital strategies with in-store experiences to succeed. Not as easy as it sounds

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While the omni-channel is getting a lot of attention these days, the reality is most retailers don’t even have the basics down, from cross-channel inventory visibility to in-store fulfillment.

The omni-channel is meant to help customers experience the same level of service across channels, whether that’s in-store, online or on a mobile device — and, perhaps more importantly, transition seamlessly between those channels during a transaction.

All of the pieces have to work together, or you risk annoying or alienating your customers. Thanks to social media, any bump on the road to the omni-channel could result in bad publicity all over Twitter.

So it’s essential to figure this out, and the sooner the better — not “maybe one day.” According to preliminary results from PwC’s 2014 Global Multichannel Shopping Survey, 60 per cent of U.S. shoppers include online as part of a multi-channel shopping experience when they buy clothing.

Ron Klein, director of PwC’s U.S. retail and consumer practice who spoke at the recent American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA) omni-channel conference in New York, said apparel and footwear brands must shift away from selling to “enabling outcomes.”

Mobile point-of-sale, for example, is about selling product, but it’s also about enabling outcomes. Mobile POS allows customers to pay for purchases on the sales floor (or even in a pop-up location), rather than line up at a cash register.

More interesting, though, is the ability to provide e-commerce capabilities inside a bricks-and-mortar store. Want something, but you want blue in XS, and they’ve only got yellow in XL? A salesperson with a tablet and cross-channel inventory visibility could check availability at other locations.

But it’s one thing to provide inventory visibility; it’s another to provide in-store fulfillment. Once you’ve tracked down that item, do you have the ability to deliver it to the customer?

This becomes even more critical when social media platforms are involved.

Say thousands of Pinterest followers are pinning a particular dress from your upcoming spring collection — and, all of a sudden, you have a slew of orders coming in from all channels.

Are you prepared to handle that? Can you provide a consistent experience across those channels? And can your salespeople answer questions about that dress when customers come in and ask about it (especially if it isn’t available yet)?

More channels also mean more data — but many retailers are struggling with converting their data into insight and action. As the omni-channel becomes more important to the way you do business, so does the ability to do something with all that data you’re gathering.

For Canadian retailers — many of which haven’t started or have only just begun this journey — the omni-channel means revamping both infrastructure and business processes.

Consider how you’ll address your inventory needs in this new omni-channel world. This will require you to combine mobile apps, social media platforms and data analytics along with your more traditional in-store strategies. This is no easy task.

But, as you map out your omni-channel strategy, don’t forget why you’re doing it — and how you’re going to “enable outcomes.”

Image courtesy of photoraidz /

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