Comment: How to operationalise a seamless customer experience

Customers expect a seamless experience with a retailer, one that offers the same product selection, purchase and fulfilment options and level of service, regardless of how, where, when or why they interact with them. And consumers don't merely prefer such seamlessness; they expect it. Retailers may call it "omnichannel"; customers just call it "shopping".

In practice, however, few retailers can claim to offer a truly seamless experience yet because doing so requires that everything – from their IT infrastructure to the ways that they incentivise their teams – is expressly designed to support it.

To offer omnichannel, in other words, retailers need to operationalise omnichannel. But while operationalising omnichannel ultimately requires changes to every functional area, certain areas need to change first: the organisational structure, IT and the supply chain.

Operationalising omnichannel is, at its core, an exercise in change management. Successful change management starts at the top, with com­pany leaders making clear to everyone, both inside and outside of the organisation, their sponsorship of the initiative. Ideally, such sponsorship includes titles to match. With that in mind, retailers such as B&Q and Bed, Bath and Beyond have created omnichannel director positions.

In the US, luxury retailer Neiman Marcus has decided to merge its store and online merchandising & planning teams. According to a senior executive at Neiman Marcus: "Whenever we wanted to do something, from an operational, buying or mar­keting standpoint, when you have totally different teams, it became very complicated. The new struc­ture was put into place so that Neiman can better service its customers.”

Of course, to deliver on the promise their new titles and job descriptions imply, retail employ­ees must have the necessary tools; the impact of operationalising omnichannel is, therefore, as signifi­cant on IT as it is on the organisational structure.

IT has a key role in enabling a single, near-real-time view of the organisation. After all, retailers cannot provide an omnichannel experience unless their own employees have full visibility across all of their channels. More often than not, enabling an internal omnichannel view involves getting legacy systems to communi­cate with newer systems designed expressly for online operations.

The other huge area where IT must contribute (at least in a supporting role) is in digital innovation. IT must work with digital and marketing teams to ensure innovation is being delivered and operationalised – and at pace.

The omnichannel retailer makes available an end­less aisle of products to its customers, who do not care where the product is stored, only that it can be delivered into their hands quickly – and conveniently. To successfully ensure this, the omnichannel retailer needs to provide its customers with a range of fulfilment options.

However, offering consumers so many options also requires changes to a retailer's supply chain logistics, often in the form of additional distribution centres and sometimes dark stores. Ship-from-store is a key enabler, with Argos recently stating its intent to create "potentially around 140 distribution centres" by using a hub-and-spoke model for customer order fulfilment.

End-to-end supply chain visibility is key; without it, seamless product fulfilment is all but impossible.

Consumers' expectations that their interactions with retailers will be seamless regard­less of the channel have become standard in recent years. For retailers, then, the question of operation­alising omnichannel is no longer if, but when, and in what order.

Retailers will position themselves for omnichannel success first by making clear the importance of their omnichannel strategy, to both their employees and their customers; second by empowering their staff to deliver on the promise of omnichannel with an IT infrastructure and individual tech tools designed to offer an omnichannel view; and third, adjusting their supply chain: om­nichannel fundamentally rewrites the rules of fulfilment to support a model of anytime, anywhere, and retailers' logistics must change to support it.

Once these three core functional areas have been operationalised for omnichannel, a retailer can begin to implement changes to the rest of the organisa­tion and, in the process, position itself for success.

Because for 21st-century consum­ers, omnichannel isn't simply an aspect of retail, or even a type of retail; it is just "shopping".

The Kurt Salmon team writes a regular column on technology in retail for Essential Retail.

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