Last reviewed 5 June 2020

Big businesses may be able to manage multiple customer channels, but what about smaller enterprises? Is the micro omnichannel the future for smaller enterprises? Dave Howell reports.

One of the key lessons the Covid-19 crisis has taught all businesses is when consumers make even small changes to their purchasing behaviour, this can have a profound impact on supply chains. As consumers switch to and from purchasing channels, all businesses – no matter their size – need to have the agility to support multiple sales channels.

Also, as consumers switch to other touchpoints, these can be quickly overwhelmed. In a post-Covid-19 world, businesses – notably smaller enterprises – will need to advance their development of more agile supply chains to support the expansion of omnichannel retailing.

In their report, Accenture states: “There is a clear trend in many industries toward the use of multi-channel approaches to engaging with customers. But in focusing on multi-channel, companies may be overlooking a more fundamental need—for a seamless, omnichannel approach that provides a single, unified experience for the customer across all channels.”

With traditional retailing being disrupted, cultivating the omnichannel is vital for all enterprises – none more so than smaller businesses. Speaking to Internet Retailing, Greg Chapman, SVP, Business Development at Avalara commented: “2020 signals a new decade that will thrust Millennials into the prime adult stage and bring Gen Z of college-age. To adopt a truly omnichannel approach, businesses will need to leverage technology that connects all POS touchpoints. The sharing of customer and transaction data across channels will be critical to providing a high-impact customer experience on every channel."

There is a clear opportunity for small businesses to embrace the omnichannel: According to research from Salesforce, over half (67%) of consumers are using multiple touchpoints to make purchases. Having systems in place to support customers as they move from channel-to-channel is now a commercial imperative for all small enterprises no matter their market sector.

Compact and bijou

Croner-I Business Essentials spoke with Nick Shaw, chief revenue officer, Brightpearl. Nick is responsible for EMEA sales, global marketing and alliances. Before joining Brightpearl, Nick was GM and vice president of the EMEA Consumer Business at Symantec (now NortonLifeLock).

What are the first steps a small business should take to develop the omnichannel for their enterprise?

Focus on the customer experience; it is essential that their buying journey is as personalised and frictionless as possible. Yes, your e-commerce store or your brick and mortar premises must be aesthetically pleasing, but the majority of negative customer reviews arise from issues that occur after they have made a purchase. Stock mismanagement, fulfilment issues and lack of delivery options, can all be incredibly detrimental to an omnichannel business model, so it is down to the SMB to ensure that their back end operations run just as smoothly as the customer-facing processes.

Can you outline the key challenges smaller businesses might face when developing the omnichannel?

The construction of a suitable tech stack - for those who aren't aware, a tech stack is simply the set of technologies that allow you to run your business. For example, your e-commerce store might run on Shopify, while your email marketing is orchestrated through Klaviyo and Brightpearl manages your warehouse. Last year’s retail tech stack survey found that half of the retailers agreed that they do not have the time or expertise to select a technology vendor confidently, while a further 51% were suffering from a surplus of choice when purchasing.

Without the correct combination of technologies, your omnichannel business will not run smoothly, so it is essential to allocate time to research thoroughly and train staff before launch. Although this is an operational headache in the short term, in the long run, it will pay dividends and ensure customer retention.

Do smaller enterprises have an advantage in that they can more easily make close personal connections with their customers over multiple channels?

I think that with the level of technology available most organisations can now better connect with their customers. Our retail tech stack survey found that 54% of US businesses have invested in web personalisation software over the past year, so clearly this is yet another local priority. Although, if you are a smaller organisation who can forge strong relationships with your core customer, then absolutely adapt that as one of your unique selling points. Anyone in the retail industry will tell you that customer experience is key to customer retention, and if you can make use of multiple channels to nurture that relationship, go for it.

Is the omnichannel now 'mobile-first' in all cases?

According to a recent report from Pixel Union, by 2021, mobile is predicted to dominate online sales, driving 54% (or $659 billion) in sales. So yes, I think 'mobile-first' should be priority number one. Personalisation plays a further role here, as users are far more likely to buy from a well-designed mobile site that customises information based on personal preferences and location. The primary focus in all of these cases is to construct a customer experience that is easily navigable across all channels and feels as specific to the individual as possible.

What does the future of the omnichannel look like?

AI is already well and truly entrenched in the operations side of omnichannel, for the simple reason that repetitive tasks can be performed more efficiently by an automated process. However, it's also likely that we will see AI become further integrated with the physical buying experience, Uniqlo already has AI-powered UMood kiosks that can measure the customer's reaction to certain styles or items of clothing. Over the next five years, I wouldn't be surprised to see this become the norm, extending the use of AI to things like interactive dressing rooms and checkout-free stores.

Serving customers

The future of business is more omnichannel connections. Customers demand the ability to shift from one channel to another, as they move through their purchasing journey.

“The biggest challenge for smaller business is the technical implementation and the consistency of the messaging,” says marketing director Julia Munder has been running the omnichannel marketing activities for the international fashion brand Maxwell-Scott. “You need to make sure that the technical implementation on PPC, social media, your shop systems in stores are all working hand in hand and your brand messaging is consistent.”

Brad Revell, head of digital strategy at Hook & Loop, explained the first steps business should take to embrace the omnichannel: “The first steps in developing an omnichannel strategy is to do a feasibility assessment. This assessment needs to include customer buyer journeys and behaviours, the changes to the planning process (how goods are sources/produced and how they move through the supply chain), the ability for the organisation to absorb the change from single to omni and finally the indicative cost to the additional channel and how existing channels would work with each other.”

Revell concluded: “This is the typical business case process where you understand the cost and the benefit. It may not make sense to develop an omnichannel experience; therefore, the assessment is important. At Infor, our Value Engineering team help with assessing a customer's current state as well as their vision and derive an assessment that shows the cost and return on investment.”

Developing an omnichannel approach now should be a core component of your business's strategic planning. As the world gets back to work, companies that offer the most comprehensive shopping experiences will become leaders in their market sectors.