“Your customers are better at doing business with you than you are at doing business with them”. That was the gauntlet thrown down by Morris Pentel of the Customer Experience Foundation at last week’s Retail Bulletin Omnichannel Summit – but just how do retailers address this balance of power?

My colleague Tim Barton led a debate on this very subject at the summit, along with Pentel and James Storie-Pugh, children’s fashion retailer LamaLoLi’s head of ecommerce. Entitled ‘omnichannel – technology or philosophy?’ it raised some interesting questions around what it means to provide a successful customer experience across multiple touch points.

Until this point, much of the omnichannel discussion has centered on data. How do we capture shoppers everywhere they go, analyzing every successful interaction and every failed conversion, to better understand their behavior?

This thought process has naturally led to the growth of omnichannel retail technologies, which enable retailers to gather and utilize customer data throughout their business. The store environment has been particularly impacted by this change; as an industry we’re constantly considering how best to bring the world of eCommerce into the bricks-and-mortar environment.

Bridging the digital/physical divide has, in itself, raised many questions. Self-checkout or tablet-enabled store associate? Faster checkout facilities or focus on queue busting? Upskill staff to better answer customer enquiries, or give shoppers the tools to answer those questions independently?

Whether they know it or not, how retailers respond to these dilemmas could reveal their omnichannel maturity.

Omnichannel, by definition, means ‘of all things’. In the retail environment this means being contextually relevant; giving consumers an experience that tallies with, and connects to, what they’ve done before and what they’ll do afterwards.

Giving shoppers the retail technology to manage their own store experiences is beneficial to an extent – it adds convenience and easy access to information, speeds up customer service enquiries and checkout times. However, it doesn’t fulfill that personal, knowledgeable human service that makes the store experience special, or compensate for the shortcomings of online shopping.

There’s a reason the majority of purchases still take place in a store: because there’s no substitute for being able to see, touch and try an item, and being able to ask specific questions about that item to a real person.

In order to become truly omnichannel, retailers need to blend their investment in digital capabilities with the unique qualities of bricks-and-mortar shopping. Retail technology should be used to make customer service faster, more efficient and more informative. To offer alternatives when a product is not available at the shelf edge. To reward loyalty and nurture shopper value. Not to replace human interaction.

Achieving this omnichannel utopia in store will empower sales associates to become a powerful touchpoint within a wider, connected retail experience. In this sense, the omnichannel evolution is far more than a roll out of technology into stores; it is a new way of thinking and behaving that must be embraced by retail personnel.

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