If the future of marketing and retail is omnichannel, then let’s start with the basics: What is omnichannel retail—and are multichannel and omnichannel the same thing?

The answer: not really, but your brand does need multiple channels as the foundation for an omnichannel approach.

An Omnichannel Strategy Blends Physical and Digital CX

Multichannel marketing and retail is just how it sounds: using many different channels to drive customer engagement and sales. Think physical retail location and a website, for example. Two different channels where your brand markets and sells products.

Traditionally, this meant a different marketing strategy plus a different customer journey for each.

The big difference in omnichannel vs multichannel is that, with omnichannel selling, your brand can connect buying experiences across channels. Omnichannel shopping blends multiple channels (i.e., a person’s digital and in-person experiences) into a single, seamless customer journey.

Buy online, pick up in-store (BOPIS) and curbside pickup are examples of omnichannel retail. So is checking online whether an item is in stock before a customer heads to the store, or using a retailer’s app to make a shopping list, find what they’re looking for inside a store, or buying online and returning to a store!

An omnichannel approach helps your brand win customer loyalty because it provides the convenient customer experience they crave.

Given this, it may be self-evident why omnichannel commerce is the future of retail. But let’s look at some even more compelling recent trends.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the dominant trend for multichannel retailers has been the rapid shift from in-person to online shopping. But now, as vaccines shine a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, another shift is emerging. Customers are headed back to physical stores.

This doesn’t mean, though, that we’re going to reset the clock to February 2020 and revert to the shopping habits we had then. The rise of digital experiences will continue—and they’ll transform how we shop in person, too.

What will that transformation look like for retailers that have both an online presence and a physical one? And how can they develop an omnichannel marketing strategy for a future that’s arriving faster than predicted?

BOPIS Kept Physical Stores Relevant

Before we look toward where retail is going, let’s take a quick look back at the seismic changes the past year has brought. When pandemic restrictions began in spring 2020, consumers quickly changed how they shopped. The result was that, in 2020, ecommerce accounted for $1 of every $5 spent in retail globally-compared to $1 out of $7 in 2019.

That growth wasn’t just due to shoppers buying from websites and having their purchases shipped. Many retailers stepped up their efforts with BOPIS and found that their customers enthusiastically responded. By April 2020, BOPIS sales were up 208% compared with the same period a year before.

Still, retailers were hit hard by declines in foot traffic caused by pandemic restrictions and, even as brick-and-mortar stores reopened, shoppers’ had continued safety concerns. As a result, a record number of store locations closed last year.

But as 2021 finally brought good news in the fight against Covid-19, it also brought encouraging developments for retail. Sales are increasing , thanks to the continued strength of ecommerce as well as an upswing in foot traffic as shoppers return to physical stores .

To succeed in the “new, new normal,” though, your brand can’t just deliver the same brick-and-mortar experiences as it did before the pandemic.

Consumers are a lot more digitally savvy now. That’s given them new expectations about convenience and personalization when they shop, said Scott Compton , a senior analyst at Forrester. He discussed this trend during “Creating Exceptional Ecommerce Experiences,” a Rethinking Relevance Roundtable presented by Coveo.

The online shopping habits we developed over the past year aren’t going away, Compton said. Instead, we have an accelerated blend of digital and in-person experiences into one seamless experience-an omnichannel experience.

An omnichannel approach can win customer loyalty and drive customer retention because it unifies the messaging throughout multichannel marketing. This consolidation provides the convenient shopping experiences shoppers crave.

So what should your brand prioritize to achieve an omnichannel approach?

“Perfect that search box first. Make sure that the experience that’s coming through the search box is as tightly tuned as possible,” Compton said, highlighting search as an essential customer touchpoint. “It’s a great time to reinvent your search experience on your site.”

As a former search practitioner, Compton said he was “completely blown away” by newer tools’ ability to deliver relevant results to shoppers when compared with legacy tool sets that he’d used.

Compton especially emphasized the importance of mobile search as a touchpoint.

“Imagine all of the different kinds of things that people are using mobile for in your store,” he said. “They’re going to be in that store using that tool, and you’ve got to make that tool as efficient and friction-free as possible.”

Search is Critical in Mobile

Search is even more important on mobile than on a desktop, said Brian McGlynn, general manager of ecommerce at Coveo, at the Relevance Roundtable event. On desktop, an ecommerce store has more room to encourage product discovery through navigation and recommendations. But on the smaller mobile screen, the shopper is more likely to rely on search.

“Search is not a nice-to-have, but a must-have,” he said.

Compton felt the same way. With no room on mobile for a long list of search results, he was impressed with new tools that “can actually surface the most important things at the most important time to put it in front of that mobile user.”

In an omnichannel experience, search doesn’t just help shoppers find the products they want faster. It also helps them buy those products when and where they want to, improving customer satisfaction.

For omnichannel retailing, upfront information is vital. Shoppers want to know what sales channel is available and choose how they’ll receive their purchase. They also want to filter search results according to availability at the store they choose, Compton said. Out-of-stock items have become a major point of frustration for shoppers.

“I’m sure we’ve all done this over this past year: shopping an entire site, getting to the ‘pick my window’ for pick-up or delivery, and realizing that half the things on my list have to be shipped, and I’m not going to get those for three more days,” Compton said. “I should have known that from the beginning.”

Streamline Multiple Channels of Search With Headless Architecture

One major hurdle for many organizations attempting to create a seamless experience with omnichannel retail is being burdened by full-scale applications. Their traditional architectures are poorly equipped to support omnichannel ecommerce.

There is good news, though.

While having multiple marketing and sales channels often represented architecture silos with a tightly coupled user experience, the leaders responding rapidly to the evolving demands of omnichannel ecommerce are embracing a “headless” architecture using an API-first approach.

“Headless” has become a buzzword in ecommerce. In the words of Forrester analyst Joe Cicman , headless “is an architectural model based on touchpoints loosely coupled to capabilities through APIs. It allows you to deliver consistent customer experiences across touchpoints, even between mobile, kiosk, TV, and laptop.”

Headless commerce offers a truly new, immensely customizable capability to continuously modernize applications in direct response to customer demand, enabling omnichannel experiences.

And, importantly, a headless approach helps support the broad array of newer touchpoints: the same presentation code that runs a website or native app is not always valid, but the same underlying ecommerce capabilities are required.

To support the many “heads” of an omnichannel ecommerce, presentation is decoupled from the application logic via APIs. Embracing a headless, API-first approach has therefore become critical to successfully navigating the evolving ecommerce landscape.

Smarter omnichannel search will continue to change the way we shop both online and in-person, Compton and McGlynn agreed. What does the future look like? Imagine shoppers walking through your clothing store while describing the outfit they want into their phone, and then your brand’s app sends them to the right aisle.

Or a customer needs one more screw to assemble a new bookcase. So they take a picture of the screw and input the photo into your home improvement app. The app tells them what kind of screw they need and whether it’s available at a nearby location.

These capabilities are exciting, Compton said, but multichannel retailers shouldn’t lose sleep if they’re not ready to implement them right away.

“What I’m hearing across the board, with a couple of vertical exceptions, is perfect the search box first,” he said. “Don’t worry about these new input types. But when you’re shopping for a technology partner, make sure they can handle them in the future.”

Want to learn how to start perfecting your search box for omnichannel strategy? Learn more about how Coveo delivers relevance.

Ecommerce Search & DiscoveryMore relevance, more buying

Dig Deeper

Wonder what makes an ecommerce experience relevant? Sarah Beckham breaks it down for you.

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About Sarah Beckham

Sarah Beckham is a freelance writer and editor based in Austin, Texas. She is also a former longtime newspaper journalist.

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