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

The answer to that is not really, but you need one as the foundation for the other.

Omnichannel Blends Physical and Digital CX

Multichannel retail is just how it sounds, using many different selling channels to enable customers to purchase your products. Think physical retail location and a website, for example. Two different channels from which to buy products. Typically it means two different experiences.

The big difference between omnichannel vs multichannel is that with the former you are able to connect the buying experiences across channels. Omnichannel shopping blends a person’s digital and in-person experiences into one seamless shopping journey.

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

An omnichannel approach can help win customers’ loyalty because it provides the convenient shopping experiences they crave. Given this, it may be self-evident why omnichannel 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 retailers has been the rapid shift from in-person to online shopping. But now, as vaccines promise a light at the end of the tunnel for the pandemic, another shift is emerging. Customers are headed back to physical stores.

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

What will that transformation look like for retailers that have both an online presence and a physical one? And how can they prepare for an omnichannel 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 items shipped to them. 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 stores reopened, shoppers’ 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, retailers can’t just deliver the same brick-and-mortar experiences as they did before the pandemic.

Consumers are a lot more digitally savvy now, and that’s given them new expectations about convenience and personalization when they shop, said Scott Compton, a senior analyst at Forrester. He talked about 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 shopping journey.

An omnichannel approach can help win customers’ loyalty because it provides the convenient shopping experiences they crave.

The Mortar for Omnichannel? Search

So what should the priority be for omnichannel retailers? “Perfect that search box first, and make sure that the experience that’s coming through the search box is as tightly tuned as possible,” Compton said. “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 the potential of newer tools to deliver results relevant to shoppers as compared with the legacy tool sets that he had used.

Compton especially emphasized the importance of mobile search.

“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 Critical in Mobile

Search is even more important on mobile as compared with a desktop, said Brian McGlynn, general manager of ecommerce at Coveo,  at the Relevance Roundtable event. On the desktop, a retailer has more room to encourage 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 omnichannel experiences, 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.

For omnichannel retailers, it’s vital to enable customers to filter their search results according to whether an item is available at the store they choose, Compton said. Out-of-stock items have become a major point of frustration for shoppers. They also want to know whether they can receive it in the way that they prefer.

“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.”



What’s Ahead for Omnichannel Search

Smarter 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 walking through a clothing store while describing the outfit you want into your phone, and then the store’s app sends you to the right aisle.

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

These capabilities are exciting, Compton said, but most 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 commerce? Learn more about how Coveo delivers relevance.

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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