Omni-channel retailing is one of the key buzz phrases of the moment. Like a lot of buzz phrases though, there is an ongoing discussion as to what the term actually means.
Most industry observers seem to agree that it refers to the way in which retailers seamlessly integrate all of their channels together into a sale proposition. That means not just bricks and mortar, but also websites and mobile too.
Yet there is arguably a further element which differentiates it from, say, the multi-channel retailing that the industry has been talking about for years.
Adobe's VP of enterprise marketing, Kevin Cochrane, explains it in this way:
‘We think omni-channel extends past social networks, email, web and mobile, to include the entire customer experience, so it includes things like in-store displays, kiosks, interactive television and set-top boxes.
It's essentially anywhere there's a digital touch point, which is everywhere you look nowadays.'
Some pundits also stress the technological elements of omni-channel retailing too. Creating systems that seamlessly move customers from one platform to another requires technology that unites these together and has thrown up new challenges for developers and coders. For example, John Lewis recently invested millions of pounds in developing the technological structure for its new omni-channel retailing based system.
Bricks and mortar
Perhaps the biggest element of omni-channel retailing though is the premise that the most important factor in the retail chain is the store itself and not its online channels. This is a view that has been evolving for some time now and it is finally impacting on the way that brands shape their online strategy.
This often mirrors the customer experience. Consumers will often do their research online, deciding which products they are going to consider buying, then checking out the prices of those products. However, for many customers the final loop in the chain is actually going into a store to see the product in the flesh and then purchasing it.
So in terms of marketing for some brands this might mean not pushing customers towards making a purchase online, but rather moving them in store - where the theory is they may buy other items too. By getting the customer in the store it cements the brand experience and brings the consumer close to the retailer.
Many brands are also reporting that a growing number of sales are omni-channel driven. For example, John Lewis' chief information officer, Paul Coby, recently suggested that as many as two out of three of all its sales are now omni-channel.
Content that drives consumer to the store
So who is doing omni-channel retailing well and how does this impact on content marketing agencies?
Well many of the innovators in this space tend to be from the US. Brands like Urban Outfitters, and its sister chain Anthropologie, now enable shoppers to see if a specific item is in stock at a retail location from their websites' product pages. Their next step might be to add this to their mobile offering so that the store knows where you are and is able instantly to tell you where a product is in stock near to you.
Large numbers of stores on both sides of the Atlantic have also been developing ways in which consumers can ship online orders from stores, while others, like Argos and Matalan in the UK, are making it easy for customers to pick up articles they have bought online from local stores. At some point they might incentivise customers too by offering vouchers and special deals if they come to the store rather than take a delivery.
Since 2012, John Lewis has been pioneering omni-channel stores. Its recent Exeter store for example, features digital store guides help customers to find their way around the new store, while larger wall-mounted screens provide information on products from the wider John Lewis range.
Where omni-channel retailing starts to impact on agencies is when brands use social media and content to encourage their customers to go into stores. Topshop recently launched a campaign where shoppers received a free styling and make-up session and were invited to create a digital 'Wish you were at Topshop' postcard using Instagram.
Once the postcard photo had been taken, they were given a copy to take home and were also able to upload it to Facebook and the Topshop gallery. It was hugely successful.
There are ways too in which printed magazines can become part of the omni-channel approach. A typical way might be through a QR code that unlocks special offers at stores, or augmented reality promotions.
Ultimately omni-channel retailing is here to stay and is going to have a huge impact on how brands develop their online, printed and digital assets. In many ways content marketing agencies have been doing some of the things that people now perceive as elements of omni-channel retailing for a while now. It draws directly on some of their core skills. So omni-channel retailing will present savvy content marketing agencies with new and exciting opportunities.