Let’s get digital…digital

The first wave of digital retail was either about brands with a history in catalog merchandising putting up a basic e-commerce site (Williams-Sonoma, Lands’ End) or pure-plays picking off products categories that early adopters could readily embrace (Amazon). The market dealt harshly with models that could not execute a basic direct-to-consumer formula, targeted a product category that wasn’t ready for digital prime time (RIP pets.com) or a combination of both.

As consumers became more comfortable with buying on-line–and retailers got better at deploying new technologies–other categories made sense for pure-plays (Blue Nile, Zappos) and traditional retailers ramped up their multiple channel strategies. For most, this second wave was largely a silo-ed approach with the e-commerce and the bricks and mortar divisions pursuing related, but mainly independent, strategies.

In the most recent third wave, a few retailers (I’m looking at you Nordstrom) understood that most of their customers were interacting with their brand across multiple channels and touch-points. They accepted that brand trumps channel, that digital was transforming their business forever. They declared that silos belong on farms and began investing in a more integrated, customer-centric experience, leading with digital more often than not.

In the next wave, the blended channel is the only channel. The distinctions between devices, channels, touch-points and media begin to blur. Differences with little distinction. Or differences that lead to extinction if your core value proposition can be delivered better, cheaper, faster digitally.

Clearly not every product category is going completely digital. Groceries looks pretty safe. Cars too.

But failure to understand how digital transforms the customer discovery, engagement, purchasing, retention and advocacy process is a prescription for your brand’s demise.

So let’s get digital. Let me hear your actions talk.

“Channel Agnostic”: The Pathway To Customer-Centricity

Having spent the past ten years or so driving customer-centric growth and marketing strategies at places like Neiman Marcus, Sears and Lands’ End, I used to say there were two types of retailers: those that embraced an integrated multi-channel model and those that operated in multiple channels, but treated the channels as largely independent entities.

Today, despite ample evidence of customers’ researching online before going to stores, or shopping physical locations to then go home and order in the comfort of their own homes, we still see many businesses with limited channel integration. In fact, a major player like Pier One actually shut down their e-commerce operation for several years because they somehow thought it wasn’t core to their strategy. They have since come to their senses.

But after many years of pontificating on the power of a seamless, integrated multi-channel experience, I think it may be time to move away from the term multi-channel integration–which by now should be table stakes for any half-way competent retailer–to something that aims for a higher plane and a chance to be truly remarkable in your customer growth strategy.

My new favorite term is: channel agnostic, which I first heard the leadership of JC Penney espouse.

What’s powerful to me about this term, is that it really puts the customer first.  It says as a brand we don’t care which channel you gather your research in, which channel you buy from and which channel you return in, we’re there to make it happen for you.  If we are out of stock in our store, we will jump on our point of sale system, find it at another store (or on the web) and ship it your home if you like.  “Integration” is nice–as if we just want to prove to the customer that we actually talk to each other, but ultimately it’s passive.

So how different would your company be if it really embraced the notion of being “channel agnostic?”  Would your marketing change?  Would your assortments?  Would your return policy?  How about the information that your sales associates have at the store?  In the customer service center?

And if you find that the changes would be significant, then the real question is: would making those changes make your strategy more remarkable, allowing you to better engage, grow and retain customers in the new battle for market share?