Omni-channel’s migration dilemma

The shift in retail to a more omni-channel world is dramatic and profound. And since the term “omni-channel” gets thrown around a lot–often vaguely or carelessly–let me be clear about what I mean: more and more customers are becoming engaged in utilizing multiple channels–stores, mobile, online, social networks and the like–to explore, research and transact.

One important implication of this phenomenon is that many consumers are becoming what I call “blended channel” customers; sometimes choosing to transact in physical stores, sometimes buying online. And they commonly use multiple sources to aid in the decision journey, regardless of where their ultimate transaction may be recorded.

Their loyalty is to the brand, not a channel.The pressure, therefore, is on retailers to become more channel-agnostic, break down their operational silos and create a frictionless experience across channels if they hope to win over this growing cohort.

So, at one level, it’s easy to understand the retail industry’s frantic quest for so-called omni-channel excellence. But the success from omni-channel will not be evenly distributed–and for reasons that go beyond a given company’s willingness to invest or their capability to execute well.

What many leaders and analysts fail to appreciate is that as customers migrate even a small portion of their purchasing from physical stores to digital channels, a number of important dynamics come into play, and a huge dilemma may emerge.

It’s important to understand that the transaction economics of physical stores and direct-to-consumer (D2C) are quite different. Brick and mortar is mostly a fixed cost business characterized by lots of capital tied up in real estate and the supply chain, married with some relatively high costs just to stay open and staff the store during typical open hours. By contrast, above a basic scale, D2C is highly variable. In most cases, it costs more or less the same to take an order, process it, pick it out of central inventory, pack it up and ship it, regardless of whether the item is priced at $15 or $150. Generally speaking, the higher the average order size, the greater the profitability. If you sell cheap stuff on-line–particularly if you can’t recover your shipping costs from the consumer–good luck making any money.

So if the variable economics of the digital channel are superior to brick and mortar–everything else being equal–the more customers become omni-channel in their behavior, the better a brand’s economics become. This is one of the reasons you’ve seen brands with higher average order sizes (e.g. Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus) investing aggressively in building out their e-commerce capabilities for over a decade.

If the marginal economics of the digital channel are worse than bricks & mortar AND the brand is growing slowly or not all, a real dilemma emerges. On the one hand, changing consumer preferences essentially demand investments in omni-channel capabilities. And this is no cheap date. Yet as customers migrate from stores to online, the overall economics deteriorate in the aggregate. Worse still, a dramatic shift away from physical stores to e-commerce will make many stores questionable economic propositions. Yet, closing those stores may cause the loss of some or all of a blended channel customer’s business. It’s easy to see this as the start of a downward spiral (I’m looking at you RadioShack).

From a consumer’s point of view, the deployment and improvement of omni-channel capabilities is a bonanza. From a retailer’s point of view, the rush to all things omni-channel–without a clear understanding of the underlying economics, the different behaviors by different customer segments and how physical channels interact with digital channels to deliver a remarkable total customer experience –can lead to some very serious mistakes.

 

Note: For an insightful and data rich discussion of many of these issues, I wholeheartedly recommend Kevin Hillstrom’s blog: http://blog.minethatdata.com/

Author: stevenpdennis

Steven Dennis is a trusted advisor and thought-leader on customer-centric strategic growth and innovation. As President of SageBerry Consulting, he applies his C-level executive experience to drive growth and marketing strategy for multi-channel retail, e-commerce and luxury industry clients. He shares his ideas and wisdom regularly in the press, as an industry speaker and through his popular blog "Zen and the Art & Science of Customer-Centricity"(https://stevenpdennis.wordpress.com/). Prior to founding SageBerry, Steven was Senior Vice President of Strategy, Business Development and Marketing for the Neiman Marcus Group. As a member of the Executive Committee he drove the company's major growth initiatives, multi-channel marketing programs and customer insight agenda. Before joining Neiman Marcus, Steven held leadership positions with Sears, including Acting Chief Strategy Officer, Lands' End acquisition integration team leader, Vice President-Multichannel Integration and General Manager-Commercial Sales. Earlier in his career he was with NutraSweet and the global management strategy consulting firm, Booz & Co. Steven received his MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BA from Tufts University. In addition to his consulting work, Steven is an executive-in-residence at the JC Penney Center for Retail Excellence at SMU’s Cox School of Business, President of the DFW Retail Executives Association and serves on the Advisory Boards of Invodo Inc. and Nectar Online Media. He is also active in the social innovation and education reform arena as a Partner and member of the Board of Directors of Dallas Social Venture Partners. He is currently co-leader of DSVP's investment and engagement with SMU's Center on Communities and Education "School Zone" initiative in West Dallas.

6 thoughts on “Omni-channel’s migration dilemma”

  1. Nice analysis Steve! Forget omni-channel…. D2C is a much clearer and holistic definition of how people shop today. The end game…. forget channels, there are no channels, it is one big shopping experience for the consumer.

    Like

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