For the last five years or so much of retail has been obsessed with becoming “omni-channel.” As I pointed out in a Forbes piece last year, this ambition sounds good, but is often ill-defined and poorly focused. The point is not to be everywhere, but to eliminate friction and be remarkable and relevant in the places along the customer journey where it really matters. It’s why, as one of my 7 Steps to Remarkable Retail, I encourage brands to design and execute a “harmonized” shopping experience. Harmonized retail requires the important aspects of the customer’s journey to sing beautifully together, regardless of touchpoint or channel, completely devoid of discordant notes. It also requires that we let go of the dualistic notion of e-commerce and physical retail. In most cases, it’s all just commerce and the customer is ultimately the channel.
Beyond the semantics of “omni-channel,” “harmonized,” “unified” or “frictionless” commerce, it turns out that when brands garner deep customer insight around the shopping experience it’s not all that hard to figure out which pain points to eliminate and which product or experiential elements to amplify. Unfortunately many retailers have not even gotten all that far, as this recent eMarketer reportilluminates. That’s likely to end badly.
Yet even armed with this insight and a well articulated roadmap, many well intended “customer-centric” efforts fail. The primary culprit is usually the deeply ingrained silo-ed behavior endemic to many retailers’ operations. Most brick and mortar dominant retailers have developed intensely product-centric cultures where the merchandise (and merchant) is king. And if they had a catalog business it was run largely independently of the physical stores division. As e-commerce became a thing, it was typically bolted onto the existing mail order division (e.g. JC Penney, Neiman Marcus). For companies that needed to get into the direct-to-consumer world anew, the so-called dot-com business was often established as a completely separate entity, typically located away from the core business (in Sears’ case, for example, in a different part of its sprawling campus; in Walmart’s case, on the other side of the country). Either way, channel-centric silos were put in place or reinforced.
While there may have been initial merit to allowing the e-commerce business to get speed and traction absent the interference of the mother ship, over time the result is that executing against a well harmonized experience is fundamentally hindered by silos: silo-ed customer data. Silo-ed inventory. Silo-ed supply chains. Silo-ed metrics. Silo-ed incentives and compensation schemes.
As it turns out, most customer journeys that end up in a physical store transaction start in a digital channel. It turns out that some of the best enterprise customers get acquired in a physical store but then end up doing the bulk of their shopping online. In fact, it turns out that over the past 15 years, for every retailer where I have seen the actual data, customers that shop in multiple channels are the most profitable and loyal customers. And it turns out that customers don’t care about channels. Retailers that continue to organize, measure, pay and execute their operations as if this weren’t true are, unsurprisingly, falling further and further behind.
As others have pointed out, digitally-native brands that have moved into physical retail have largely avoided the silo issue, and therefore are often perceived as having an advantage over legacy retailers. Conceptually they do have an edge: partially because they did not have a culture to undo, partially because they had better customer data from the outset and partially because their technical infrastructure was built with a digital-first orientation. It’s also important that they decided to add stores because many now understand the amplification power of physical and digital convergence.
But let’s be clear. You don’t have to be some new disruptive brand like Warby Parker or Indochino to get this, act on it and perform well. Williams-Sonoma, Sur La Table, REI and a number of other decades-old retail brands never established the silos in the first place as they moved from direct-to-consumer into multi-channel. Nordstrom operated in a more silo-ed way in the early days of e-commerce. Yet more than a decade ago, they made the decision to break down the silos and began implementing process and technology changes necessary to lead in customer-centric, channel-agnostic, harmonized retail. As far as I can tell, they are the only multi-line mall-based retailer to gain meaningful share during the past decade. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
Now it’s true that plenty of retailers have put senior executives in charge of “omni-channel.” Others have named chief digital, chief customer or chief experience officers. Good for them. Necessary perhaps, but hardly sufficient if those executive don’t have the authority to break down the silos and drive the major cultural, process and technology changes that delivering on a harmonized retail experience demands.
The fact is that to survive, much less thrive, under-performing retailers need a “chief silo-busting officer.” And until the CEO sees that as his or her job, fully supported by the Board, all the talk about omni-channel, customer-centricity or a seamless shopping experience is really just that. Talk.
A version of this story appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts and follow me here.