I’m calling it. “Omnichannel” is dead. And in my mind it’s long overdue.
Nearly 16 years since its apparent coining, I think most of us can agree that if “omni-channel” ever had any real usefulness as a concept (debatable), it is now well past its expiration date. And while I’ve been bashing the term for quite some time now, based upon discussion at the last few conferences at which I have spoken, it sounds like others might be finally willing to put omnichannel out to pasture as well.
Ever since certain CEO’s started saying “omnichannel” in just about every sentence (I’m looking at you Terry Lundgren), the term quickly became problematic. First, it was alway ill-defined. Second, it was often served up as the panacea for what ailed every struggling retailer–and therefore the center piece of many a conference keynote, white paper and technology provider sales pitch. Third, it’s repeated so mindlessly and ad nauseam I wonder if someone is getting a royalty every time it’s uttered. Lastly, and most importantly, to the extent it was pointing at the right idea, it all got lost in the “omni”. Simply stated, a great customer experience has never been about being everywhere and all things for all people. What matters is showing up for the right customers, where it really matters, in remarkable ways.
Showing up in remarkable ways in the customer moments that matter is what I call “Harmonized Retail.” While I’m loath to add to the over-crowded stable of buzzwords–and admit to being more than a little bit biased–I think harmonized has important advantages over omnichannel, unified commerce, seamless integration or any of the other terms being used to describe and tackle the changing nature of shopping. Moreover, when we look at the retailers that are doing well right now in this age of vast digital disruption, we can see how harmonized retail is more evocative and prescriptive and therefore, I would argue, more useful.
The essence of harmonized retail is accepting the truth that all the talk about different channels is not at all helpful. The customer is the channel.
A winning customer experience strategy recognizes that the blended channel is the only channel and that retailers need to leverage deep customer insight to understand how various customer segments navigate the customer journey across digital and physical channels. Armed with this knowledge retailers can execute harmonized retail by eliminating the friction points (I call them “discordant notes”) and “amplifying the wow” (implementing truly memorable experiences). As contrasted with current terminology, the goal is not to be everywhere, nor is it to be seamless or unified. Those might be necessary but they are hardly sufficient. With harmonized retail our aim is to have the critical aspects of the customer journey all sing beautifully together.
When we look at the “omnichannel” retailers that are winning we can see this in action. The digitally-native vertical brands (from Warby Parker to Casper, from Bonobos to Away) that are now deep into brick & mortar retail–and achieving significant valuations–all employ aspects of this strategy. Traditional retailers that are defying the retail apocalypse narrative by employing harmonized retail concepts include Sephora, Ulta and Williams-Sonoma. They smartly eschewed the unfocused approach that many who drunk the omnichannel Kool-Aid followed and instead embraced the blur that is shopping today, understood that online drives physical and vice versa and worked to find remarkable ways for it all to work in concert on behalf of their most valuable customers and prospects.
Other legacy retailers like Best Buy, Target and Walmart have all been hit with concerns that the rise of e-commerce would make their model obsolete. But now these legacy retailers are striking back, and at the core of this resurrection is employing the principles of harmonized retail, notably seeing their stores as assets, not liabilities. Not only have these brands vastly improved their digital capabilities, but by better understanding customers journeys’ they have shifted from focusing on being everywhere and, instead, are zooming in on rooting out the most critical friction points regardless of how the customer decides to shop as well as finding new and unique ways to be remarkable.
None of this is about trying to out Amazon Amazon (good luck with that). Rather, it’s about leaning into a once brick & mortar-only retailers strengths and developing new capabilities that make a difference in the moments that matter. As it turns out, in most circumstances, when done right, physical retail isn’t dead after all.
A version of this story appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts here.
Learn more about “The Journey To Remarkable Retail” at one of my upcoming keynotes. I also sat down with Michael Leblanc to chat after my recent talk at Store2019, Canada’s biggest retail event. You can listen here.