Omnichannel Retail Is So 2012—But What Is Unified Commerce?

Chances are you’ve heard the buzzwords “omnichannel” and “multichannel” tossed around by retail publications and your peers. They’ve been coined as “the future of retail,” but they’re so 2012. Nowadays, they’re nothing but cogs in a greater machine called:

You might be thinking “great, another thing that I need to worry about,” but you’d be wrong.

A unified commerce strategy isn’t “another thing you need to worry about”—it’s the only thing you need to worry about.

But what is unified commerce? Using insights from global IT research firm Gartner, we’ll give you a sense of what unified commerce is and how you can build an immediately applicable and unified strategy for your small or midsize retail business.

“Immediately applicable” matters because the longer it takes for you to unify, the further behind your competitors and your customers’ expectations you’ll be.

What Is Unified Commerce?

Let’s begin with a definition of unified commerce:

Unified commerce is a business design that leverages a harmonious integration of retail processes/systems to provide full transparency of consumers on the back end and seamless customer experiences on the front end, regardless of the journey taken to make a purchase.

That’s a lot to digest, so let’s identify and break down the two main components:

The central pillar of unified commerce is a blending of transitions between interactions and channels, enabling a consistently seamless customer experience

Harmonious integration of retail processes/systems refers to a fully integrated (customer-facing and backend) retail management system sharing data across different features and capabilities.

This includes must-have retail management applications, like those common in point of sale systems, including purchasing processing, inventory, customer data and even employee management capabilities.

But to truly become a unified operation, integration must also be achieved with digital systems such as e-commerce platforms, channel and marketplace management, cross-channel marketing, as well as accompanying order management and fulfillment capabilities.

All of these systems working harmoniously as a unified platform enable businesses to offer the other component.

Seamless customer experiences are the second component of unified commerce and the reason why businesses invest in integration across all platforms. Successful seamless experiences see customers moving from one touchpoint to any other touchpoint with consistency and continued personalization.

Gartner explains this process in their report, “Transforming From Multichannel to Unified Retail Commerce Primer for 2017” (available to Gartner clients):

“All technologies contributing to the successful execution of a customer journey must be truly connected and allow customers to start, stop, continue and complete their shopping trip anywhere within or outside the retailer’s landscape.”

What Does Unified Commerce Look Like for an SMB?

On the back end, a unified platform and strategy could look like this:

  • Retailer tracks customer’s movement throughout the store. RFID tags, shelf labels and perhaps even computer vision and other sensors communicate with a newly designed consumer app on the customers’ phone.
  • Retailers can record products that a customer looks at, picks up and even carries around but doesn’t purchase. Interaction with these products will be stored with previously in-store and online interactions.
  • Past recorded interactions with similar products will prompt a targeted social campaign that features the product(s) in question in an Instagram post. The post includes a link to purchase that opens the retailers’ app to the checkout screen with the item in customers’ cart.

On the front end, a unified commerce customer experience looks like this:

  • Customer revisits a physical store, browsing products on shelves while looking at special in-store deals featured in the store’s app.
  • Customer picks up a few products, even carries one around for a while, but doesn’t make a purchase.
  • While browsing Instagram later in the same day, the customer sees an ad for the product that was almost purchased. There’s a link in the text of the Instagram post stating the customer can get the product for 10 percent off the store price by clicking the included link.
  • Customer clicks the link in the Instagram text and it prompts the retail store’s app to open. The app opens directly to the checkout screen and features the product in question already in the cart. Related items are listed below that can be added to the cart with one click.
  • The customer adds two of the related products to the cart and purchases them with the original product in question. The customer receives a message on the store’s app confirming the purchase and asking if the customer wants to receive a 5 percent-off coupon for use in-store by sharing a notification about the purchase across social channels or directly to contacts.

So now we have an answer to what is unified commerce and how it might look in practice, but why should you and your retail operating peers care?

Why Is Unified Commerce So Important?

Completely seamless shopping experiences will soon be the bar by which retailers are measured. If you don’t think your competitors are making moves there, you’re sadly mistaken.

In a 2015 Boston Retail Partners survey, 78 percent of retailers surveyed said they’d be using a unified commerce platform by 2020.

Interestingly though, many of these respondents seem to miss the value and importance of such a platform and business design. This is because only 43 percent of these retailer respondents said consistent brand experiences across all their channels are “essential.”

This number will rise in coming years as a seamless experience moves from an “essential” commerce component to the main mark of successful commerce.

We’re already seeing the importance of this today, as a blending of experiences has become the expectation. Consumers are simultaneously on their phones while a computer is open and their smart TV is on. They’re price checking products in your store with Amazon and checking Instagram notifications at the same time.

And that’s not even accounting for the onset of augmented reality, AI-enabled virtual personal assistants (i.e., Amazon Echo, Google Home).

The foundations must be laid now to meet customer’s expectations for unified experiences across your business.

What Steps Can You Take Toward A Successful Unified Strategy?

With so many moving parts (channels, systems, products, customers etc.), it’ll be important for retailers setting off on this journey toward unified commerce to keep a big picture view of the endgame.

As Gartner puts it, this endgame goal is to achieve the successful unification of customer-facing processes and dramatically improve customer experiences.

A couple steps you can take now include:

  • Define your current customer experience and ideate improvements. Don’t dive into unifying experiences across your business without first understanding what each of those experiences (and businesses for that matter) are. Take this time to also think critically about what their optimal design would be. This will make it easier to piece a unified puzzle together down the road.
  • Ensure you have the necessary technological foundation. We know from the daily free consultations we provide that many independent retailers still don’t even have point of sale systems in place. This is the first foundational stone in a sound technological plan. If you have foundational stones still to lay in your organization, fill out a quick form and we’ll have one of our expert retail software advisors reach out to you.

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