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

by:
on January 29, 2019

First, retail businesses needed to adopt multichannel retailing to capitalize on sales from multiple outlets. Next, they needed to make sure they were employing omnichannel practices, to ensure they were providing a consistent and integrated experience across all online and offline outlets.

Now, retailers need to embrace a practice that brings multichannel and omnichannel together:

unified commerce

Rather than focusing on channel expansion and integration alone, unified commerce brings together all the facets that impact the customer experience. Unified commerce focuses on greater visibility across the entire business, including inventory, staff, systems and channels—and how these moving parts come together to provide a stellar customer journey.

Customers are using an interconnected and often nonsequential series of interactions with separate channels during their purchase journeys, and expect their experience with all channels to be seamless. Over half of consumers, however, currently encounter a disconnected retail experience across channels during their buying journey.

Businesses with multiple sales channels must provide a consistent customer experience across each by building an immediately applicable unified commerce strategy, which addresses how to align systems, channels, products and customer interactions to satisfy customer expectations.

“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?

IT research firm Gartner defines unified commerce as:

“The practice of providing flexibility, continuity and consistency across digital and physical channels to deliver a superior customer experience. This consistency includes multiple phases of the customer’s buying journey, including when a customer is searching, browsing for, transacting, acquiring and consuming a product or service.” (Research available to clients.)

This simply means that regardless of the journey the customer has taken, or what touchpoints they’ve made to make a purchase, their customer experience should remain the same: frictionless.

Unified commerce can be achieved when all aspects (inventory, sales, e-commerce, fulfillment etc.) of the retail business have visibility into one another. Through this approach, the customer can be seamlessly guided through their purchase journey due to the level of consistency and continuity.

 EXAMPLE:  During a multichannel purchase journey (one that begins on a mobile device and ends in store), customers expect zero interruptions. Consider the following example: A customer sees a product on Instagram with a caption that tells them that they’ll receive a 10 percent discount by clicking the link. When they click that link, they’ll expect to see that discount applied when they reach the website’s shopping cart, or they won’t buy that product.

Gartner explains this concept further (available to clients):

“Customers use an increasing number of channels in their buying journey, which poses challenges for online sellers as they try to provide consistent experiences across each channel. Not only are customer-buying journeys more complex than in previous years, but customer expectations are also changing.”

Main Components of Unified Commerce

The main four components of unified commerce are interactions, channels, systems and products:

unified commerce transitions

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

Let’s dig a little deeper into what each unified commerce component means:

Interact With Customers and Your Own Departments

Customers are likely to interact with your business across multiple online and offline channels in a nonsequential manner, making their behavior hard to predict. These interactions need to be recorded in a unified way that covers all channels. A single-channel view of the customer will fail to provide the context of any previous interactions with the customer, which will provide a disjointed customer experience.

Interactions in the unified commerce business design don’t just refer to a business’s interaction with their customers. They also refer to how the business as a whole should interact with all of its relevant departments in order to deliver a great customer experience.

 EXAMPLE:  Most employees who are interacting with customers should be able to access and input into an overview of all interactions between their the customer and business. Customers may interact with the business across multiple channels—unified commerce means that these interactions are recorded, with a single point of access, for the purpose of business unity.

Unified Commerce Integrates Systems and Processes

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 purchase 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.

 EXAMPLE:  Just as customers need a universal view of products across stores and online channels; your employees on the store floor need as much visibility into stock availability as warehouse staff do. If your website has told the customer that they have a pair of shoes in their size in store, your in-store staff should be able to verify that through your inventory management tool.

Unified Commerce Isn’t Limited by Channels

In a unified commerce environment, customers should not encounter limitations by any channel. The idea is that each channel can provide a wholesome and satisfying customer experience, and that the purchase journey is not disrupted if a customer chooses to switch between these multiple channels.

 EXAMPLE:  Businesses need to make sure that consumers can access the same products, fulfillment options, pricing and promotional offers across all channels. A potential customer should be able to find the same level of information in a physical store as they can on a business’s website.

Unified Product Information Across Channels

Accurate product information is one of the most vital cogs within the purchase journey. Unifying product information across all levels is instrumental in creating a unified commerce business design. This principle also applies to your sales staff—they should be armed with the same product information as your online channels.

 EXAMPLE:  Customers who visit a store with a particular product in mind, having browsed the product online, should be met by sales staff who can inform them of the information they need to complete the sale. Returns information, warranty information and product usage information should be readily available to customers despite which channel they use.

Why Is Unified Commerce So Important?

By 2020, Gartner reports that 81 percent of marketers expect to be competing almost completely on the basis of customer experience, meaning the delivery of excellent customer experiences is critical to business growth.

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 2018 Boston Retail Partners survey, 81 percent of retailers surveyed said they plan to offer unified commerce by the end of 2020.

But is 2020 soon enough? We already know the importance of unified commerce experiences, because the blending of multiple shopping experiences has become the norm. 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 consumer apps and AI-enabled virtual personal assistants (i.e., Amazon Echo, Google Home).

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

What Does a Unified Commerce Strategy Look Like?

So, what exactly does unified commerce mean for retailers? Below are a few examples of operational changes that occur in a unified commerce retail environment.

On the back end, a unified commerce 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 customer’s phone.
  • When customers are connected to the store’s app while in store, 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 retailer’s app to the checkout screen with the item in customer’s 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 Facebook 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 at a discounted price by clicking the included link.
  • Customer clicks the link in the Facebook 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.

What Steps Can You Take Toward A Successful Unified Commerce Strategy?

Building a unified commerce strategy won’t happen overnight. With a multitude of moving parts, retailers setting off on the unified commerce journey should 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 few steps you can take now include:

  • Review how much of your current technology already speaks to one another. Before you take steps toward investing in any new platforms, you’ll need to investigate the potential impact on your other operational areas, and discover where your silos are.
  • Audit your current customer experience journey and ideate improvements. Don’t dive into unifying experiences across your business without first understanding what each of those experiences are. Take this time to also think critically about what their optimal design would be.
  • Start taking data seriously. Data integrity is crucial to the success of unified commerce. But if you’re not already collecting, analyzing and leveraging insights learned from customer data, then you need to take a step back, take a breath and focus on that first. This article explains the importance of retail analytics and offers some solutions.
  • 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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