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Omni-channel? How about fewer omni-fails?

Brian Sommer Profile picture for user brianssommer February 15, 2016
Brian Sommer is annoyed at what he sees as ongoing failure in the retail market to adjust to omni-channel. He makes good points

Omni-channel is a word laden with all kinds of opportunity. Consultants and implementers use it to push new development opportunities with retailers. Software vendors see it as a means to extend their product footprint and goose their sales numbers. Retailers see it as a way to sell product in as many channels (e.g., online, in-store) as possible.  Consumers expect that omni-channel should be a liberating experience. But, like we say in Texas, “wantin’ and getting’ are two different things”.

While hope and hype are abundant in the omni-world, I’m not feeling a lot of omni-love these days. It seems a lot of half-hearted (Gentle Readers substitute your favorite ‘half- ___’ word here), half-implemented, poor solutions are out in the wild and they’re far from perfect.

Here are some of the omni-failings I see:

Buy it anywhere but don’t return it here – Old school retailers like to alter the mix of merchandise they stock at different physical stores. They tailor the merchandise to better meet the wants/needs of local shoppers. Unfortunately, if you bought something from their online web store and want to return it at your local store, you’ll likely get comments like the ones I got this holiday season:

We don’t stock those in this store. You’ll need to take this to a different retail location (approx. 40 miles away) and maybe they’ll accept it.

While I’ve encountered this problem periodically, my wife encounters it all the time. What these retailers are essentially saying is that they’ve designed a way to sell via any channel (i.e., omni-selling) but never bothered to figure out the reverse logistics issues of omni-channel (i.e., omni-returns).  This is an omni-fail IMHO.

Add online chat, phone support, etc. to your online experience but don’t bother to staff itJust today, I tried to contact an airline, a cable television provider and an electronics superstore via the phone. I had to go old school for customer service as none of their online mechanisms (e.g., chat, email, etc.) were working. The channels didn’t work because these firms don’t staff their phone support. C’mon folks. If your electronic store is open 24/7, shouldn’t the support be 24/7, too?  The worst offender in all of this has to be my old bank that offered phone support during banking hours and only gave you a U.S. only toll-free number to use. That combination has proved massively ineffective when I’m overseas and in need of real person’s help. Another omni-fail.

Completely different merchandise sold online than in physical stores  This isn’t a variation of the first problem. No, it’s a sign that the retailer’s online site is a completely different firm than the brick and mortar stores. The online store has its own fulfillment centers, warehouses, stock keeping units, etc. THE ONLY THING THE ONLINE STORE SHARES WITH THE PHYSICAL STORES IS THE BRAND NAME. This is soooo irritating as you think you’re getting an omni-channel experience but you’re really getting a bunch of headaches. Another omni-fail.

Making online shoppers pick up merchandise at retail stores that aren’t designed for rapid, pre-paid pickup  Ah, this one really gets me going. You see a lot of retailers now offering the ability to shop online, pay for the item online and pick it up locally. There are so many points of failure points with these ‘solutions’. For example:

I went online on Black Friday to order a new television. The buying process, like it is on many online shopping sites, went well. I opted to pick it up locally as I assumed I would receive it sooner, would be able to ensure it didn’t get damaged in transit, would save on shipping costs and would be able to just run in and pick it up. Not a chance

This retailer took weeks to ship it to their local store although the local store had several in stock. When I arrived at the store, I went, as instructed, to the customer service desk and waited in a line only a DMV worker would admire. Unfortunately, I was then instructed to go to the back of the store to a temporary fulfillment area. There I waited over an hour for three different employees to find my television. They didn’t find mine but they did manage to find my neighbor’s! Eventually, they gave up looking and gave me someone else’s television. The only good to come out of my two hours spent waiting was that my old executive assistant from Accenture was waiting for something too and we got to catch up. Guess who’ll never make that mistake again.  So, what was supposed to save time, took weeks longer to fulfill and required hours in the store to pick up. I was more perturbed with the store management’s attitude that they felt their allegiance was to in-store shoppers not online shoppers. That’s why they didn’t organize the online orders, staff the function, etc. Let’s call this an epic omni-fail.

Inability to check for on-hand stock or it’s never accurate - I hate websites or stores that can’t tell you how much of a product they have and where it’s located. Grocery stores started using bar code scanners in the late 1970s but inventory is still impossible to determine?

When you’re in a retail physical store, you should never be far away from a worker or a device that can tell you where you can get more of something. But, has anyone created this capability? Not that I’ve seen.

It gets worse. One well-meaning retailer after another can sometimes lookup a SKU for you and tell you what they ‘think’ the inventory is at another location. However, their general guidance is always to call the other store directly to verify the availability before traveling there. That’s usually an ineffective piece of advice as the workers in the other store always give priority to the customers in front of them in their store than to someone on the phone.  Can’t we get accurate inventory?

Inventory counts with online stores are often more common and accurate but they can be problem children too. The challenge these online retailers don’t have worked out is what to do when the order has been placed but there’s insufficient quantity to fulfill the order. Do these retailers have great processes to reach out to the consumer? Do these systems try to locate the missing items elsewhere? Can these systems source the product from a retail store instead?  Generally, the answer is no in my experience. If I get anything from the online retailer is that the item is now out-of-stock and I’m SOL.  That’s an omni-fail.

Reserve or hold merchandise – There’s a classic Seinfeld episode where Jerry is trying to rent a car but the rental car agency is all out of vehicles. He points out to the clerk that although the rental car firm can take a reservation, it doesn’t know what to do with a reservation.

A number of old school, physical retailers will ‘hold’ an item for a customer while the customer continues to shop or mull over the purchase.   Have you ever noticed that this isn’t possible in many online shopping sites? You can put something in your online ‘shopping cart’ but it can get sold out from under you by another online shopper.  That’s an omni-fail.

Only the really good stuff is available online – Some retailers only put their very best or scarcest merchandise available online. You won’t find these items in their brick and mortar stores. I’m not convinced this is some kind of loss-control strategy. I think it’s to give the online store more cachet at the expense of the local stores. What this creates though are more reasons NOT to shop at the physical store. If that’s the retailer’s strategy, it’s working. But, I’m not sure it’s a correct strategy. As such, I’ll call it an omni-fail.

Better quality merchandise at regular stores not outlet or online stores – When retailers start carrying different quality items in their different channels, they risk doing damage to their brand anytime a customer crosses these channels. If your favorite item always possessed certain attributes but then mysteriously has poorer quality or different materials when you buy what you think is the same item from a different channel, your faith in that retailer is shaken. That’s an omni-fail.

Not all “Free” returns are “Free” – When you’re in a physical store, you can touch, feel, inspect and even try on/out the merchandise. Not so with online merchandise. So, when you order something online and find out it’s not what you expected, shouldn’t you be able to return it, especially if the retailer promised free returns?

Well, some retailers have very nuanced definitions for what qualifies for free returns.  When I caught a cell phone retailer fobbing off refurbished phones as new, they gladly gave me my money back. (I did leave the previous user’s phone contacts untouched just so I could avoid a dispute later on.) Some retailers will give free return shipping for defective goods but not for things that don’t fit or are sized incorrectly.  How does that policy encourage more online sale. Again, omni-fail.

My take

“Omni-channel” is something that is either correct (and complete) or it’s a fail. Just like you can’t have a store without payment technologies, you need ALL aspects of an omni-channel environment to be a success.

Old-school (i.e., non-digital native retailers) seem to have the hardest time making the shift to omni-channel retailing as their store operations and the people running them aren’t incented to make online shopping mesh with the onsite experience. Worse, the technologies running these brick and mortar stores were never designed to accommodate the omni-channel world.

Real live customers should be used to test ALL aspects of an omni-channel setup. I’m not sure who is testing these systems but they clearly aren’t people in the real world. If I see so many failings, them how many more are out there?

Will all this get fixed before the next Black Friday? I’m betting not.

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