Omni-channel Is the New E-Comm

Retail West tips | BCBusiness
“Omni-channel” is the new buzzword in retail, taking “e-comm” from exception to expected.

MEC’s manager of e-commerce operations shares the key takeaways from one of 2013’s essential retail conferences and his panel on omni-channel retail

The 2013 edition of Retail West was another great event from the Retail Council of Canada that covered all the core issues on the minds of small and large retailers in Western Canada. If I had to narrow down the day’s message to a single takeaway, it was that e-commerce has moved past its buzzword status (finally!) and is now officially table stakes in the retail game.

No matter what size of retailer you are, e-comm is as vital as point of sale, as necessary as a price tag and can sometimes be as confusing as a supply chain.  And just when you think you’ve got that all figured out, let’s talk about this thing that consumers expect: omni-channel. This is the idea of consumers being able to purchase items and get customer service where they want (at home; in-store), when they want (8 a.m.; midnight) and how they want (I want to pick it up on my way home from work; deliver it to me tonight). This game just got a lot more interesting.

The conference kicked off with an inspiring keynote delivered by MEC CEO David Labistour and, subsequently, the tone was set. Today’s retail is driven by the consumers, and therefore is driving the direction of many organizations (or at least it should be).

In preparation for my panel—“How to Exceed Canadian Omni-channel Shopping Expectations”—I decided to put myself in the shoes of the consumer to truly understand what my personal expectations are when it comes to the current retail experience.

Here are some highlights from a recent personal shopping experience that went on to influence the key points in my panel:

1. I must have gone to Google at least a dozen times: to compare prices, check specs, read reviews, etc. If you don’t have an organic SEO strategy and do not know what Panda, Penguin or Hummingbird are, I’d bet that you are losing this battle.

2. My wife and I went in-store at least a few times to check out the items in person. Retailers should be nurturing what this channel can contribute to e-comm—a bricks-and-mortar presence gives you an advantage over the online-only (pure-play) retailers. Consumers may be converting less in stores in this new form of retail, but in-store experience is still a key component.

3. My wife went to Facebook and posted a product question to a “Mommy’s Group,” asking for their feedback on a few models of strollers. She had 10-15 responses in an hour… all from real moms. This type of marketing cannot be bought or put in place by a consultant. Genuine, positive experiences will garner this type of advertising organically. Treat people well and deliver a great experience and this will work on your behalf.

4. Finally, I did a bit of work to find a retailer that I trust that will offer me good value, shipping cost and delivery options. (I didn’t buy from the cheapest one, so lowest price doesn’t always win.)

Here are some takeaways from my omni-channel panel:

1. Leveraging Your ‘Bricks’

If you have “bricks,” you have more leverage than just “clicks,” so use it. The key is making them work seamlessly together. Educate in-store staff about the online channel, its value to the business and stay consistent in your pricing/promotions across all channels.

2.  Battling with the U.S.

E-commerce in Canada is not as advanced as in the U.S. (sadly, it’s true), but as a consumer, there are good options out there. Retailers must realize that Canadians are searching for a great online experience right now, and they will always try to shop Canadian first (I’d like to think it’s due to national pride, but more realistically it’s due to customs, duties and taxes). While shipping cross-border is still expensive, you have an opportunity to win their loyalty, but that may not last long.

3. E-comm Is Retail

The traditional executives in retail are responsible for the slow adoption of e-commerce in Canada, and they also have full control to change it. There has been a conscious decision in too many Canadian retail boardrooms over the last five years to ignore the value of e-commerce by trying to fit it into some leftover budget, or put up a website just for the sake of putting up a website. We have idled and kept our narrow focus of opening more unprofitable locations while our American counterparts have profited from e-comm like nothing we’ve seen before. The bottom line is that e-commerce is retail today. If your budgets and org charts don’t account for this, you have your work cut out for you.

4. Being Customer-conscious

Finally, and most importantly, the consumer is in charge. They decide your new features, the shipping options you need to enable and the policies they will accept. Truly listen to your audience and be agile.


Tony Holbrook has over 13 years of experience in the retail industry, tackling a wide range of roles including information technology, business and systems process analyst, and retail store management. He is the manager, e-commerce operations, for Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) and is the former e-commerce manager for JYSK Bed Bath Home. The opinions shared here are his own.