History Of Omni-Channel Part 5: The Shift From Strategy To Execution

This is part 5 of an on-going series on the history of omni-channel. Part 1 addressed the point when customer centricity and “cross-channel” (the early days of omni-channel) first merged and became the foundation of what most people mean when they say omni-channel today. Part 2 talked about the tipping point of executive awareness, when online sales become big enough that they become more than just the online equivalent of a large or flagship store – and the implications this had on executives looking after the store business. Part 3 looked at the point when retailers realized the store was in trouble. Part 4 focused on mobile’s tipping point. Part 5 moves us from past to present day.

IntelFreePress / Flickr

IntelFreePress / Flickr

Spring conference season is coming to a close, which means I can get back to my series on the History of Omni-Channel (as I see it). Up until now, I have focused on events that have occurred in the past. Some of them – like mobile – still impact retailers today, and will likely continue to impact retailers in the future. Retailers are learning to live with these trends, so in terms of certainty, I would say that these are “known unknowns”. Not every retailer knows what their strategy is or should be, but they know enough about the problem to know they need a response. From here on out, I’ll be addressing topics that fall more solidly in the “unknown unknowns” – the things that are still early enough days that retailers don’t necessarily know what their strategy is, or should be.

On my timeline, we’re up to the year 2013. In that year, a good chunk of retailers shifted from talking about omni-channel, to doing something about it. Sure, there are plenty of retailers that had started well before 2013, but up until this point a Vice President of Omni-Channel was a very rare beast (it’s still rare, but easier to find). Budget for omni-channel projects existed within the channels, but rarely under some kind of omni-channel program. After we hit 2013, enough retailers started to actively pursue “omni-channel” as a corporate strategy, rather than as a reactive response to consumer demands for consistency across channels.

This showed up quite distinctly in RSR’s research at the time. We saw retailers go from “We don’t know what consumers want from us” to “We need a single view of the customer” to “We’re working on a single view of the customer” to “What’s next?”

Unfortunately, just because the first step in omni-channel – a single view of the customer – is easy to define, that doesn’t mean it is easy to do. Retailers have made a lot of progress on consolidating customer data across channels. In 2013, 54% of respondents to our omni-channel survey reported that they did not have a single view of customer. In 2014, 42% reported this challenge.

That’s progress! But it has not lasted. A CIO at an apparel retailer described the nature of the issue to me in 2014. She said (I’m paraphrasing here), “We went through this huge effort a few years ago to update our customer database so that it could handle whatever social media data we could get. At that time, it meant a lot of focus on Facebook – how to integrate, what data we could get, what we could use. But by the time we’d finished the project, our young, fickle customer base had decided that Facebook wasn’t cool anymore. They’d moved on to Instagram. We sucked it up and decided to go through this effort again – what can we get, what can we do with it? – but by the time we’d barely found any answers, they’d moved on again, to Snapchat. At that point, we just sort of threw up our hands and gave up. We can get a ‘mostly’ consolidated view of our customers, but because there’s still so much innovation going on in how consumers connect to each other, it’s impossible to keep up. If something matures and sticks around, we’ll have to deal with it. Until then, we just have to stay on top of things.”

The thing that suck with me the most was how she summed it up: “We thought a single view of customer was a project. Turns out, it’s a process – a never-ending process.”

It would seem like, of all things omni-channel, a consolidated view of the customer would be one of the easiest to get off the ground – easy to define, easy to get backing from all the various groups involved (sure, there will be territoriality over different kinds of customer data, but everyone benefits from pooling their resources, right?), easy to demonstrate value to the customer by hopefully using that consolidated information to interact with shoppers in a smarter, or at least less annoying, way.

Turns out, that is much harder than it appears on the surface. When it comes to an omni-channel view of customers, retailers are on the learning curve, all right, but they’re nowhere close to the “hockey stick” part of that curve – and, unless the pace of consumer technology innovation slows down, they may never be.