Shoptalk sign

Why customer experience has dethroned omnichannel at Shoptalk

I’m just going to call it: This is the year and Shoptalk 2016 is the place where omnichannel dies.

Oh, there will be plenty of talk about “omnichannel” during the three-day retail conference that kicked off Monday in Las Vegas. And the concept, maybe mantra, of “getting the customer what he or she wants, when he or she wants it, where he or she wants it,”  isn’t going away. And it shouldn’t.

But what retail is all about in 2016 is “customer experience,” in particular, bringing all aspects of a retailer’s organization together to build and manage that experience in the digital world we live in.

In an information era, in which it is increasingly difficult to beat the competition on price; and in a time when e-commerce sites are approaching the limit on how fast they can get a package to a consumer’s home, experience is one of the few places where a retailer can standout.

“It’s funny that you mention the word experience, because that’s exactly how we envision building Dollar Shave Club over the next four years,” Michael Dubin, CEO of the men’s grooming products provider, said in response to a question at a Shoptalk fireside chat Monday. “Now you have to build an experience. You have to evoke emotion.”

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In fact, at times it seemed you could nearly hear the word “experience” echoing through the sprawling Aria Hotel & Casino convention center. Ron Johnson, who’s credited with leading the Apple Store effort and who stumbled at JCPenney, said in a presentation that his newest venture, Enjoy, is all about creating personal commerce through “the magic of experience.”

Customers who order electronics through Enjoy have their products delivered by an expert who spends an hour helping the buyer get acquainted with his or her new gadget.

“They’ll spend an hour with you, not just setting it up, but creating an experience that will make you fall in love with that product,” Johnson said.

Kevin Ertell, Sur La Table’s senior vice president of digital, was asked during a different panel discussion whether it would make sense to limit the products the retailer shows on its mobile site to make the site more user friendly. Not really, he said. The vast majority of customers don’t buy on a given visit. They come to the site to research kitchen and dining tools.

“The issue with mobile or the web site, or anything,” he said, “is much more about the experience, and how do you make it easier for the customer to shop or to do whatever they’re doing.”

And so it went from session to session; “experience” was on many lips. Admittedly, making sure customers have a memorable experience does sound a little fluffy. But the reason retailers are embracing experience has as much to do with dollars and cents as it does with warm and fuzzy.

Consumers, armed with smartphones and a market that the web has made more transparent than ever before, hold more power than they ever have. If retailers want to survive and grow, they have to come up with something that sets them apart from the competition.

“Experience is the thing you have to pick,” Ben Lerer, chairman of men’s clothing e-tailer JackThreads, told me in an interview Monday. “It’s certainly what we picked for a new kind of customer who decides for themselves what brand they want to spend time with.”

JackThreads recently decided to give up a flash-sale discount model for a model that allows free and easy returns and doesn’t charge a customer until he’s settled on what he will keep.

A different kind of experience, if you will.

Now, we can argue about whether trading one buzz word, “omnichannel,” for another, “experience,” is really progress. Let’s save that for later. The point is, the world of buying stuff has gotten so complicated and has begun shifting so quickly and so wildly that even the idea of being all things to all consumers all the time, isn’t big enough to capture what’s happening.

The notion of “experience” isn’t new, but the empowered mobile consumer means it needs to be thought about in a deeper way. For instance, the idea of providing a better experience sounds great. So, why isn’t everybody doing it?

It turns out that, despite all the talk about putting the customer first, some retailers are not organized in a way that makes that easy to do, especially across channels and platforms.

Banana Republic

When Aimee Lapic, who is chief marketing officer and online general manager at Banana Republic, arrived at the company about a year and a half ago, she said she was faced with three separate teams, all working on customer experience. There was marketing, which worked on marketing for brick-and-mortar stores. There was an e-commerce team that worked on the web sites and there was a second marketing team that worked on digital marketing, online marketing email and site marketing.

She went to work to bring them all together into “one organization, really focused on customer segment, regardless of channel, regardless of geography and changed all the creative processes, so they would be one process.”

While there is still work to be done, the change has resulted in better sales when it comes to Banana Republic’s best customers, Lapic said during a panel, “Creating and Managing Omnichannel Customer Experiences.”

A similar idea has been put forth by others, including Joelle Kaufman, BloomReach’s head of marketing and partnerships, who has called for establishing “digital experience managers” or teams.

The manager or team would oversee and understand all the buckets of data from marketing, from merchandising, from e-commerce sites and physical stores. The role would serve as a key linchpin in building a sense and feeling for consumers that sets a retailer apart.

Most importantly, a digital experience manager could patch the short-circuits that a recent Forrester survey commissioned by BloomReach uncovered. In particular, only 37 percent of onsite merchandisers believe they have access to the data they need to improve their customers’ shopping excursions.

On the digital marketing side of things, only 36 percent of marketers think that the deep knowledge that site merchandisers have about products should be combined with what the marketers know about consumers, Forrester found. The marketers simply don’t believe that merchandisers have the data that can help them gain new customers or encourage repeat visits.

In other words, marketers don’t think merchandisers can help build the sort of customer experience that 2016 demands.

It may in fact be that omnichannel is dead. (Though don’t count on it. It’s a hard word to slay.) But, in any case, as we move into the era of customer experience, don’t think that means that things are going to get any easier.

Photo of Shoptalk stage and Ron Johnson talking with Courtney Reagan by Mike Cassidy. Photo of Banana Republic by Mike Mozart published under Creative Commons license.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.