Retail Omnichannel Pitfalls

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My husband works for a department store chain that, like a lot of retail businesses, has had significant struggles throughout the pandemic. As they try to evolve into a stronger “post-pandemic” organization, they’ve implemented an omnichannel initiative. This strategy presents to a customer in the following ways:

  • Cashiers ask for the customer’s email at every in-store transaction. Customers who provide their email can expect to receive a marketing email every day.
  • Cashiers ask every customer if they’d like to apply for a store credit card and tell them how much they could save on their purchase if they did so.
  • The door greeter asks everyone who walks in the store if they’ve downloaded the app. If they haven’t, they offer to help them download it.
  • If you are shopping in the store and see a product you like but they don’t have it in your size or preferred color, the cashier will offer to order it for you and have it shipped directly to your house.
  • All store coupons are applicable to online or in-store shopping.
  • Products sold on the website can be shipped to home or picked up at the store.
  • Payments on a store credit card account can be made in the store at any register as well as online and mail payment options.

Of course, individual employees and stores are measured on how well they perform on the metrics associated with the above. Every day, sales managers track these metrics and provide on-the-spot training as needed to ensure associates understand the importance of and the methods for achieving the goals.

Shopper browsing in store

A Customer's Perspective

I wander into the store about once a week – sometimes to check out a new shipment of goods or a sales item. Sometimes just to meet my husband for lunch or to say hi on my way to the grocery store next door. So I’ve become very familiar with the scripts that all the employees use. And honestly, it gets more than a little monotonous and annoying, even though I’m quite familiar with the reasons behind them. When the greeter at the front door asks if I have the store app on my phone, I lie and say “yes” just to avoid the pitch. I’m sure I’m not the only one. 

How We Get Omnichannel Wrong

When I Google “omnichannel” and its various permutations, I find article after article written by marketing, software, and consulting organizations, all various versions of “this is really cool and you should do it.” I see nothing about “what does your customer really want and need?” This is a critical gap in the way we think about and implement retail strategies.

The pandemic revealed weaknesses in the retail marketplace, and we have all read about big, iconic brands as well as countless smaller retailers going under. Omnichannel is presented as the lifeboat that will save companies. But any business strategy that doesn’t solve customer problems, meet customer needs, or delight the customer with a great experience will eventually fail. How can we avoid having our omnichannel initiatives backfire?

Center the Customer

In the world of UX design, we talk a lot about customer journeys. We love to write personas and make cool diagrams. But a lot of the time, we are starting from the wrong place. We make assumptions that lead us to building a really good solution for a problem that doesn’t exist, or for the wrong problem. We’re building experiences for idealized personas that don’t exist in real life, or worse, we’re building from our point of view and not the customer’s at all!

A perfect example of this is how grocery stores regularly move inventory and displays around the store to ensure that customers have to take a longer route to find the items they want, maximizing the opportunity for them to see, and spontaneously add to their cart, additional items. Some stores have really made this an art form, creating mazes of aisles going perpendicular instead of parallel to each other. As a customer, this makes me crazy. I just want to buy some gruyere for a quiche, but you’ve put cheese in three different places in the store and I don’t know which section the gruyere is in. I don’t want to spend quality time exploring the grocery store – I want to quickly locate and purchase what I need and get back home to my hungry family. The experience is designed to maximize profit, but ignores my real needs as a shopper.

Getting back to the department store example, there are some aspects of their strategy that I really like. It’s great to be able to order from the website and pick up at the store. It’s great to go to the website and see what stores have the product I want in stock. And the ability to order at the store for home delivery is convenient, since I wear clothing and shoe sizes that typically sell out quickly. 

Diversify Customer Personas

The constant pressure to download an app, provide an email, or apply for credit gets REALLY old. And I’ve seen some customers get downright hostile about it, so I know it’s discouraging some in-person shoppers. Men in particular seem less tolerant of these high-pressure techniques and more blunt about pushing back. If the company wants to attract a broader demographic of shopper to their brick-and-mortar stores, they might want to rethink this approach. Considering the wants and needs of more diverse customer personas could help them avoid making bad assumptions and narrowing their customer base.

I would suggest that retailers take a step back and challenge themselves to really think about customer personas with an open mind. Don’t design processes assuming a white-middle-aged-middle-class-female shopper. Let’s try on some new personas and see what those folks want and need. 

  • A college freshman who needs a jacket and tie for a formal dinner and has literally never shopped for dress clothes before.
  • A middle-aged farmer who usually wears jeans and boots needs a suit to wear to a wedding.
  • A non-binary person who doesn’t want gender-specific clothing or dressing rooms.
  •  A very dark-complected person who needs cosmetics that match their skin tone.
  • A plus-size person who wants athletic wear that is supportive and flattering.
  • A person who needs clothing that meets certain color or style criteria for their work, for example, a hairstylist who is required to wear black clothing.
  • A person trying to fit a quick shopping trip in on their lunch break.

I’m sure you can think of a dozen others. Creatively enter the mindset of each shopper and imagine their experiences and reactions as they navigate the store, website, or app. Or better yet, hold discovery sessions with a diversity of real customers and encourage them to let loose with their criticisms and ideas. Don’t be afraid to explore!

If you’re just entering the omnichannel space, looking for ways to improve your customer experiences, or you are just trying to bust out of a business rut, reach out and chat with us. We’re always happy to help.

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