How to revive lifeless omni-channel retailing

We've gone too far with the "next best marketing craze" buzzwords, from SoLoMo (the convergence of social, local, and mobile) to my new favorite, omni-channel retailing. While I am all for innovation, many retailers are getting distracted by these trends and failing to deliver on the fundamental tenants of good retail marketing.

Now, despite my initial statement about buzzword-happy marketers, I am going to add another term to the mix: "soul retailing." This is the Holy Grail of brand marketing: stirring an emotional response that gets people to talk, share, and "love" your company or product.

How to avoid lifeless omni-channel retailing 

To reach this soul retailer status, however, you need to go old school.

Back to basics

We are spending more time chasing buzzwords than we are on basics. Wikipedia defines omni-channel retailing as basically a better version of its brother: multi-channel retailing. Both basically mean reaching consumers through all available shopping channels (i.e., mobile devices, computers, brick-and-mortar, television, catalog, etc.).

In response to this trend, many retailers have taken the approach of interrupting consumers from every angle -- infiltrating Facebook updates, pushing constant Twitter feed updates -- all driving consumers to different points of engagement: ecommerce sites, Facebook pages, YouTube videos, etc. Some are doing this out of desperation -- trying the latest marketing tactic to revive their brand -- while others are spending so much time trying to mitigate the "showrooming" trend (yet another contender on the 2012 top 10 buzzword charts that is threatening big box retailers). They are losing focus on what really matters -- the one-on-one connection with customers.

Focus on soul

Soul retailing is about building a brand consumers cannot live without. It's Trader Joe's, who has created a brand that people fanatically love with a unique, high quality product mix and a commitment to going above and beyond for customers. It is lululemon, who has focused on building a community around a lifestyle and their magical, butt-enhancing yoga pants that have reached cult status. 

Achieving this level of brand status is a cross-department effort and not something that happens in a day. When I look to the brands that have gotten soul retailing right in today's omni-channel world, however, I found three tenants in common:

If you're going omni-channel, make it "omni-personal"

Before you even think about channels, ask yourself, "Why would anyone care to listen?" Let's take Groupon as an example. On an annual basis, members receive daily blasts featuring multiple offers. Sign up for several editions and you are getting thousands of deal promotions a year. However, I recently learned from an ex-Grouponer that a "heavy" Groupon user buys only seven a year. So, it doesn't matter how omni-channel you are, blasting out tattoo removal and cat sitting offers to your entire member base isn't the most personal approach, and the conversion rates show it. Instead, try to distribute your offers in a way that shows you know your customers, returning to the one-on-one engagement of the brick-and-mortar days. Although you might not "see" them, you can tailor your interactions based on profile data or spending behavior.

Focus on "checking out" vs. "checking in"

From Path to Shopkick to Foursquare, social engagement startups have lured brands with the promise of mobile consumer engagement, but the verdict is still out on their ability to drive loyalty, brand connection, or revenue. As smartphone usage continues to rise, companies that prioritize mobile, or close the redemption loop from online and mobile exposure to in-store results, will be the true omni-channel champions. Crate and Barrel recently launched a wedding registry app that replaces the scan guns in store and lets you manage your registry on the go. This captures mobile users, but also fills a real need.  Another example: The Nieman Marcus NM Service app allows shoppers to create a "one-to-one" personalized in-store experience that is the antithesis of showrooming.

Strive for simple

Retail isn't a game. Anything that adds work on the consumer side -- from scanning QR codes, to filling out mobile sweepstakes forms, to printing coupons -- sounds good on paper, but even today's deal-driven consumer quickly tires of novelty, especially when it requires a lot of effort. If you are looking for innovative ways to engage shoppers, focus on making it easy rather than "fun." If you're a parent who has attempted to shop with young kids, fun is often not on your list. The abandonment rates of services that make you work too hard reinforce this and have catalyzed the emergence of more "passive" platforms that focus on the value rather than the game.

Competition across online and offline retail is fierce, and customers are a lot less forgiving. To have any chance to survive, let alone flourish in this omni-channel, multi-channel, integrated retail world, you need to do a little soul searching.

What are your thoughts? Please enter your comments in the box below.

Jeff Fagel is the vice president of marketing and brand development at edo Interactive.

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