The SMB Guide to Selling Online, Offline, and on Mobile: 5 Steps to Omnichannel Retail Success

In the not-so-distant past, shopping in retail stores was pretty straightforward: customers walked into a shop, found something that grabbed their attention, and proceeded to checkout if the product was a good fit.

These days, though, the retail journey isn’t that simple. Things such as high-speed internet, mobile devices, and social networks have changed the way people shop, and modern consumers are now using multiple channels and devices to research, browse, and buy. For instance, it’s not uncommon for a shopper to look up products on their phone, purchase them online, and pick them up in-store.

Retailers who want to thrive today and in the coming years need to be able to keep up with customers no matter where or how they’re shopping. In the retail industry, this practice is called going omnichannel.

In this post, we’ll take a deep dive into the concept — and application — of omnichannel retail. We’ll talk about how you can successfully sell in-store, online, and on mobile and how you can connect all those channels together to give your customers a smooth shopping experience.

You’ll also find real-life examples from other retailers who are doing a good job at omnichannel, and you’ll get a peek at their store processes and practices. To top it all off, we caught up with several retail experts and asked them to share their top pointers for going omnichannel. You’ll find their insights sprinkled throughout the post.

Ready to get started? Dive in, or jump straight to a relevant section below:

Quick links
Omni-what? An overview of omnichannel.
Why sell on multiple channels?
Step 1: Figure out the customer journey.
Step 2: Evaluate your existing channels, services, and technologies.
Step 3: Connect your physical and digital stores.
Step 4: Establish the right processes and policies.
Step 5: Observe, evaluate, and think about what’s next.
Get Vend’s guide on the future of shopping.

Omni-what? An overview of omnichannel

What exactly does omnichannel retail mean? Let’s roll with this working definition: Omnichannel means establishing a presence on several channels and platforms (i.e. brick and mortar, mobile, online, catalog, etc.) and enabling customers to transact, interact, and engage across these channels simultaneously or even interchangeably.

Giving a customer the convenience and flexibility to purchase an item using your mobile site, pick it up in your store, and return it via your website is an example of omnichannel retailing in action.

It’s important to note that omnichannel goes beyond simply being on multiple channels or platforms. Just because you have a website, a mobile app, and a physical store doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re an omnichannel retailer. To truly be one, you must fuse all those channels together, so they give customers a seamless experience.

Prior to omnichannel access and customer control of their experience, it was a product-centric world. Retailers and SMBs focused on selling their products and services. The reason that omnichannel has been such a great disruptor is that it enables the customer incredible access to information and transparency on products and pricing. In the past, SMBs (like retailers) focused on pricing and promotion to sell products (and services). The 4 Ps have been replaced by the 4 Cs: Custom, Choice, Convenience, Connected.

— Chris Petersen, IMS Results Count

 

Why sell on multiple channels?

We’ve talked about what omnichannel is — so now, let’s discuss why you need to get into it. Here are just some of the ways selling on multiple channels can help your business:

You’ll gain more traffic and sales

Opening up additional sales channels naturally paves the way for more traffic and sales. When you give consumers more options to buy from you, you can bet they’ll take advantage of those sales channels when it’s convenient for them.

Not only that but having a presence on multiple channels can increase sales and traffic on other channels. For instance, being active on social media can increase traffic to your website and offline shop. Similarly, having a website can also drive interest or traffic to your brick and mortar store.

Case in point: Stony Lake Furniture Co.

Stony Lake has had a physical location for a while now, and they recently set up shop online. According to owner Lisa Besseling, having an ecommerce site has been great for the business — not just because it generates online sales, but also because their website drives interest about their products and store.

“Even if people don’t pull the trigger and make the purchase on your site, your online presence still generates interest,” says Besseling. “I’ve had people call me and say, ‘I saw this product on the website. I’m not ordering it right now, but I’d like to learn more.’ So customers are asking more questions — and I think whether or not the sale happens online, it still helps generate sales overall.”

You’ll get higher order values

It’s not just about additional sales. Selling on multiple channels can also lead to higher purchase amounts. A study of 46,000 shoppers found that “omnichannel customers are more valuable on multiple counts. After controlling for shopping experience, they spent an average of 4% more on every shopping occasion in the store and 10% more online than single-channel customers.”

Researchers also discovered that “with every additional channel they used, the shoppers spent more money in the store. For example, customers who used 4+ channels spent 9% more in the store, on average, when compared to those who used just one channel.”

Shoppers loyalty and word of mouth will increase

Still not convinced? Get this: the same study found that omnichannel shoppers are more loyal and are more likely to recommend the store to their network.

According to the Harvard Business Review:

In addition to having bigger shopping baskets, omnichannel shoppers were also more loyal. Within six months after an omnichannel shopping experience, these customers had logged 23% more repeat shopping trips to the retailer’s stores and were more likely to recommend the brand to family and friends than those who used a single channel.

Clearly, selling on different channels has some tremendous benefits. And that’s why if you don’t have an omnichannel retail strategy yet, it’s high time to come up with one. Below is a step-by-step guide on how to do just that.

Step 1: Figure out the customer journey.

Brands need to think about the bigger picture rather than grabbing hold of any trend or technological innovation. The focus should be on getting the basics right and using tech to solve genuine customer problems rather than on having an app or chatbot because it seems cool.

The primary focus should be giving customers a shopping experience that’s always great; however, they come to you. Once you have that foundation, you can then assess how the customer experience can be further improved, identify the best high- and low-tech tools to achieve that, and put your investment in the right areas.
— Cate Trotter, Insider Trends 

When we’re talking about different channels (i.e. brick and mortar, ecommerce, mobile, and social), it can be tempting to think that omnichannel is all about technology. But this simply isn’t the case.

The fact of the matter is that omnichannel retailing is about the consumer. Yes, technology plays a big part in enabling sales on different channels — but ultimately, your strategy should start and end with the customer.

That’s why figuring out the customer journey is critical to going omnichannel. How do people find your company? What channels are they using and how are they using them? How do they interact with your brand?

There are several ways to answer these questions. Depending on your business, you may want to use a combination of the following:

In-store observations

Pay attention to how people behave in your stores. Do they go straight to a product or spend time browsing? Are shoppers price-checking on their phones? Do they ask a lot of questions? Such observations can provide insights into their retail journey.

Customer surveys and interviews

Go straight to the source. Talk to your customers about their paths to purchase. How do they discover products? Which websites or apps do they use when shopping? How do they want orders to be fulfilled? Get the answers to these questions, and incorporate them into your strategy.

Customer service logs

The issues and concerns fielded by your customer service reps can be a goldmine for omnichannel insights, and they’ll certainly help you identify shortcomings in your retail strategy.

Online comments and reviews

Go through your Yelp, Facebook, and Google+ business profiles to read what people are saying about you. Consumers can be very vocal online, and you’ll likely pick up many insights into their store experiences.

Competitive analysis

Finally, check out what your competitors are doing. Identify the channels they’re using to sell to and connect with customers, and make a purchase using those channels to get a feel for the shopping experience.

Omnichannel revolves around developing a complete view of the customer experience, regardless of the platform or channel. It’s based on the belief that most customers navigate between multiple channels to make a single purchase, and it recognizes the customer’s desire to explore those different channels.

In order to maximize growth (and keeping in mind that consumers ‘are shopping at every moment and everywhere’), retailers need to consider offering an integrated service both online and offline. Most consumers tend not to use only one channel. They appreciate the experience of being in a store, as well as the convenience of having purchases delivered to their door with a few clicks of their fingertips.

— Debra Templar, The Templar Group 

Following the steps and advice above should give you a clear idea of how your customers shop. If you want a better view of shoppers’ path to purchase, consider mapping out the customer journey using a table like the one below. This will help you get a better understanding of the channels your customers are using at each stage of the buyer’s journey.

Here’s an example of what the customer journey map can look like for a fashion boutique:

Get your own customer journey table here.

Now that you have a clearer idea of how customers are finding and buying your products, (and more importantly, how they’d like to do it), it’s time to see how your existing sales channels and programs stack up.

And that brings us to the next step..

Step 2: Evaluate your existing channels, services, and technologies.

At this point, you might discover that you have shortcomings in your sales and fulfillment channels. Perhaps your customer research has shown that people want to buy online and pick up in-store, but you’re not offering click-and-collect yet.

To address those shortcomings, you first need to evaluate your existing channels and offerings. Doing so will allow you to figure out the best course of action for going omnichannel.

Shop your brand.

The best way to evaluate your sales channels is to shop your brand. Get a first-hand experience of what it’s like to buy from your stores, then take note of the positive and negative components of the experience.

Be sure to cover all the channels you’re selling on. If you’re selling in-store, then walk into your shop and complete a purchase. Do the same thing online if you’re running an ecommerce store.

Also, consider seeking the help of a secret shopper to do this so you can get a more objective view.

Is the experience consistent across multiple channels?

When evaluating your sales channels, pay close attention to brand consistency.
Do you offer the same great experience online, offline, and on mobile, or is there a disconnect between different sales channels?

You need to offer a cohesive experience no matter where and how customers are shopping — so if it’s the latter, take note. We’ll show you how to address it in the next step.

Small business owners should aim to create confident and connected shopping experiences across all their avenues of customer engagement. Keeping this in mind, among their first steps should be to identify if their current branding is cohesive across all avenues of existing online and offline customer touchpoints — including their social media, website, mobile experiences, marketplace pages such as Yelp, and of course, in-store.

Bridging the gap between these channels must first begin with making sure branding is the same and that customers will feel connected at all touchpoints without any confusion. From there, your next step will be actually connecting these touchpoints.
— Nicole Leinbach Reyhle, Retail Minded

List the technologies powering different sales channels.

Make a list of the systems or programs powering your sales channels. For instance, if you’re selling offline, then you would include your POS, inventory management solution, payment processor, etc. If you’re selling online, then you would include your ecommerce platform, fulfillment solution, or any other marketplaces you sell on (e.g. Amazon, Etsy).

Be aware of these retail solutions and how they work. In the next step, we’ll discuss how you can get your systems working together so you can run a cohesive omnichannel operation.

Look into the channels you’re not using.

Do some research on the channels and services you’re not using. For example, if you’re not selling online yet, look into ecommerce platforms. Or if you’re not currently offering click-and-collect, to start doing research on how you can provide that service.

The first thing to do is to look into your existing solutions. Some POS systems, for instance, offer ecommerce capabilities out of the box.

Google can also be a great research tool when looking up solutions, but don’t rely on it alone. Head to LinkedIn and start discussions on relevant groups to get feedback and recommendations. Talk to fellow merchants about their retail systems, and ask how they’re working for them. Many retailers have discovered great solutions for their businesses simply by looking at what other stores are using.

Step 3: Connect your physical and digital stores.

Once you’ve evaluated your existing channels and looked into the platforms you’re not using, you need to figure out how to connect the different components of your omnichannel operation.

There are generally two ways to do this. One option is to run your online and offline stores using one omnichannel retail solution, so all your inventory, sales, and customer data live on just one platform. The other option is to integrate different solutions so that data flows from one platform to the next.

Before diving too deep into these options, though, you need to remember that your #1 priority when connecting your sales channels should be inventory management. Having real-time inventory visibility across all your stores is critical to running an omnichannel business.

The foundation for any unified commerce strategy — regardless of the size of the business — is inventory visibility. The ability to see real-time, accurate insights into available merchandise is key to successful customer shopping experiences. Since many smaller brick and mortar retailers rely on social channels and websites to promote their merchandise, real-time visibility can help retailers deliver on promises made online and drive customers in-store for successful sales conversion.
— Tony D’Onofrio, Tyco Retail Solutions

Before implementing your omnichannel programs, make sure you have your inventory in order. Do a stock count to see if the numbers you have in your system match your inventory in-store. You also want to make sure you “clean up” your inventory records so you can sync your products if necessary. (More on this later.)

Got your inventory in check? Great. Now let’s talk about your options when it comes to selling on different channels.

Option #1: Use one platform for your online and offline stores.

This is the simplest and most straightforward way to go omnichannel. Talk to your existing provider (i.e. your POS vendor or ecommerce platform, depending on where you’re selling), and ask them about their omnichannel capabilities.

One retailer that’s found success with this option is Ghost Whale, a UK-based retailer that sells craft beers. By using Vend’s omnichannel retail management system to sell in-store and online, Ghost Whale stays on top of orders and inventory with minimal hassle.

“Our entire inventory is managed using Vend, so we rely solely on that solution for our brick and mortar and ecommerce stores,” says Ghost Whale’s Stuart Anderson. “With everything being cloud-based, the system is pretty straightforward. If something sells out in the physical shop, then that product will also be marked as sold-out online, and vice versa.”

 

Ghost Whale also helps bridge the gap between their online and offline stores by offering click-and-collect. Customers who buy online have the option to pick up their orders in-store. This process is supported by Vend, so Ghost Whale doesn’t have to use any other solution to implement click-and-collect.

Important: If you’re already selling in one channel and want to expand to another, you should first talk to your existing solution about their omnichannel offerings. It’s much easier (and much less expensive) to use one platform. The last thing you want is to spend a lot of money and time trying to integrate two (or more) separate solutions.

 

Just ask Redneck Wine Co. Before Vend, they were using a POS that didn’t support online selling. Redneck Wine Co. initially tried to integrate their website, but things got complicated.

“Initially we started with a POS that was familiar to us, but it didn’t support a website. So we bought another system that was supposed to work, but after trying — and failing — to integrate, we decided to switch,” says owner Joseph Zamrin.

According to him, they ran into inventory problems without real-time updates. So after spending a lot of time and money on the project, Redneck Wine Co. abandoned it and opted for a system that supported both channels under one platform.

Option #2: Integrate different systems.

For some businesses, having one solution simply isn’t an option. For example, if you need advanced features or capabilities that a single platform can’t offer, then it makes more sense to use different solutions and just integrate the programs.

This is the case for Grain & Vine: a boutique wine and spirits store in New York. The Grain & Vine team chose to integrate their POS (Vend) with their ecommerce solution (Shopify) instead of using just one platform. The reason? Grain & Vine needed advanced ecommerce capabilities that they could only get with Shopify.


“Shopify has some features that we needed,” shares Grain & Vine owner Michael Nagdimunov. “One that comes to mind is that Shopify has live carrier shipping rates.”

Grain & Vine also offers same-day delivery through apps such as Postmates, Minibar, and Drizly.

So how do they juggle their POS, ecommerce, and delivery apps? Two words: tight integrations. Grain & Vine takes advantage of the solid integration between Shopify and Vend to ensure that they’re able to stay on top of sales and inventory.

The two systems can “talk” to each other and share data in real-time — so when orders come in, Grain & Vine’s inventory is synced across its physical and digital stores. As for the different delivery apps, Nagdimunov says they use an XML file to sync their inventory with the apps.

“We’ve created an XML file that constantly pings our Shopify platform for inventory updates. And because Shopify and Vend integrate almost natively, both inventories are always in sync. Those XML files are then being sent to our providers [i.e. delivery apps] and they, in turn, have constant access to updated inventory. That way, we’re never in a situation where they sell something we don’t carry.”

If you’re going to connect different platforms, take a leaf out of Grain & Vine’s playbook, and choose platforms with tight integrations. To make things easier, go for solutions with existing integrations, so you won’t have to develop one yourself.

Technology-wise, many low-cost ecommerce platforms now make it easy to manage multichannel sales (in-store, online, social sales, app-based sales, and seller marketplaces like Amazon) from one central management system. This makes it much easier for new sellers to roll out an omnichannel operation with a central data hub and for existing sellers to upgrade if needed. Some systems to consider include Shopify and Ecwid when it comes to store platforms. And for inventory, orders, and multichannel listing management, you could consider Unleashed or Stitch Labs.

— Krista Fabregas, Fit Small Business

 

Step 4: Establish the right processes and policies.

You’ve successfully integrated your platforms — congrats! Some of the hard work is behind you. Next on the agenda? Establish business processes to support your omnichannel efforts, then train your staff to carry out your initiatives correctly.

What should your processes look like?

Each store’s process will vary depending on its omnichannel initiatives. But for the purposes of discussion, let’s say you’ve started implementing in-store pickup. To give your customers a smooth click-and-collect experience, you need to create procedures to ensure that online orders are efficiently processed in-store and that products are ready for pickup once the customer arrives.

 

Let’s look at how Good Planet, a store that sells sustainable products, carries out click-and-collect. Here’s what Good Planet general manager Brittany Gamble had to share about their process:

“For our online store, we deal with Shopify, which communicates with Vend. We do our best to ensure that our inventory levels are accurate, and so we have careful procedures when it comes to who’s processing orders and who’s receiving items.”

Gamble continues, “Regarding order processing, we have it set up so that all our staff gets an email notification when an online order comes in. That notifies staff about which items have been ordered, the customer name and address, and the shipment type — i.e. whether a product needs to be shipped or if it’s for in-store pickup.”

“Whoever is working the store at that time will then remove the items from the floor and put them in the back. If it’s a click-and-collect order, they’ll put it in a shopping bag and fulfill the item. They’ll also contact the customer to confirm the order. If the item’s being shipped, then there’s two of us in the store who would process the orders.”

What if you oversell a product?

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try to sync your inventory and stay on top of orders, mistakes such as overselling still occur.

Gamble shares how they deal with overselling at Good Planet. See if you can learn from their process:

1. Contact the customer, and apologize for the oversell.
2. Let them know that you don’t have the item on-hand, then offer the following alternatives:

  • Give them a timeline for when you’ll have the item available, then see if the customer would be willing to wait.
  • Offer to drop ship the product from the supplier (if possible).
  • Recommend an alternative product.
  • Issue a refund.

Fine tune your process

Hopefully, Good Planet’s input gave you some ideas on how you can set up your own in-store operations. When establishing a procedure for any channel or initiative (i.e. in-store pickup, social media orders, on-demand delivery), the key things you should remember are:

Customer communications. Which types of notifications will you send to customers? When and how will you get in touch with them?

Order process and fulfillment. How will you prepare orders coming in from various channels? Who will take, pack, and fulfill them? How will you ensure that you don’t oversell anything?

How you’ll deal with issues such as overselling or miscommunications. If you do end up overselling products, or if you encounter order mixups, how will you rectify the situation?

Come up with guidelines and processes to address all the above (and any other issues relevant to your business). Be as detailed as possible, and document your processes. Once you have everything ironed out, educate your staff about those procedures and see to it that everyone is able to stay on top of your omnichannel initiatives.

Step 5: Observe, evaluate, and think about what’s next.

Once you’ve implemented your omnichannel programs, take a step back and observe how things go.

Closely monitor how your stores are doing after going omnichannel. Gather feedback from associates, managers, and your customers. How are they finding your omnichannel programs? Have they encountered any difficulties?

Keep an eye out for these things, and then adjust your strategy or tactics accordingly.

It may also be worth expanding into other channels. For instance, if you’re already selling offline and on ecommerce, you could consider adding on-demand delivery, like what Grain & Vine did. Or if you’re active on social media, you could try connecting your social networks to your commerce platform so you can start selling on sites like Facebook or Instagram.

Whatever the case, do what makes the most sense for your shoppers. As we mentioned earlier, omnichannel is about the customer. So when determining what to do next, always go back to your customer research.

 

Get Vend’s guide on the future of shopping


Omnichannel isn’t the only disrupter that’s shaking up the retail industry. To stay competitive, you need to wise up on the emerging trends and technologies in the retail space.

Need help doing that? Download Vend’s free whitepaper on the future of shopping. Packed with commentary and forward-thinking advice from 14 retail experts, this resource arms you with the knowledge you need to attract and retain modern shoppers. Get it for free below:

 

 

About Francesca Nicasio

Francesca Nicasio is Vend's Retail Expert and Content Strategist. She writes about trends, tips, and other cool things that enable retailers to increase sales, serve customers better, and be more awesome overall. She's also the author of Retail Survival of the Fittest, a free eBook to help retailers future-proof their stores. Connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Google+.

  • Andy Shih

    Hello Francesca! First of all, this article was an awesome read on omnichannel retail! A perfect starter for any entrepreneur or any company that wants to elevate their retail game to the next level. As more consumers become ever more aware of what they want from a shopping experience, it is critical for business owners to provide their teams with the right mindset to embrace change and stay ahead of the game.
    I would love to translate this article into Chinese to share with my colleagues, and would like to ask for your consent to do so.
    My contact info is as below:
    Email: andystone28@gmail.com
    LinkedIn: Andy Shih
    Please feel free to reach out and connect
    Thanks again for the great article!

    • Hi Andy — thanks for dropping by! I’m glad you like the post. I will reach out via email shortly.