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Could multichannel or omnichannel strategies actually hold back a successful business? In this post I'll discuss the problems for retailers.

As the barriers to publishing have dropped, the amount of bad advice has increased. I imagine you've been told in numerous articles, inforgraphics and presentations that multi or omnichannel is the way forward.

Truth is, the pursuit of omnichannel status could actually be holding your business back. Time to think again. Or is it?

Lost everything through Omnichannel

Let me create a little debate. What if everything we're hearing/preaching about multichannel and omnichannel is in fact wrong? Worse, what if it's damaging?

Before you jump to the comments to tell me how wrong I am, let me be clear about my team colours. I am a champion of omnichannel retail.

I consult on technology and marketing aspects relating to it and will continue to do so at Capgemini. In order to trigger creative thinking and innovation I believe that it helps to take a contrary or extreme view.

Retailers do need to consider how best to approach omnichannel particularly with the increase in showrooming. The investment and business change required are often huge for major enterprises and the effects touch all aspects of the supply chain.

In considering each of the points below, it is my hope that retailers will take an evidence based approach to omnichannel. That they would first seek to innovate their business model and then their channels.

1. Multiple channels to a bad business model still make it a bad business

No matter how much lipstick you put on that pig, it's still a pig.

Business models that provide customers with little value or brand promise aren't going to turn around immediately by making their website mobile friendly and releasing an app. I summed up my thoughts on this in a recent post on why multichannel isn't the answer for struggling retailers.

The traditional retail business model is one that has aged quickly in the digital era. All you needed to do was to source products that people needed or wanted and then put them on a shelf for a price people would pay.

Your workforce would be cheap to employ and the biggest decision was where to locate in order to catch footfall. Your value proposition was in knowing what customers would want and having it on the shelf at a fair price.

This model of business is quickly becoming a relic. Manufacturers or distributors can now go straight to market. In this case what value do you add and can you really charge extra for it? If the answer is we don't add extra value it may be time to consider a new venture.

2. The multichannel leaders are impossible to surpass

Do you really think you're going to get better at online distribution than Amazon? Do you really think the new app you've launched is going to go viral and be number one in the iTunes charts?

Time for a dose of reality: The online pure plays are massively further along the experience curve than you at just about everything. Not only are they better at it than you but it's getting cheaper and cheaper for them. So whilst you're pouring huge amounts of CapEx into multichannel programmes they're refining warehouse processes with Sigma Six to save pennies and improve customer experience.

You cannot spend your way out of digital procrastination.

3. Play to your channel strengths

If you're a bricks and mortar business that employs people who understand that model of retail, why not stick with it? Create the best bricks and mortar retail business in the world. Take the money you'd have spent on multichannel initiatives and throw it at building better/cheaper/bigger/smaller/smarter stores.

Sure, throw a little bit of money at multichannel initiatives (£100 a month on Adwords and get a neigbour to knock up a Wordpress site) but focus on getting customers back to your core channel. Attempting to transform your entire company from the top to the bottom into a digital superstar is going to distract you from doing what you do well. If you have a core competency stick at it.

4. Omnichannel investment could be better utilised in other areas

£10m is set aside on the books for your two year omnichannel program. Do you?

  1. Invest it in omnichannel where channels are constantly appearing?
  2. Invest the money into your supply chain or IT systems where profit gains are more certain?
  3. Acquire one of your competitors or a complimentary business with a strong financial history?
  4. Expand internationally to reach huge new markets?

Investment in multichannel is expensive and not without risk especially if digital channels are completely new to your business. When you're playing with investor's money and people's jobs the stakes are high.

How certain are you that omnichannel will play out well for you?

5. There is no competitive advantage in omnichannel

Imagine this: Awards are coming in. Industry pundits are celebrating your company in blogs and articles. Your CEO's photo appears on the cover of Forbes/Wired/FastCo as the omnichannel champion. Omnichannel has succeeded.

Or has it? If we define competitive advantage as something that your competitors are going to struggle to neutralise, then it isn't. They can launch mobile apps, new websites, in-store experiences and get to learn from your experience. This second mover advantage is available as omnichannel is being built through open platforms that everyone can access.

Omnichannel has given your firm the appearance of having a future. It hasn't guaranteed it.

Join my research into retail experience

The digital transformation that we're witnessing in retail is seismic. However it's not the first time a market has been transformed because of emerging or disruptive technologies.

Harvard Professor, Clay Christensen has devoted his entire academic career to researching and answering why market leaders can be disrupted by innovators. I intend to build on his theories in my research on innovation in the UK retail market.

If you can spare five minutes please could you complete my MBA research questionnaire on your retail experiences.

Take the survey - it only takes five minutes

Thanks for sticking with this to the end. I think the article is equally right and wrong. Take your side and let me know what you think...

David Sealey

Published 10 April, 2013 by David Sealey

David Sealey is Head of Digital Consulting at CACI and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can find David on Twitter or LinkedIn

6 more posts from this author

Comments (5)

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David Jarvis aka DJ, Business Director, London at cxpartners

I make you absolutely right David.

The job of a CEO is never easy and it's least easy when you have a dying business model you're trying to prolong.

As I mention in a post to my blog (here: http://bit.ly/ux-value-chain) CEOs should be constantly asking themselves what business are they in and assessing new routes to value from their existing operations. The level of challenge CEOs get to their thinking on this topic is likely to define how well they understand the scale and realities of the task at hand.

The next step is then putting a plan and resource in place to transform the existing business into something new - indeed if something new is what is required...

over 3 years ago

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Mark Bolitho, New Business Director - Ecommerce at more2

Hi David

Nice post and a valid point.

I've experienced differing outcomes where businesses have attempted to go multichannel.

I know of more than one small retailer that is doing exactly what you highlight and have decided to stick to the knitting, which is their offline business. The 'dream' of the web creating a level playing field has disappeared for many who find it cost prohibitive to carry the depth of stock required to compete online.

Conversely, some high street stalwarts with very traditional offline offerings such as tailoring have done incredible well at becoming omnichannel.

Tactics are all important, obviously, along with patience and knowing when to stick or twist!

Mark.

over 3 years ago

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Caroline Oliver, Communications Manager at Ve Interactive

Hi David, as water finds it's level on how best emerging technologies can be used to support the High Street, you might like to keep an eye on The Clerkenwell Collection. An 'omichannel' destination store in Tech City - that will be a living experiment. Ve Interactive's entrepreneurial founders are behind this and Ve is the digital partner in this initiative. The Clerkenwell Collection houses superb designer makers from a master tailor, to exotic-skin handbags, fine furniture and jewellery, as well as an art gallery, a fine wine bar and a Champagne, Cheese & Chocolate room. Only just out of the gate (opening last month), it's doing extremely well already and the interest in it is huge - both domestically and internationally. Data & the creation of experience are the keys to creating and driving audiences, and serving new markets.

Caroline

over 3 years ago

David Sealey

David Sealey, Head of Digital Consulting at CACIEnterprise

@DavidJ - Very relevant post on value chains and a reminder that successful leaders don't view their business from inside but from the customer's perspective.

@Mark - Interesting point about the web being the level playing field. It was true in the early days and we saw some businesses grow rapidly through a disruptive new techonology. Now that the internet is ubiquitous is it still a level playing field or have the big players priced smaller/slower businesses out? I think there are still some windows of opportunity but on the whole entry costs are high for new entrants.

@Caroline - I must drop by the Clerkenwell Collection. Sounds fascinating. Link for those who are interested - http://www.theclerkenwellcollection.com/

over 3 years ago

Ashley Friedlein

Ashley Friedlein, Founder, Econsultancy & President, Centaur Marketing at Econsultancy, Centaur MarketingStaff

Great post David. Glad someone is prepared to take the latest buzzword/shiny new object to task ;)

For many businesses, whether it's digital or 'omnichannel', I fear it's a question of too little to late. Doing any of this stuff isn't as fast, cheap or easy as many think. So you're asking for more investment at a time that the business is probably desperately trying to cut back just to survive. Which is tough!

over 3 years ago

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