Building a Case for Unified Commerce

Retail is moving toward a new omnichannel model called “unified commerce.”

Retail has always been a fast-moving, keep-you-on-your-toes industry with a unique challenge waiting to meet you head-on every day. 

That, however, was magnified in 2020 with the avalanche of changes brought on by COVID-19. In adopting new behaviors over the past 18 months, some consumers have made a seemingly permanent shift to the digital shopping and fulfillment behaviors they’ve exercised, while others have been eager to return to brick-and-mortar settings. 

To be sure an organization is equipped to meet every customer’s needs and preferences, retailers have redirected or doubled down on their efforts to build either an advanced multichannel, omnichannel or unified commerce experience. But what’s the difference between these strategies, and how does each one impact the customer journey?

The multichannel model
Multichannel commerce positions a brand in front of both digital and traditional shoppers. Ever since e-commerce became a must-have for retailers, multichannel strategies have become increasingly common, yet the strategy also has its fair share of flaws. First and foremost, with multichannel, the offline and online shopping experiences are often disjointed. The e-commerce and the brick-and-mortar experiences are siloed, and minimal interaction occurs between the two.

For example, imagine you were intrigued by an advertisement on social media, and you decided to purchase a jacket from the online store of a local retailer. You later find out that the jacket, unfortunately, runs small. You want to avoid incurring shipping costs after waiting in the long line at the post office, so you try to take the jacket back to the nearest brick-and-mortar location. 

You then learn that the store cannot process the online return because for this brand the online store and the physical store carry different inventories. You leave disappointed and frustrated because now you must ship the item anyway after wasting time in the store. 

This experience is common among retailers using a multichannel strategy, since the connection between online and in-store is anything but seamless. 

The omnichannel opportunity
On the other hand, an omnichannel experience gives customers the option to reach out to retailers via any touchpoint they choose – mobile device, online channel or physical store. This is critical because shoppers today are becoming increasingly “channel-blind,” meaning they see the brand as one entity, rather than a series of stores or webpages. 

This trend intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic because customers started blending the online and in-store journeys due to new curbside and buy-online-pickup-in-store (BOPIS) offerings they may not have used previously. Omnichannel strategies coordinate brand interactions, across all channels, into one customer journey; however, the experience will oftentimes still fall short of being truly connected. 

Picture this. You are shopping via your local grocer’s mobile app, adding items to a shopping cart on your family account as your spouse is adding items on the website. You place the order the next day, yet when you go to pick up the groceries, several items were substituted because the items you chose were out of stock. 

While it was nice that both you and your spouse could add to the same cart across two devices and pick up the items at a convenient time and place, the experience was still lackluster because the availability shown on the e-commerce platforms was not linked to the stock in-store.

Upgrade to unified
Finally, there’s unified commerce - a type of omnichannel experience that considers all of these confounding factors and creates a multichannel experience with the customer at the center.  This strategy incorporates shopper data throughout the business and ensures everything is designed around meeting the customer’s needs, even as they evolve. 

Unified commerce operates from a custom-built, centralized framework that gives retailers the opportunity to collect and merge first- and third-party data, powering a personalized customer journey from the first touchpoint to the last. With this strategy, retailers can respond to market changes swiftly, deliver cohesive shopping experiences, and develop a stronger understanding of the customer to maximize ROI and increase loyalty. 

An example of unified commerce is a shopper journey that works seamlessly across all platforms. For instance, you may get an email from a retailer with a promotion for a tablet you’ve been interested in. You check out the item on your mobile device and add the product to your cart before running out to work. At the end of the day, you log on to your desktop computer, and the items is waiting in your cart – promotion already accounted for.

Then, at checkout, there is a deal for a tablet case, one from the same brand as your tried-and-true cell phone case that has survived quite a few falls. You add it to your cart as well and order both for BOPIS at the nearest location, for the most convenient date and time. The tablet is ready for you when you arrive. 

Soon after getting home, you receive an email with a receipt and a deal for a similar tablet, should you decide to get one for a friend. None of this was by luck, nor coincidence. The unified commerce strategy designed a convenient and user-friendly experience – one with you specifically in mind – to create the best shopping journey possible, from initial promotion to the final post-purchase touchpoint. 

Investing in the digitization of retail
With a unified commerce approach, retailers are encouraged to continuously update their technology and redesign the retail process to best fit shopper trends and preferences. Retailers willing to invest in enabling customer-centric and data-driven commerce experiences will have stronger relationships with the customer and, therefore, benefit from increased brand loyalty, conversion rates and profits. 

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