Is it time for retailers to move beyond fulfillment and on to experience?

Photo: WBR/Future Stores Miami
Feb 14, 2020

Omnichannel. Cross-channel. Harmonized Retail. Harmonic Retail. All of these terms were thrown about and used interchangeably at the 2020 FutureStores conference in Miami last weekend.

Through several sessions and many speakers, contributors and panelists, regardless of the word they used, the message was the same: It is critical to have a seamless brand experience across channels in today’s retailing environment.

Seamless, however, does not mean identical. It’s all about being where your customers are, when they want you to be there. The customer will decide when, where and how they want to transact with a brand. As Brian Kennedy, VP of operations for Ministry of Supply said, “We are at a point where customers are now leading us.”

For so long, omnichannel really was about distribution and fulfillment. Buy online, pickup in-store (BOPIS), ship from store, endless aisle, curbside pickup — to name a few. But what does it mean now? One panelist put it this way. “Customers are looking for convenience or solutions.” Rather than focusing on any one stage, retailers need to take note of the entire customer journey and tailor experiences accordingly across channels.

Here are some examples of how retailers are viewing omnichannel and how they are serving their customers in new ways.

  • Zak Normandin, the founder and CEO of Iris Nova, shared how its Dirty Lemon brand, an all-natural beverage, is leveraging chatbots and SMS to sell at scale through conversational commerce.
  • Bonobos, a digitally native brand owned by Walmart, has over 60 physical locations that serve as showrooms. Customers can try on apparel in-store and merchandise is shipped to their homes.
  • Shari Rossow, VP retail operations & in-store services from Best Buy, referenced its “Brick, Click, Knock, Ring” view of omnichannel. This encompasses how customers move from the store to online to interactions in their home with Geek Squad and even phone interactions. Best Buy places a big emphasis on post-purchase behavior through their repair and installation services.

Regardless of the name, retailers need to meet the moment and create tools and experiences for customers to transact with them when they want and how they want.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see the need for a new term to replace “omnichannel”? How can retailers move beyond distribution and fulfillment methods to create an end-to-end customer journey across channels?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"The shopper is only interested in a positive experience that satisfies the need. Customers are leading the charge, retail has to keep up and knock down the barriers."
"Today’s consumers drive commerce and to be successful, retailers need to provide the experience consumers want or they will go elsewhere."
"We need to be flexible enough to accommodate our customers wherever, however and whenever they wish in a manner they want each time they engage."

Join the Discussion!

28 Comments on "Is it time for retailers to move beyond fulfillment and on to experience?"

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Neil Saunders

I see omnichannel and multichannel as industry shorthand to describe a connected or cross-channel approach. This is necessary as, traditionally, retail operated in the physical space with online bolted on – something that was (and sometimes still is) reflected in the way retail operations were configured. However, as far as the customer is concerned the term is redundant. The customer doesn’t think in terms of channels, they operate seamlessly across multiple touchpoints and ways of interacting with brands and retailers. Unfortunately, making the process effortless and invisible to the consumer requires an enormous amount of work in bringing everything together behind the scenes!

Shep Hyken

If you ask five retailers what “omnichannel” means you may get five different answers. They understand the gist of it, but there are too many uses. Consider the terms batted around in last week’s conference referenced in the article above. In the end, we all know what we want it to mean. The customer doesn’t care what they call it. They just want that easy and “seamless” experience. Let’s not get hung up on what we call it and focus on one thing: the customer experience.

Ray Riley

In specialty retail it is still an uphill climb. Many 100+ store chains are still dealing with legacy POS as a major hurdle – therefore limiting their ability to get a solid read on customer and transactional data. With respect to the other question, I would love to replace omnichannel with just: retail.

Bob Amster

The last thing we need is another name for the same old (but reliable) thing. “Omnichannel” is still very representative of how the retail landscape looks at this time. If we want to use a different name, we don’t need a new one, we already have “unified commerce.” “Unified” is the umbrella for all the channels and the systems working together to provide the superior “customer experience.”

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

I see no problem with the term omnichannel. The challenge is that the number and type of channels continue to increase. I hope no retailers read this article as an admonition to move on from fulfillment to customer experience. Customers are demanding both – meaningful experiences as well as seamless, quick delivery. Addressing both issue requires different sets of skills and is not an either/or proposition.

Dr. Stephen Needel

Actually, retailers may need to move back to experience, not beyond to it. And as Ray Riley says, let’s just call it retail. When some of the largest retail chains in the country don’t see a need to do omnichannel (hello CVS), they may need to realize that shoppers want one way to deal with a retailer. That there may be multiple ways to interact with a retailer is fine – why limit a shopper’s choice? But all ways need to end up at the same place – a sale.

Richard Hernandez
Richard Hernandez
Merchant Director
2 years 9 months ago

Agree 100 percent. The industry has defined omnichannel over the past few years but at the root of it is a sale. You see a lot of retailers dipping their feet in the waters to redefine the customer experience – a lot of hits, some misses, but there is movement in redefining how to make the customer experience more meaningful to get people off the couch and into a brick-and-mortar store.

Art Suriano
The one phrase missing from creating the experience in the article is “human interaction.” I believe most people love the new technologies, conveniences, and methods of fast shopping but, when all fails, we still want that human being to help us. Best Buy seems to have it right when compared to the other companies in the article because with their Geek Squad, you can speak to a human. What a great idea. When you can’t find something on the app, at the kiosk, you’ve searched FAQs, researched online, and even attempted chat, for that special moment that will make the “experience,” it’s the enlightened human being that will make that happen. Today we don’t invest in staff, and we don’t invest in training, and retailers wonder why customer satisfaction is so low. It’s a matter of common sense. So yes, fulfillment is essential, but creating the right “experience” is going to be the big win every time, with every customer, and it still takes the human being to make that happen.
Brandon Rael
There never has been a universal understanding of what omnichannel means. From the customer’s perspective, they are simply shopping with a retailer or brand on their own terms and how they wish to engage. Omnichannel is essentially a supply chain and fulfillment strategy in which consultancies partner with retailers to come up with a unified cross channel supply chain approach. However, customers never have cared or will care if their favorite retailer is best-in-class with their omnichannel strategies. Let’s please at this point refer to it as “commerce” and leave the unified, omnichannel, harmonized, “phygital” terms out of the mix. The critical pieces and parts of the art and sciences of retail are there with the best-in-class retailers, who offer an integrated digital/physical experience, convenient same-day fulfillment BOPIS services and a multi-faceted loyalty program that incentivizes their customers. In terms of experiences, that is either there or not based on the type of retail segment you are shopping in. Target, Nordstrom, Best Buy, Home Depot, Walmart and others are leading the charge in balancing both… Read more »
Jeff Weidauer

What we call this new era in retail is less important than how we execute it. The shopper is only interested in a positive experience that satisfies the need. Customers are leading the charge, retail has to keep up and knock down the barriers.

Jeff Sward

What’s the word that captures the concept: “Retail is a helluva lot more complicated than it used to be!”? And we are just now at the point where customers are leading us? I’ve long thought in terms of the 5 Rs. Right product, right price, right place, right time, right quantity. There were fewer moving parts a decade ago, but it still works today.

Place used to mean “store.” Now it’s phone or tablet or store — or front door. Time used to be “when I can get to the store.” Now it’s today or tomorrow — at my front door. The customer always decided what was the right product, and always will. Price is always going to be a combination of competition, customer validation, and unique brand value-add — or lack thereof.

So I like 5R retail. There is a lot of wiggle room for shifting dynamics.

Lee Peterson

To me, it’s two terms. 1.) Brand platform: like in the RetailWire story on Vans earlier this week, it’s not necessarily about overt selling and more about promoting the brand and physical touch/presence (with some showroom selling) and then, 2.) Fulfillment centers: you know, what most of the Walmarts are going to turn into (other than their minute clinics, pharmacies and eyewear areas).

A place to pick something up and for the retailer to ship to your house from. The store of the future is not a store, it’s one of the above.

David Naumann
David Naumann
Marketing Strategy Lead - Retail, Travel & Distribution, Verizon
2 years 9 months ago

A new term won’t make omnichannel execution better. There is still a lot of room for improvement for retailers to make the cross-channel experience seamless and frictionless. Technology has improved dramatically in the past five years and combining the right technology with the right processes, retailers can offer the experience consumers expect. They expect experiences to be consistent and they expect their customer information (preferences, order history, browsing history, etc.) to follow them whenever and wherever they shop with a brand. They also expect to easily buy, fulfill and return anywhere. Sounds simple, but it is actually difficult for retailers to execute well.

Harley Feldman

Omnichannel is a term describing how retailers deliver service to the customer – allowing the customer to buy in the store or order anywhere and have it delivered to the customer’s home or available for store pickup. It is only part of the customer experience with the retailer.

The entire customer experience needs to be addressed by the retailer from product selection to pricing, interaction with sales people, customer service, delivery, and returns. I recently had a phenomenal experience in an Apple store that had nothing to do with omnichannel that now endears me to Apple. Retailers need to create the best end-to-end experience for their customers to keep them for the long term.

Ryan Mathews
I hate the word omnichannel for multiple reasons. First, it is self-limiting, since it technically refers to only three “channels” — mobile, physical store, and internet, while overlooking existing “channels” such as IoT, voice-activated, chip-activated, etc., not to mention new “channels” to come. Next, if we really want to think like the consumer — which, despite their protestations, most marketers really don’t — then we would never utter the word “channel” in the first place, let alone modify it to the point of absurdity. Consumers acquire goods and services. How they acquire them is increasingly immaterial to them and subject to personal convenience. Nobody woke up in America today and said to themselves, “Oh, I need a new sweater and a half gallon of yak milk. I better activate my mobile channel,” and nobody ever will. If retailers can’t see they are just part of a consumer-centric acquisition continuum, they are already lost. And if they are lost, I suspect it’s because they have been chasing sales down the “omnichannel” hole so long that they’ve… Read more »
Ben Ball

Methinks we are missing the big picture in our collective thinking — fulfillment is part of the “experience” — just like availability, assortment, convenience, customer service and clean restrooms. Parsing the functions and components of any business, retail or otherwise, certainly helps to bring focus and encourage functional excellence. But the customer only experiences the functions in combination. To create an end-to-end journey across channels requires that the destination be desirable — regardless of how the customer arrives.

Kathleen Fischer

We have called it unified commerce for years, referring to how customers want a holistic, seamless brand experience encompassing customer touch points, service, data, inventory, fulfillment, distribution and delivery. Today’s consumers drive commerce and to be successful, retailers need to provide the experience consumers want or they will go elsewhere.

Gene Detroyer

“Omnichannel” works for now. But it also defines the problem that still exists in the word “channel.” Retailers, try as they may, can’t get away from that “channel” thinking. When that disappears, we will know that retail has evolved.

Ken Morris

We coined the phrase unified commerce a few years ago along with real-time retail, omnichannel retail and harmonized retail, but I agree it’s all just retail today. Some customers want a frictionless experience where others want a hands on friction-full experience and frequently the same customer prefers a different experience from the same brand each visit. We need to be flexible enough to accommodate our customers wherever, however and whenever they wish in a manner they want each time they engage. It’s not easy but the rewards are worth the effort.

Dave Wendland

Although the term “omnichannel” is fine, I am frustrated by the belief that this is some linear channel that is separate and unique from others. Any time a consumer interacts with a brand (mobile, tablet, in-store, online, social media, delivery, fulfillment, etc.) it is COMMERCE and it is all part of the shopper experience. I agree with Jeff Weidauer that focus should not be spent creating some new terminology, rather retailers must focus on execution and consumer delight at EVERY turn!

Doug Garnett

The original idea of Omnichannel was superb: That customers would be free to pick where they buy things to fit their needs. THEN it became an “industry term” and turned into an obligation and a lifeless “mandatory.”

But I don’t see much value in a new term — because the same would happen to any term we pick to replace it. So let’s just stick with that idea: Customers want to buy where they want to buy.

What SHOULD be intensively discussed in retailer boardrooms is this: All of market experience shows it to be impossible to establish an economically viable online advantage. So while online is a requirement, we need to stop believing in the fantasy that online is a strategic opportunity. It’s not. Not even for Amazon.

Retailers need to ponder how their online presence support can build on their far more important physical presence and how to make their physical presence take the lead.

Gal Rimon

The names applied to channels can be changed, but nothing will change unless/until retailers’ frontline employees — be they in a contact center or on a sales floor — are fully engaged, motivated, trained, and aware of what their KPIs/goals are plus have access to that all-important data in real-time.

I’m not denying that bots and RPA are playing larger roles in assorted aspects of e-commerce, but rise above the basic transactional activities and retailers need to have people ready, able, and willing to provide exceptional customer experiences. Empower sales and service to have a positive employee experience, the EX, and they will drive a phenomenally successful customer experience, the CX.

Sterling Hawkins

You can’t get fulfillment right without paying attention to the customer experience. They need to arise together to make a meaningful difference. We don’t necessarily need to create a new term, it’s more we need to honor the original intention of what omnichannel really means: “rather than working in parallel, channels and their supporting resources are designed and orchestrated to cooperate.”

Cate Trotter

I think this is indicative of how people get too hung up on language rather than actually what is offered. Take the examples above — they’re all about fulfillment. Customers may order through a chatbot or try on in-store and order to their home, but it’s still fulfillment. That’s because all retail is fundamentally about fulfillment — whether that’s providing a product or service that’s requested or fulfilling a customer’s need to be entertained, inspired, informed etc. If it makes everyone feel better to call fulfillment experience, then that’s one thing. It’s another to think that experience means you’re no longer in the fulfillment business because you very much are.

Brian Cluster

The term that best defines the future of describing retail using multiple channels is “Unified Retail.” Customers have adopted apps, websites, social commerce but what they really want now is a common experience that keeps track of them and their preferences across any method that they are interacting with the retail. Having this common and unified front that makes it simple for customers to discover, research, communicate, shop and buy is now what customers expect.

Sheri Blattel

A consistent and unified brand experience is the expectation of the consumer regardless of what “channel” they are utilizing on their journey. Ultimately, success lies in an experience where the end-to-end journey, regardless of your interaction point, exemplifies and delivers on that consistent brand experience. Retailers cannot simply “move beyond fulfillment and on to experience,” they must embrace and deliver on both by meeting the consumer where they are and considering that each consumer has differing preferences that modulate based on what product they are purchasing and what fits into their particular lifestyle. Technologies will continue to advance, creating more avenues for consumers to access purchase options, blended with the continual need for engagement and connection to the physical product and brand.

Peter Charness

A rose by any other name …? Not as fond of omnichannel as it gives the impression of ability to work in any channel, which is not quite the same as a Customer Centric Unified experience. You can be omnichannel if you can sell and ship through bricks or clicks but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you present a single continuous experience to the customer, and it may not mean that you have mastered the processes to use any inventory anywhere that it can be (profitably?) consumed. I like Unified Commerce, but maybe the best focus point would be a Unified Customer Experience.