It is time to retire multichannel and cross-channel. While multichannel and cross-channel once accurately reflected the touchpoints retailers had with their customers, and vice-versa, they no longer describe what is happening and what is possible in retail today.
Despite retailers trying to break down barriers between their brands and their customers through consistency, choice, and continuity (1), multichannel and cross-channel nevertheless still hold onto a business-centric view when it comes to how customers interact with retailers. "Channels" more often than not have influenced retailers' business structures, with each "channel" distinct and often siloed within the organization. Multichannel and cross-channel further imply that they are discrete entities that customers go into and come out of one at a time – online, mobile, catalog, TV, store, etc. Customers are no longer tethered to a desk, a couch, or a car in order to interact with brands. Instead customers seamlessly engage with multiple touchpoints simultaneously and creatively in search of whatever is relevant to them in that particular moment.
Take for example this recent Verizon and NFL Mobile commercial.
In the ad, the NFL network travels throughout the day in the life of a man, whose TV morphs into an iPad that morphs into a laptop that morphs into a smartphone that morphs back into a TV at his friends' house. Through each moment of his day, he is completely connected to the NFL.
While not that long ago, viewers could only watch the NFL in person or on their TV (or listen to it on the radio), now any medium is fair game. And, customers expect any medium. They want to connect with brands through every possible touchpoint, often in social and fun ways. Indeed, to limit the thinking to multichannel or cross-channel is like saying a box of 8 crayons offers as much color possibility as all the paint chips available at Home Depot.
It is no longer enough for retailers to just refer customers from one channel to another such as sending an email with a coupon to get someone in store, offering in-store pick-up and promising in store returns, or giving customers the ability to schedule delivery online. Yes, they are important. Yes, they are part of the equation. But, this level of integration is assumed to only be a standard part of buying today and not a differentiator.
Instead of multichannel and cross-channel, retailers should be focusing on and thinking in terms of connected commerce, integrated commerce, or ubiquitous commerce to differentiate themselves and help push the conversation with their customers forward.
Connected commerce keeps the narrative on social connections between the brand and its customer, between its customers, and within its organization. Integrated commerce ensures a seamless experience from point-of-sale systems to fulfillment, from social media to customer service, and from more orchestrated experiences to impromptu ones. Finally, ubiquitous commerce reinforces how ever-present and portable the retail experience has become.
Each one of these concepts captures the extensive mash-up of ways customers are shopping today. Each one of these focuses on the customer’s life today and what it might be like tomorrow. And, unlike multichannel or cross-channel, these forms of commerce are completely customer centric, where the experience has become about the total integration of the retailer’s brand.
Examples of these concepts have emerged throughout retail today. Facebook, love it or hate it, has flourished in making connections. The rise of visual search and visual connectors such as Google Goggles and QR codes get customers to information quickly and often in delightful ways. The Intel and Adidas adiVerse Virtual Footwear Wall turns limited retail space into a complete catalog that acknowledges their customers want more information than what a traditional shoe display can offer and can connect them to detailed information via the wall (2). And, what channel would a refrigerator be that streams music from Pandora and alerts you via a tweet or text when you need to pick up some new strawberries--whose barcode you scanned—because the ones tucked in the back of the refrigerator are dangerously close to expiring?
The implication of this shift in terminology necessitates a move to truly focusing on storytelling where customer context and mindset are key components rather than merely "nice to haves." It necessitates moving to a more fluid view of the brand with a spotlight on connectedness. It necessitates a creative approach that is more Willy Wonka than factory assembly line in nature.
Thank you, multichannel and cross-channel, for bringing retailers and customers through the early days of the Web and mobile commerce. But, it is time to carry the conversation further.
Dana Hawes-Davis is a Senior UX Designer in the UX Design Group at Fry.
(1) Source: Simplify Cross-Channel Design Presentation by Bob Chatham, Forrester Research, 2003
(2) Read more about the Intel and Adidas adiVerse Virtual Footwear Wall at Fast Company or watch this video: