Omnichannel: how to make it a retail reality


In this article, Michelle Whelan, CEO of VMLY&R COMMERCE UK explains how retailers can make omnichannel a retail reality.

During the 2021 Ecommerce Expo panel, I discussed omnichannel strategies with a brand leader (Colgate Palmolive) and a brand innovator (Bird & Blend Tea Co.). Four key observations emerged that will impact all of us as we plan for 2022.

Take the ‘e’ out of eCommerce

As we move into the next phase of retail evolution, we see shopper behaviour changing rapidly. People no longer differentiate between physical and digital shopping experiences. Which means: “Neither should we as brands. In eCommerce, the ‘e’ is silent. There’s no more eCommerce and retail – there’s simply commerce. We follow people wherever they shop.” observed Lilia Fusa, Colgate’s eCommerce Channel Lead UK & Ireland.

I could not agree more. Let’s talk about commerce, and let’s agree that it’s all about delivering seamless experiences. Shoppers don’t want physical- or digital-only experiences. They expect digital experiences in physical spaces, and human ones in digital spaces. As retail and brand leaders, we have the opportunity to forge new connections with shoppers. Driving omnichannel experiences will be a necessary and powerful driver of growth in 2022.

Delivering a unified experience requires focus and a very good understanding of your audience

There was clear consensus that delivering seamless, unified shopper experiences isn’t easy. Omnichannel has become very technology-oriented; this often hinders as much as it helps. Whilst online data and marketing automation facilitate the online shopper journey, real world influences in the physical retail space are still difficult to understand.

Rather than cast their net too wide, brands need to focus on online and offline channels that are most important to the shoppers they want to attract. To win, it’s really important to zero in on the ‘moments that matter’ – the specific moments in a shopper’s experience that influence purchases. Get those right and expand from there.

According to Catherine Loftus, Head of Brand at Bird & Blend Tea Co., success requires a comprehensive and detailed understanding of the consumer’s world – both online and (even more importantly) offline.  

As an independent retailer, the company has paired the values of the business with the values of their consumers in those moments where people most appreciate them. In store, the brand strives to feel personal and highly experiential. Customers talk about “the magic of many colours and flavours…like being in a sweet shop to try jelly and ice cream tea or gingerbread chai”. 

Yet, Bird & Blend Tea find that the most effective triggers in digital, or on the packaging of home delivery orders, are different. So, values need to be expressed in alternative ways, whilst maintaining overall brand coherence. 

Relearn how to engage with customers and buyers 

We live in unique times. I’ve had many discussions with brands and retailers about how best to reconnect with audiences after 18 months of lock-down. How to sell in, how to be top of mind.  With people likely to remain in hybrid ways of working for the foreseeable future, it’s my view that this conundrum is here to stay.

Bird & Blend Tea Co’s digital team is actually “relearning” to support physical. “When our stores re-opened in April, it was a steep learning curve to remember that we needed to tell customers whether a product was available in store, to make sure our teams knew what was launching. We needed to take care that lack of practice didn’t impact the customer experience,” said Catherine. “The flow of internal communication, especially with people working remotely, proved critical to success.”

The great resignation is not all that it seems…

Talent churn and open roles in our businesses is challenging, but should inspire us to reimagine the employee experience and how we can leverage this to accelerate commercial growth. 

Brilliantly, successful brands and retailers are empowering employees as influencers in live streaming and social commerce. Seeing our people as ambassadors who can drive the position of the business opens up a fascinating new roadmap.

At Bird & Blend Tea, passion runs deep through the hiring and training process. An exceptional example that we can all learn from is the Brand Pathway – a talent search within the business. “We know that in retail, back of house, production, CX – across the whole business – there are team members who are uber creative, know the brand upside down, know our customers, and would be a brilliant asset to the brand team,” Catherine observed.

I agree. Whilst digital skills can be taught and learned, passion comes from the heart. 

Catherine’s own branding digital team includes a former store manager whose superb skills of talking to customers are now being applied to the retailer’s social community – with outstanding results.

The future of omnichannel

I believe that omnichannel holds incredible potential. With marketing and sales becoming ever more closely connected, the opportunities to own that space and bring innovation are rich. It’s time to move forward quickly, examine how we blend physical and digital retail, develop seamless experiences that feel unique, and show that we as brands and retailers truly understand people.  And it’s heartening to hear Lilia and Catherine – two talented, pioneering leaders from the brand and retail worlds – agree:

 “The future is all about the past. It’s connecting with people just like we used to before the internet – finding those human connections. Now we have so many more tools: we can use data and find people in all kinds of channels. As a brand, we can follow consumers wherever they are. But creating the human connection is the most important thing. Everything else builds around that,” believes Lilia. And from Catherine, “The future is absolutely this hybrid of finding what’s right for a person. Can you provide a great in-person experience, supported digitally through data, skilled team members, the right platforms and technologies and then bring all those together as a whole?

Credit: Michelle Whelan, CEO, VMLY&R COMMERCE UK

Visual Merchandising The Ultimate Guide