blog | 6 min read

The Customer is the Only Channel

January 7, 2022

A profile of an older man in a circle; teal ribbons flow out from the left and right sides

The pace of change and innovation in the retail industry, already gathering speed in the past years, has picked up more than ever during the pandemic. Digital-first trends like buy-online-pick-up-in-store, appointment shopping, same day delivery, and new customer demands have reshaped the retail landscape.

This is why it’s critical to be able to understand who your customers are, how they’ve engaged with your brand, what kinds of things they respond to, and what they’re likely to want. If you can make sense of all the digital and in-person data your customers give you to get a clear view of how they act and what they like, you’ll be setting yourself up to provide the kinds of experiences that will keep them coming back for more.

The most successful retailers have found ways to integrate their in-store and online operations to delight their customers with engaging experiences at scale. Native online retailers have noticed, which is why more and more of them are building physical stores that extend — and create synergy with — their cyber stores. It's almost a daily drumbeat of new store openings, including DICK'S Sporting Goods opening 800 stores, Ralph Lauren opening 90, Warby Parker opening 35; the list goes on. These retailers know that physical stores legitimize a brand and customers show loyalty to brands that understand their needs and expectations.

The question of channel isn’t a matter of in-store or online. Omnichannel isn’t the most efficient or effective way to think about it either, as it involves trying to be all things to all customers at all times. Instead, successful retailers are recognizing that the customer is their only channel. Being flexible and informed enough to meet customers when and where they are when they’re ready to buy — or even when they just want an answer to a question — is the retailer’s strategy for success.

The search for continuous, frictionless cross-channel engagement

What complicates this point of engagement is that today’s savvy, connected customers don’t go shopping at predictable times or places. Many of us now expect to shop when, where, and how we want, with fast, cheap, and convenient delivery to our home, store or pick-up point. And as customers we don’t have single sets of preferences; our preferences can change from moment to moment. While today I may opt for curb-side pickup, tomorrow I may look for an experience expertly curated by a knowledgeable associate. The following week, delivery to my home may be my main concern. In many instances, that choice of channel determines where we seek out our next engagements. And if our choice isn’t available from our existing retailer relationship, we will find another retailer who offers it.

You might think of this as identifying the points that you have the best opportunity to improve the customer’s experience and make a lasting impression — in retail, these “moments that matter” include transaction, fulfillment, and service interactions. Recognizing this continuum across the customer journey is a key first step to ensure the ability to engage appropriately. This said, and as exemplified recently by the rise of curbside delivery, customers will shift channels, even permanently, if their moment of truth makes it necessary.

It’s true that retailers that lack a given channel may still have enough brand strength to carry them through in the short-term. But in the long term, where retailers compete to maximize customer lifetime value, failure to meet customers where they are will only benefit the competition.

Reignite retail through the power of connected systems

Acting on the idea that the customer is the only channel means more than offering in-store, online and curbside points of engagement. Instead, retailers should consider interwoven, connected journeys where these touchpoints work together in innovative ways to create engaging, interactive customer experiences at scale. However, this journey — with new, engaging experiences that go beyond a few concept stores — is not an easy one. Retailer after retailer has attempted to scale point-based experiences across its locations but usually end up building out just a few new concept stores. And a key tool in staying connected is to have robust customer records that track historical interactions, incorporate new engagements to stay up-to-date, and generate insights and predictions to help meet that customer’s needs moving forward.   

Communication is key in every relationship

Customers are making it clear that convenience and transparency aren’t their only requirements across the points of engagement. Customers also expect retailers to “show me that you know me,” leading to higher expectations for seamless engagement with curated experiences across channels. Customers expect to be treated in a personalized and preferred way regardless of how they choose to engage with their favorite brand, so why should the physical engagement be different from the online meeting?

For example, customers want full transparency into the supply and delivery chains. Where, how, and when can they get the products they want? If those products aren’t in stock, when will they be? Where are products in the shipping process and what updates are there to anticipated delivery times? If a customer’s existing retail relationship does not allow for this type of communication, and other retailers can provide it, those customers may decide to seek out the competition.

Engaged employees can give their best

When it comes to customer service interactions, retailers can give their reps a serious advantage by making it easy for them to know who the customer is, which comes from having customer records organized and easily accessible in the moment. If an associate knows as much about the relationship with the brand as the customer does, they can be much more effective and provide a standout service experience, rather than making the customer wait while they track down transaction details or verify their identity for the third time.   

Admittedly, it’s a tall order for retailers to meet their customers wherever they are at their moment of truth, supported by a workforce that is always at its best. Retailers should keep many dependencies in mind. A central question is: How are your business functions aligned to deliver highly engaging customer experiences across channels? There’s a crucial technological aspect to this question, but technology alone isn’t the answer. You also need to consider your workforce, their new roles and responsibilities in this new world, and the culture and change management you need to drive success.

It’s a brave new world — let’s face it together

Customers are making it clear that their need for convenience and transparency is equally important across their channels of engagement. The customer journey no longer has a definitive start, middle, and end. It’s a journey that never ends, with connected and relevant experiences throughout. Think of the customer journey as the path along a figure eight – or along the infinity symbol. This continuous path holds defined areas of crossover. Staying connected and relevant is key and many retailers are seeking out the “channel-agnostic” customers along this path, since they hold greater potential value.

To help solve for this at Amperity, we turn tangles of customer data into unified records so our clients can understand their customers and power the kinds of personalized experiences that stand out. We also partner with industry leaders like Avanade, who help scale experiential retail by ignoring the traditional boundaries of physical and digital to develop experiences that both stand alone and also connect to existing store infrastructure. This lets our clients move quickly to unlock value at scale in the new era of commerce.     

Ready to learn more? Get in touch.