thumb Cart-and-SmartPhone-580x360One ‘hot’ phrase that won’t go away any time soon is ‘omni-channel’. Why should it? It’s in the process of changing the way you shop and buy as a consumer, and if you’re involved in eCommerce or the supply chain, it’s having a big effect on your work as well.

What exactly is ‘omni-channel? As usual, many definitions are out there but Wikipedia’s is as good as any: ‘a seamless approach to the consumer experience through all available shopping channels, i.e. mobile internet devices, computers, bricks-and-mortar, television, catalog and so on’. What it means for you, the consumer, is that you’re really calling the shots. What it means for the ‘supply chain you’ is that you better have your act truly together. For you ecommerce & IT professionals, integration, speed, and transparency are must-haves. You need to take care of those demanding consumers!

In practical terms, how does omni-channel affect a buyer? Well, she’ll have multiple ways of shopping, from a website, to a mobile phone, to an IPad, to a physical brick and mortar location that should all have the same product information (or in the case of brick and mortar, quick access to them) with the same general look and feel. She should have access to account information with purchasing history across the channels, whether accessed on-line or by calling a store. Products drop-shipped will be properly branded. Inventory levels will be visible and identical no matter which way the information is accessed. If she wants to stop by a store to try on an article of clothing selected on line and shipped to the store, it’s possible. I could go on and on….

For the eCommerce and IT folks, it’s up to you to make that seamless experience seamless. UX designers need to make the users’ view across the channels consistent and accurate. ERP and infrastructure people must remove all latency from processes, making inventory checks and account queries quick and easy. And the back-end integration staff needs to build and maintain the proper connections with suppliers, drop shippers, DCs, and customers.

Let’s not forget our supply chain people! The omni-channel focus has driven activities such as distribution center location changes, storage lockers for deliveries, stores as delivery locations for customer pickup, stores changed into distribution points for shipments, special ‘branding’ processes for drop-ship partners, store location rationalization, and myriad other modifications to what were once tried and true processes.

I’d like to say we saw this coming, and to a certain extent we did. My previous employer has been focused on improving the P2P (procure-to-pay) process for our B2B customers for years and we did great work in developing and providing options for many of its steps. What I think has changed is the proliferation of devices used by customers and the improvements in the underlying technology that have enabled greater usability and increased expectations for users. These developments raised the bar for B2B companies with respect to the consistency of the experience, speed of transactions, and visibility across channels. The effect has been even more profound on large retailers, who are now struggling to keep up with the demands of this new consumer approach to selling goods.

For the consumer, omni-channel is great: lots of options on how to do business and a better all-around P2P experience. For those of us in the business world who support retailers and other businesses affected by this trend, many more changes are coming your way! The “supply chain you” and the “IT you” must meet the demands of the “consumer you!”
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