7 lessons to learn from the top omnichannel retailers

Black Friday and Cyber Monday have come and gone, and as November comes to a close it’s time to wrap up our series on online retailing. So far this month, we’ve looked at online BF / CM retail trends, top online CX frustrations and how to fix them, and the future of retail as blended digital/in-store experiences. This week, we’ll close things out by asking: what are the lessons we should be learning from top omnichannel retailers, right now?

After looking at the best omnichannel retailers out there, here are the top 7 reasons you need to take to heart.

1. This goes without saying: optimize your website across devices

We’ve already covered how websites are one of the biggest barriers to eCommerce and the omnichannel experience. If you haven’t gotten serious about optimizing your website so that customers have a consistently smooth experience across desktop, tablet, and mobile, now is the time to make sure that you’re not losing business by frustrating customers with a website that doesn’t meet their needs.

2. Don’t discourage showrooming. Encourage it!

Rather than worrying about your customers engaging browsing product information online while in your stores, lean into it! Encourage customers to come to your store and see products before they purchase and make that experience really easy. As we pointed out previously:

For retailers who can adapt to meet changing customer expectations, digital versus in-store retail is not a zero-sum game! The future of retail is a blended purchasing experience, where customers investigate products through a combination of digital channels and in-store investigation, and where digital engagement will be just as important as the in-person shopping experience.

We’re starting to see more big retailers who are getting the message, and rolling out retail locations that exist only as physical showrooms for online stores:

  • BONOBOS: in 2015 the mens’ clothing chain launched 17 “guide shops” where customers can’t take products home, but they can go to see and touch products before ordering them online
  • Casper: the online discount mattress retailer only recently got into permanent retail locations. Prior to that, it sold exclusively online and through pop-up locations. They’ve also signed a distribution deal to appear in 1200 target stores.

Nordstrom has taken this to the next level with their newly launched Nordstrom Local store pilot program. Customers shopping on the Nordstrom site can have garments they’re interested in shipped to a Local store, where they can drop in to try them on. Once there, they can access other services, including getting on-site alterations, booking appointments with a personal stylist, getting a manicure, or seeing a cobbler. Currently, there are only three Nordstrom Local locations in Southern California (two in L.A. and one in Santa Monica), although the retailer has plans to open locations in New York.

With Nordstrom Local, the convenience benefits for customers are obvious, but the benefits for the retail giant are just as big. Because these stores don’t have to carry inventory, Nordstrom Local locations are around 3000 sq. feet – slightly more than 2% the size of the average Nordstrom location!

3. Use your store to drive customers to your website, and vice versa

Another key benefit of maintaining physical retail locations is that websites can be used to drive customers to bricks-and-mortar locations, which can then be used to drive customers back to the website – creating a powerful purchasing and interaction loop. A key part of this approach, however, involves recognizing that online and in-store are not channels in competition – they are channels that supplement one another.

Crate & Barrel, which is consistently cited as one of the top omnichannel retailers, has mastered this by taking a blended approach to physical retail locations. Customers can purchase products online and opt to pick them up in-store for no additional shipping charge. This drives customers into their bricks-and-mortar retail locations, and creates additional sales opportunities: 49% of surveyed customers said they were likely to purchase additional items some of the time while picking up online orders.

Says Michael Reich, COO of Crate & Barrel: “[customers] use our stores as a showroom first and can see an extended assortment online. We actually see a lot of transactions start in one channel and finish in another. Brick and mortar is good for us.”

Sephora is another example of a retail chain that uses a blended online and physical shopping experience to drive traffic into the online/onsite purchasing loop; their ‘virtual try-on’ tool (available both through their app and their website) lets customers can see how products will look on them before buying, so that they can they can experiment with colors and product types on their own. When customers visit a physical retail location, staff and customers have tablets they can use to access saved information and have more detailed conversations about what products would be best for them to buy.

Loyalty programs are also a great way to direct customers to different channels. David’s Tea’s Frequent Steeper Program is a great example of a popular customer loyalty program designed with a cross-channel strategy in mind. For example, completing your online profile gets you a free cup of tea when you visit a bricks-and-mortar location. There are also a wide range of promotions that are offered through various online channels which can only be redeemed in-store. Once customers go to the store, there are also contests and promotions run in-store that encourage people to engage with David’s Tea online.

Lastly, some retailers are also able to take advantage of their physical retail locations to host events relevant to their customers as a way of driving traffic to their retail stores. Lululemon offers a wide range of events that customers can sign up for, including yoga classes, running clubs, mindfulness circles, and spin classes – most of which are free for customers. Additionally, for customers who don’t live close to a bricks-and-mortar Lululemon location, they have also recently launched free online yoga classes.

4. Empower sales associates with tech to help customers faster

When surveyed, customers continually respond that they are frustrated by things that waste their time, so take note and consider what investments you can make to give customers an easier and more convenient in-store experience.

One way of doing this is to give sales associates tablets to empower them to rapidly assist customers from anywhere in the store. The UK retailer Oasis does this: their sales associates have tablets that can also act as a POS, so that you can check out from anywhere in the store without having to hike to a checkout and wait in line. Additionally, if a product is out of stock in-store, associates can order the product to be shipped directly to the customer.

There are also lots of other currently feasible ways in which technology can make aspects of the in-store retail experience easier, including: eReceipts, nonstandard payment options (like PayPal or Apple Pay), Near Field Communications, or IoT product/store location beacons.

5. Use customer data to enhance the shopping experience

We know that the omnichannel approach delivers real benefits for customer service, but one of the often-overlooked benefits of going omnichannel is the ability to use the mountains of customer data that retailers accumulate to make decisions and delight customers.

Customer historical data can be fed into algorithms that provide personalized product recommendations, which (when done correctly) boost engagement and purchases. Remember that only between 5-6% of Black Friday / Cyber Monday shoppers making purchases online engaged with personalized recommendations, but those shoppers drove 32% of long weekend revenue. However, if you’re going to offer personalized recommendations, it’s important to offer only timely and relevant recommendations: the last thing you want to do is annoy your customers by spamming them with email urging them to buy products that they don’t want and would never use.

This sort of data can also be used to tailor the shopping experience to meet the preferences of your customers. For instance, Staples noticed that shoppers start looking for online Black Friday deals earlier and earlier, so they’ve started opening up their Black Friday mobile deals at 11pm the night before, so that customers can start looking at deals before doors open in-store at 5am Black Friday morning.

Purchase data can also be analyzed to help businesses make important strategic decisions. For instance, glasses retail chain Warby Parker learned by looking at their customer purchase data that more than three quarters of customers who bought products at their bricks-and-mortar locations had researched products online before coming into the store. As such, Warby Parker began to use the locations of customers purchasing products online to assess opportunities for opening future retail locations.

6. Conduct small-scale tests quickly, so success can be quickly scaled up and failures don’t cost much

Technology is changing customer expectations so quickly that it’s not worth investing in any initiative that has a deployment time measured in years; by the time such a project is deployed, who is to say that it would still be needed or helpful? When testing out new digital initiatives, it’s best to engage in small-scale tests that can be done in one location, so that things that work well can be quickly rolled out to other locations, and failures can be learned from without setting back the brand as a whole.

As Jon Marsella, CEO of Jasper, sensibly advises: “Don’t spend too much, don’t overthink it, don’t look for a total timeline end-to-end that’s anything longer than three months, with the roadmap of a year out in front of you.”

7. Even with experimental channels, always focus on consistency of CX

Whether a customer is buying in-store, from your website, or a new experimental channel, it’s important to make sure that your customer experience is consistent across all channels, and that that customer experience is frictionless. Customers aren’t loyal to channels, or even to brands, they’re loyal to experiences. Some examples of retail chains that are currently dominating in terms of offering consistent, frictionless, multi-channel CX?

  • Nordstrom: The popular retail chain received complaints that the products featured on their Instagram and Pinterest feeds were not easy to find on their site. In response, the retailer integrated their featured items with Like2Buy – an Instagram-integrated online shopping platform. Products are displayed as a grid, which customers can like to add to a wish list or shopping cart.
  • Crate & Barrel: They know that customers shop for their products across multiple devices, which is why their website saves shopping carts while you’re logged in, so that your cart is still accessible when you switch devices. They also have taken care to make typical online activities, like the creation and management of gift registries, easy and accessible over mobile. Customers can use the app to create gift registries online, or they can scan bar-codes in a bricks-and-mortar location to add to a registry.
  • Starbucks: Their app is consistently cited as one of the top omnichannel retail efforts, and runs contrary to the evidence showing that, owing to growing consumer impatience with managing lots of apps, optimized mobile sites are better than apps. The Starbucks app integrates with their loyalty program, and can be used to earn free beverages. It can also be loaded with money and used to pay for orders, or to order products online.


That ties up our series on Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and current online retail trends. We hope you’ve found it informative and actionable. If you’d like to talk with one of our digital engagements about how you can start your omnichannel customer service journey, be sure to contact us. Or ask to see a demo of our digital customer service platform in action.

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About the Author: Anna Kreider