Multichannel vs Omnichannel – What to call the seamless customer experience?

November 11, 2014 2:13 pm

Multichannel vs Omnichannel – What to call the seamless customer experience?

“Our customers don’t think about ‘I shop at retail’, or ‘I shop online’… they just look at a brand.” – Mike Durbridge, B&Q.

“Customers no longer think about shopping in terms of multiple channels. For them, the whole shopping experience should be absolutely seamless and it should be absolutely holistic.” – Simon Belsham, Tesco.

“They shop with the brand. They don’t shop with any one channel.” – Mark Lewis, John Lewis.

We heard this idea echoed a lot at the 2014 Internet Retailing Conference, with speakers going on to talk about the user experience as ‘Multichannel’ or, more often, ‘Omnichannel’.

These terms became the buzzwords of IRC2014, but after listening to so many retailers talking about this, a few questions came to mind:

  • What are the differences between the two?
  • Do retailers understand the differences or are they jumping on the omni-channel bandwagon?
  • Most importantly, what does this mean for the users?

It’s clear why it’s so important to get it right when designing the user-experience across different channels and touchpoints. Customers don’t think too much about transacting online or in store – they’re thinking about the brand they’re buying from and the service they’re receiving. So however they choose to interact with the brand, the user experience has got to make that process simple and effective, whatever strategy the retailer chooses to follow.

“Multichannel is about putting customers at the heart of everything we do.”

Simon Belsham of Tesco mentioned that many people believe the term ‘Multichannel’ is “obsolete”. Nevertheless, Belsham avoided the word ‘omnichannel’ and went on to say that multi-channel is all about creating a “Seamless experience across multiple touchpoints”. Stores, online, mobile, home delivery, click and collect and social media are the building blocks of multichannel. And multichannel is how all of these building blocks connect to connect the brand with the customer.

Mark Lewis, Online Director at John Lewis, also talked about a “Fully integrated and seamless customer journey across all touchpoints.” But in this case, he was talking about omnichannel. Multichannel, on the other hand, was described as “This concept of having multiple channels that sit next to each other”. He explained that customers are no longer satisfied with each channel running parallel to each other, but now expected this interconnected, omnichannel experience.

Andy Harding, the Executive Director of Multi-Channel at House of Fraser, took a difference stance on the topic, disagreeing with the idea of ‘omnichannel’, and standing by ‘multichannel’. He explained that each channel adds individuality to the customer journey, and so should be unique, rather than providing the same offering on each channel. Interestingly, he went on to talk about how House of Fraser are encouraging in-store shoppers to use the mobile app whilst shopping to increase customer engagement with added functionality like buy and collect check-in.

So if seamlessly integrating the mobile experience with the in-store experience isn’t omnichannel, maybe the difference is that multichannel channels are unique, whilst omnichannel channels are all the same…?!

B&Q’s Omni-Channel Director, Mike Durbridge, opened his talk by stating:

“Omnichannel is very much about making it consistent and giving a consistent experience for customers across channels. That doesn’t mean that every channel has got to be the same but you have to give a consistent experience that joins it up between all the different touchpoints in the channels.”

So omnichannel does not mean every channel is the same…

Different retailers clearly have different ideas about what makes a customer experience omni-channel or multi-channel, and which one is best. But listening to the different views and definitions only adds to the confusion between the two.

Omnichannel is the evolution of multichannel

Maybe the inconsistency in terminology is not the result of confusion, or of retailers looking for a new buzz-word to one-up competitors. Instead, it could be that the lines between multichannel and omnichannel are becoming as blurred as the lines between the touchpoints they describe.

Customers have become used to interacting with a brand in store, online, on mobile and through social media. As a result, retailers are finding more and more ways to enhance the customer experience, moving towards blending the channels together to provide one seamless experience. Retailers aren’t necessarily jumping away from multichannel to omnichannel, but multichannel is becoming more seamless to meet and exceed customer expectations. In that sense, omnichannel could be seen as the evolution of multichannel. As a lot of retailers appear to be at some point along the spectrum between the two, it’s understandable that they can’t decide what to call it.

But what does all this mean for the users?

As mentioned before, a point that comes up time and time again is that customers don’t think in terms of channels. They think about the brand, the price, the product, the service and the experience. Maybe there are differences between multichannel and omnichannel and everything in between, but what really matters is delivering the best user experience across every channel and making sure the service evolves along with customer needs and expectations. If you can get that right, it doesn’t really matter what you call it.