In order to succeed in the increasingly competitive e-commerce environment brands need to ensure that they have effectively adopted all components of the interactive shopping journey, both online and in-store, to deliver consistently across multiple platforms and communication channels, otherwise known as the omni-channel experience, which is fast becoming an industry standard, says Steve Jones, head of Marketing and User Experience at Fontera Digital Works.

In light of the already saturated environment, retailers need to adopt synchronised customer care, cross channel inventory, a definitive price matching policy, flexible return process, variable fulfilment options and multiple payment methods.

These are not necessarily industry based innovations and are instead the demands of the increasingly experienced global shopper, who recognise that they should have access to these “fully functional” options at their fingertips.

The consumer of today expects to be provided with integrated retail service across multiple channels, which include online to home delivery, ordering and purchasing online for in-store collection, ordering and paying online and then collecting in-store, and buying in-store for delivery at home. As a result, the omni-channel retail purchasing approach has become a crucial part of online customer retail service.

In South Africa the retail market is undergoing a significant transformation as industry players realise that implementing online shopping platforms to keep up with consumer needs will increase their competitive edge.

The merging of digital and physical selling channels into a single customer experience is essential for businesses to maintain their competitive advantage, because as omni-channel technology evolves, so do customer’s needs, behaviours, expectations and their tolerance for “below average” online shopping sites.

The way physical storefront businesses used to dictate to the customer is long gone. Before the inception of the e-commerce era, opening up a store used to be “easy”. All that would need to be done was to find a decent location, fill the store with stock, market the products/services and sell to customers who came into the store.

The Internet changed this model almost instantaneously as nowadays consumers not only make in-store purchases, but they browse stores’ online sites for products to purchase.

It is not as easy to manage an online store as it is to manage a physical store as it requires significantly more hard work to run. Omni-channel retail requires developing IT systems and processes to support customers that shop both in stores and online from computers and mobile computers, such as smartphones and tablets.

The retailer’s value chain needs to evolve in order to stay competitive. Furthermore, physical stores used to compete only with other stores within the catchment area, now platforms operating in the online space have much more international online competition than before.

The rule of thumb in omni-channel use is to deploy the Website first and the store second. There is a tendency to rely on the technology to do all the heavy lifting, when in fact, the store, mobile, e-commerce, Blog, e-mailers, customer care, social media, data mining and marketing platforms are all interconnected. In order to ensure that the consumer’s needs are met these channels all work seamlessly together.

The integration and development of a successful “omni-channel experience” relies much more on the ‘people’ strategy than the online strategy. Once it is determined why omni-channel deployment is necessary for the business, the correct people who are able to carry out the job can then be determined.

In order to get all these elements working together is a complex task as it takes deep thinking, disruption and evolution across the value chain, vision and passion, investment and commitment to improve the customer experience on a daily basis. The implementation of this system will however help to retain cliental.

Whatever your approach is to starting an online store, one thing is for certain – at a time of unprecedented change, unbelievable technology and armies of people who want and expect more, the implementation of an efficient omni-channel approach is essential for business growth.