By Connie Spencer-Adams
The move toward the omnichannel sales model has become nearly inexorable for American retailers as more customers expect a seamless user experience between in-store, online and mobile interactions with businesses.
While going omnichannel has been the end goal for most large retail corporations for more than a decade, many well-established, resource-heavy enterprises have been unsuccessful in their attempts to truly unify these cross-channel integrations. The key problem lies in the use and availability of data. "Unified commerce" requires – and by definition is – the seamless integration of all customer, product and inventory data to facilitate a friction-free customer experience whether in-store, online or via mobile sales channels.
It may indeed be that these business paragons are so well-established—and their processes and systems so entrenched—that they are held back from achieving truly unified commerce. On the other hand, smaller, local merchants may be more flexible in adopting unified commerce technologies that facilitate better customer experiences – if their MLSs can show them how profitable such a move may be and can educate them about the available platforms.
The need for a unified commerce platform that integrates payments, customer data, product information, accurate pricing across all sales portals, and loyalty/marketing offers is a generally recognized need in modern retail. But change is always painful, and such a sweeping sea-change even more so.
Since even payments giants such as Mastercard and Visa had to eventually soften their deadline for universal EMV-card-enabled payments at gas stations in the United States due to huge problems relating to the cost and hassle the implementation created for merchants, you might imagine that a potentially problematic change such as adopting new unified commerce platforms may be years or even decades away for many American merchants. However, this doesn't seem to be the case. According to a recent BRP study, an astonishing 81 percent of retailers will be using unified commerce platforms by the end of 2020 in order to support a customer base that increasingly expects to shop and buy seamlessly across brick-and-mortar locations, mobile platforms and on the web. This is up from just 9 percent two years ago and 28 percent last year. I think you could safely say this is the way the wind is blowing for American merchants.
As data integration improves and becomes more commonplace via APIs and unified commerce platforms, the potential exists for merchants to benefit from greatly enhanced fraud-prevention processes and capability. This may be based on artificial intelligence and machine-learning data, such as how long it typically takes a user to type in his/her password when logging into an online store, or even analyzing the rhythm of the keystrokes or "listening" to the patterns of touch-screen taps.
Security-enhancing and CX-streamlining technologies are often pioneered in the payments industry, where RFI-enabled payments devices are now common for large events such as the World Cup and the Olympics. Some U.S. sports stadiums have embraced cashless payments technology, and even mobile order-ahead capability, for concessions and other in-stadium purchases.
Facial-recognition-authorized payments have been online in China and other locations since last year, though they are still somewhat clunky and more time-consuming than traditional card- or cash-based payments.
Amazon Go and others are toying with handprint-recognition-authenticated payments, which seems to have the potential to become the default authentication and payments method of the not-so-distant future, balancing speed and convenience with a rapid, satisfying customer checkout process and unimpeachable security. Of course, this on-site model will have to be developed into more universally adopted, mobile-friendly, and web-capable versions in order to not subvert the ultimate unified commerce goal of a seamless, friction-free customer experience across all platforms.
It may seem that this sea change toward a unified commerce experience is relevant only for huge corporations with a gigantic sales presence online and offline. However, even for local merchants, whatever strides MLSs can urge them to take toward seamless integration of online and offline customer interactions will help them stand out in an increasingly competitive market space.
Here are a few examples of local merchants embracing the move toward unified commerce:
There was some hint of the potential need for customer service along these lines with early phoned-in (or mail in) orders to local grocers, who hired delivery boys for "regular customers." However, today's busy merchants know every second counts when you play a volume game and are competing with mega corporations, and a seamless purchase experience trumps industrial-level pricing.
When customers can input their own orders, special requests, and payment info, and when they can arrange delivery or pickup details themselves or via a third party, it's a much more frictionless process. This creates not only a time-savings for the merchant but a better user experience for today's customer who may not necessarily want to talk to a live human to place an order or pay for items.
Unified commerce, done properly with integrated consumer and merchant data, allows for more than convenience for the customer. It allows merchants to target past, current and potential customers with customized, relevant marketing offers, which a growing number of consumers expect from merchants they like.
If merchants' loyalty programs or email marketing campaigns involve offering products or services that customers have already purchased, for example, they will inadvertently reveal to customers that they don't actually know their customers, and likely lose their business.
Starbucks, after at least two reboots of its loyalty program and integrated payments platform, has over 16 million members signed up and demonstrates the value of a convenient, order-ahead and pick-up system that works seamlessly to integrate in-store and mobile customer, product and marketing/loyalty data.
Of course, local merchants without heavy expectations of being mobile-friendly, or without established online stores and sales models, may be slower to recognize the need to adopt unified commerce platforms, especially if this step involves new POS hardware, new payments systems, or complicated API or software integrations.
However, today's customers increasingly expect a robust online presence for even small, local retailers; merchants who heed the clarion call to embrace this revolutionary, data-rich technology will reap the rewards … and so will you if you bring it to them.
Connie Spencer-Adams is vice president of partnerships at Womply, a leading software and API partner to the payments industry and the top provider of front-office software to small businesses. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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