Omnichannel Retail Brings Together Online and Offline Shopping

CIOs are merging online and offline retail to retain customers and reclaim the shopping experience. It's a strategy called 'omnichannel retail'--but it's a long and expensive journey.

The smell of the perfume, the drape of the fabric, the grain of the leather--these sensory experiences are about the only advantage that brick-and-mortar retailers have over online stores when trying to sell merchandise.

[Related: Retail CIOs Need to Step Up Their Game]

Unfortunately for traditional stores, today's shopper carries a smartphone that allows her to scan the price tag in the store and then buy the same thing online for less. The phenomenon, called "showrooming," causes store managers to harrumph about the "scan and scram" shopper.

But what if physical stores had both: the sensory experience of a boutique plus the click-click shopping efficiency and seemingly endless inventory of Amazon.com? What if a sales associate could use a mobile device to order a garment in a different color or size right when the shopper is in the dressing room?

Many of the bellwether retail companies, such as The Home Depot, Lowe's, Macy's, Nordstrom, Sears and Staples, are spending millions of dollars on IT to bring online capabilities into stores. The tactics include adding in-store Web kiosks, arming sales associates with mobile devices such as iPads, and (paradoxically) encouraging shoppers to use their smartphones in the store.

But this approach is only one step toward an even more ambitious goal that pundits call "omnichannel" retail, which unites physical stores, e-commerce, mobile and social selling into one seamless experience for the customer.

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