In the flurry of post-holiday gift returns I found myself holding my wife’s purse while she inspected a set of wine glasses at the mall. We had been gifted with a set of glasses from this store, but my bride said they were too big. I had never found that to be a problem with wine glasses before, but I nodded and agreed that the smaller glasses would be more suitable.
We wanted to increase the quantity to eight glasses, and there were only six in stock at the store. So, we decided to make the return in store and order the replacements online. To my astonishment, this entire transaction was fast and pleasant, leaving us glad that we had come to this brick and mortar location.
As I returned the purse to its rightful owner, I began to describe to her what had just happened. “Dear, we just blended our online and off-line shopping behavior into an omni-channel experience made possible by seamless inventory visibility. This brick and mortar location is still valuable and we’ve decided to remain loyal to this brand – at least for the time being.” Her reply was more of a facial expression than spoken words. But, she’s known me for a long time.
I suspect my experience was not unique. A few million times each day, customers make a decision to shop to identify a product, locate sufficient inventory of the product, purchase the product and await delivery or pick-up the product in the store. Whether these phases of the transaction occur online, on the phone or in a store is a function of how critical and time-sensitive the need is, the convenience and location of the store and the comparative cost of pick-up in store versus shipping.
I may choose to browse products and shop online, call the store to verify some attribute of the product and pickup in the store to get immediate gratification. This blending of off-line and online commerce behaviors is called omni-channel commerce.
The term omni-channel was probably first used by a consultant getting paid to predict the future of how business will be done. It wasn’t very clear or descriptive and did little to inspire confident IT or business process investments. But, that experience at the mall sealed it for me. I had lived through the seamless blending of my experience in the store with the satisfaction of shopping online.
Turning to auto parts, think about your customer for a minute. For one thing, there is no distinction between a consumer and a commercial customer. A B2B customer is simply a B2C customer who is at work. Their product need may be urgent and time-sensitive because the vehicle is down. Or, they may be in no particular hurry because the project will keep until the weekend.