By John Tait, Global Managing Director, TNS Payments Market
A ruler who is all-powerful is said to be “omnipotent,” while deities who are all-knowing are “omniscient.” And retailers with both online and brick-and-mortar storefronts, and maybe even a mobile app? Well, that used to be considered “omnichannel” — but, these days, a truly omnichannel approach in retail means more than simply having all of the channels. Now, it’s more important what retailers do with those channels for their customers, and how well each channel interconnects with another.
Three characteristics that now define omnichannel retail include:
- A seamless customer experience across all channels: Ensuring a consistent shopping and buying experience for customers, no matter where or how they interact with a brand, is key to omnichannel success. For example, whether customers browse inventory or menus online, on social media, or in a store, they should see the same options and pricing, as well as the same brand imagery, colours and descriptions, across all platforms.
This requires (among other things) that inventory and payments systems are connected to and can communicate with both physical stores and online storefronts — websites, apps, even social media — in real-time, so customers always see consistent and up-to-date information on stock and pricing. Cloud-based inventory management systems can provide the inventory control, order management, and eCommerce integration needed to manage both online and offline orders.
Additionally, as lines between physical and digital worlds blur, customers now desire in-store experiences that mimic what they expect when shopping online. For example, retailers can issue point-of-purchase discounts if customers scan a QR code with their phone in a store, as a parallel to the digital discount codes shoppers can use when checking out online. Or stores can offer customers the option to purchase from an “endless aisle,” wherein shoppers can order out-of-stock products from a kiosk or an associate, instead of being confined to the inventory in a single physical store.
- Personalisation and customisation: In a digital-first world, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking shoppers are no more than their credit card number, but that’s a mistake. In fact, today’s consumers crave personalisation — maybe even more so than in pre-eCommerce days. Any retailer that can transcend the impersonal, transactional nature of eCommerce and online ordering can score big with customers.
Some brands offer a somewhat personalised digital shopping experience by recommending related items or add-ons when a consumer adds something to their cart, or by triggering pop-up coupons based on the items a shopper is browsing. Creating a more personalised digital experience, however, requires connecting a website or app with digital engagement tools like customer relationship management (CRM) programs. That allows retailers to recommend targeted items based on a customer’s own previous purchases or individual browsing history; send them deals or coupon codes for their birthday, and offer special promotions to reward their brand loyalty.
Connecting with customers through personalisation and perks can happen in-store, too, of course. Examples include self-service kiosks that allow customers to place and customise a food order; perks for loyalty program members who show their digital or physical loyalty card at check-out; and discounts for shoppers who check in on social media.
Retailers also can employ location tracking, geotargeting, and beacon technology to push information on discounts, promotions, events, and more to customers’ phones as they arrive at or move around a store; the caveat is customers must have consented to receive notifications and/or have a brand’s app downloaded.
- Omnichannel payments acceptance: In an omnichannel retail environment, retailers must accept a multitude of payment types; after all, giving a shopper the option of using their preferred payment method is a form of personalisation.
While cash will never go away altogether, it may lose some of its appeal for shoppers who have other, more hygienic options. Some merchants even stopped accepting cash during the pandemic; in a survey of global retailers from market research firm Euromonitor, 26% of respondents whose company has stopped accepting cash expect it to be a permanent change.
Credit and debit cards likewise aren’t going anywhere, but these days, many customers are comfortable using contactless payment methods (Apple Pay and Google Pay) or digital payments apps (Venmo, Square, and PayPal). With cash’s star on the wane, contactless methods are set to continue growing in popularity, and retailers with legacy point-of-sale (POS) systems must modernise to be able to accept contactless payments.
Apart from how they pay, shoppers also want more options for where they pay. Many consumers now choose to buy online, pick up in-store (BOPIS), and retailers are taking notice; QSR chains Taco Bell and Chipotle both recently debuted their first digital-only stores, which allow customers to order ahead on an eCommerce site or mobile app and grab their meal from a designated area inside a store. Concepts like these require eCommerce/app storefronts that are set up to handle — and securely and compliantly process — a variety of digital payments options (credit and debit cards, PayPal, e-gift cards, etc.).
Alternatively, some shoppers browsing online choose to reserve or order items and then pay when they get to a store, either inside or at curbside pickup. A previously uncommon retail strategy, curbside pickup surged 208% during the pandemic, and it is unlikely consumers will stop making use of this convenience. Retailers, therefore, need to be able to extend their payments network infrastructure beyond their store’s four walls, because curbside/mobile POS systems need the same connectivity speeds, compliance protocols (e.g., PCI DSS), and security measures as indoor POS systems.
Supporting Omnichannel with a Technology Foundation
Euromonitor notes “technology will be the key factor for addressing new consumer behaviour” in the retail sector, particularly to support personalisation and digital offerings. Because a retailer’s networking infrastructure provides the foundation for all other technology, getting this element right is critical to omnichannel success.
Modernised alternatives to legacy networks like software-defined wide-area networking (SD-WAN) can offer the flexibility, scalability, resilience, and high uptime that omnichannel retail environments need to succeed. SD-WAN uses software to route network traffic over the fastest path across multiple connections and can segment traffic flow to prioritise business-critical data. It’s efficient, yet highly reliable, even when the same network has to support multiple high-bandwidth applications.
SD-WAN can securely connect branches to any application (whether hosted in the data centre or the cloud) across any wide-area network (WAN) connectivity. Its ability to expand connectivity allows retailers to take payments in more places: mobile POS systems, outdoor terminals, automated fuel dispensers (AFDs), self-service kiosks, or tablets with payments app hardware attached.
Because it uses IPSec tunnelling, the connectivity layer (MPLS, broadband, LTE, etc.) is only for transport; data on the network travels from site to site, or from device to device, fully encrypted. Plus, some options are PCI DSS compliant — so retailers don’t need a payments network infrastructure that is separate from the rest of the network in order to comply — and offer additional security protections that protect card data for both eCommerce and in-person purchases, such as anti-virus protection with anti-malware and spyware; URL filtering and TLS packet inspection; dynamic policy management; and regular firmware updates.
In the modern retail environment, better network performance translates into a better customer experience. SD-WAN removes the silos between different networks, connectivity types, and data repositories (including the cloud), allowing retailers to interconnect all online and in-store systems and build out an omnichannel strategy that drives brand loyalty.
The Future is Omnichannel
A true omnichannel approach is more than just a combination of stores, website and app. To engage customers and ensure a seamless purchasing experience, all of a brand’s channels, platforms, and touchpoints must be integrated, connected, and consistent — while also offering personalisation and a plethora of secure payments options.
The future is always uncertain, and retail environments grow more complex all the time. But with smart new strategies, and the technology systems and infrastructure to support them, retailers can connect with new and returning customers and provide an experience that keeps them coming back — in-store and online.