How retailers deal with the omni-channel challenge varies greatly, as do opinions on how to integrate strategies for online, mobile and physical transactions.

Tamara Saucier, vice president of market development at TradeCard, a New York-based collaboration and trade platform, said that while some retailers had a long way to go, others were already demonstrating highly effective omni-channel approaches in their store environments, and reaping the rewards of increased customer satisfaction.

"Look at Under Armour for example. Not only a great online presence but they have great retail spaces that are full of energy, really motivated sales staff who contribute significantly to a customer's experience," she said. This is translating into sales: Under Armour increased net revenues in the fourth quarter of 2012 to US$506 million, up 25% from the same period in 2011.

TradeCard founder and chairman Kurt Cavano added: "If you look at retailers who are successful, it's because they are engaging their customers. We work with several athletic shoe manufacturers who offer custom design programmes. Customers can design their own shoes online and get them shipped directly to their home.

"Bauer Hockey is another example, offering personalised hockey sticks that are engraved in Asia and shipped to the US. There is a hugely complex and critical chain behind that, that requires real-time connectivity to work, and many legacy systems just aren't up to that. You can't promise something if you can't deliver on it," he said.

Engaging with omni-channel may even include a choice not to participate in e-commerce.

"Many international brands do not sell online and this could also be due to a variety of complex commercial relationships. But where companies are saying ‘we are not ready to launch an e-commerce site', the reason is either financial (it's too expensive) or because they are not confident of guaranteeing the same level of customer experience through an e-commerce platform," said Susan Olivier, vice president of consumer goods and retail industry systems software provider Dassault Systèmes.

This is especially so for luxury brands, she said, who might reap greater benefits from in-store personalised experiences with their clients.

Maintaining loyalty
"The challenge is maintaining loyalty across a diverse set of experiences (retail store, online or tablet). The experience provided must be consistent," emphasised TradeCard's Saucier.

A 2012 report into British high street mainstream retailers by UK customer experience agency Webcredible analysed the omni-channel customer experience offered by retailers including Topshop, Marks & Spencer, John Lewis and others.

It highlights the exponential growth in the uptake of mobile devices and how retailers are catering to these connected customers. The most successful apps and websites, according to the report, are those that provide a consistent experience and have been optimised for various devices, from desktop computers to mobile phones and tablets. 

Importantly, the report highlights that omni-channel may mean not offering everything at every level to every customer.

For some retailers it may be a case of convenience, price and instant ordering. For others it may simply be an enhancement of the brand image or value, provoking a visit to the physical store where sales assistants might still be the most effective commercial tool for a particular product.

This implies a thorough understanding of customers, an area where retailers are letting themselves down, according to Olivier.

"One of the things that few companies do well, (and omni-channel is the perfect ‘unlock' for this), is really understanding who their customers are. Loyalty card back-end systems are often not connected to online or store data so they don't have a good perspective on the demographics of their customers, nor do they tailor sales to them," she said.

Tailored sales must also be accompanied by effective delivery and after-sales services to maintain customer loyalty and this might mean significant crossover between online systems and physical stores.

Department store retailer John Lewis, for example, has an established network of physical locations that include the Waitrose supermarket chain, where customers can pick up fashion items ordered online using the ‘Click & collect' service.

The retailer has also launched a free collection service through an agreement with CollectPlus. The move was prompted by the success of Click & collect, according to Karen Dracou, John Lewis' head of omni-channel development. She said orders had doubled through the service in the last year. And customers can now return their purchases after hours via a network of thousands of late-opening convenience stores and newsagents linked to CollectPlus.

Going the extra mile
Going the extra mile in this way is critical given the importance of customer satisfaction with sales and service for winning over and maintaining today's fickle online consumer.

According to a 2012 Online Apparel Retailers Customer Satisfaction Report by US-based JD Power and Associates, even though younger customers in the 18-24 age group are firstly driven by price when making online apparel purchases, a large proportion of these shoppers (nearly a third) are influenced by third-party reviews of the brand or by recommendations from people they trust, such as friends, colleagues or family.

This is less so for older age groups, who tend to rely on past experiences with the brand.

The study rated American retailer LL Bean as the most satisfactory online apparel retailer for customers who participated in the survey. LL Bean offers a nationwide free shipping service and both online and mobile purchasing and browsing that includes special offers, gift cards, a live help chatline as well as a request for a call or email form to resolve customer queries.

Click on the links below to read other chapters in this management briefing:
Omni-channel retail: The rapid rise of multi-channel
Omni-channel retail: Technology and logistics
Omni-channel retail: Online shopping platforms