Omni-channel services may be delivering, but they can be complex and, as a result, apparel companies ignore the need to maintain and enhance complex logistics and technology at their peril.

The goal is delivering a seamless omni-channel experience for apparel buying consumers and if the tech doesn't work, the sales aren't made.

Nikki Baird, managing partner of US-based retail technology analysis firm Retail Systems Research (RSR), said that many executive committees were so focused on their brand, products and customers that they paid scarce attention to the issue of their technology architecture.

"Our better-performing retailers look at inventory as one and the same thing. ‘If I can capture the demand I can figure out the cost,' they say. The killer applications are those that are giving you the possibility to surf the store inventory, reach in and grab the item that the customer wants and deliver it," she said.

Collaboration and trade platform TradeCard's Tamara Saucier agrees, saying that while the seamless customer experience between devices and environments is key to successful omni-channel retailing, integrating back-end systems posed a huge challenge to retailers.

"Think about the enormous number of labels that don't just have a website and mobile shopping but also participate in a marketplace like Amazon. They have to have tremendous low-level visibility - price, colour and sizes of not only what's in the warehouse, but throughout the supply chain.

"Enterprise legacy solutions are one of the biggest challenges to accomplishing this. Most were invented 15 years ago, they were meant to just reside inside the company and are very 'silo'. What businesses like these need is a robust cloud solution that allows people to get on and get off with tremendous flexibility and a network approach that allows multiple partners to be agile in their interactions," she said.

Clear advantages of cloud
Cloud systems - essentially software served over a network - have clear advantages for small and medium sized businesses looking for flexible solutions to omni-channel retailing, according to TradeCard's director of marketing communications Bryan Nella.

"Cloud services allow small businesses to eliminate the problems and costs related to deploying physical infrastructure, storage systems or software. The pay-as-you-go model is also a key value add. You only pay for what you use. That's important to a small business.

"From a supply chain perspective, small businesses can rely on cloud to connect with trading partners on different continents to share information and files. As business increases, cloud services are elastic - so the resources are there when you need them to support growth," he said.

Baird said that while software vendors were aggressively marketing their cloud-based systems to prevent the risk of retailers shopping around later, the power of cloud computing was not always fully understood by retailers.

"Most retailers have a very traditional point of view about deploying technology and that is a licence model where they can bring it behind the firewall and manage their own code. But deploying technology in this way reduces your ability to react," she said.

Trailblazing Burberry
One standout example of an omni-channel retailer who has ‘pulled off the transformation' according to Baird and many other analysts, is Burberry, widely recognised as a trailblazer in the integration of its physical and digital customer experiences.

Burberry features in the top-five of Facebook and Twitter indexes prepared by San Francisco-based Stylophane, a marketing company that tracks the social media activity of all major fashion brands based on their likes by fans, comments and posts.

Burberry recently launched a new flagship store in Regent Street, London, as a blended physical and digital shopping experience. This includes some wow-factor digital features such as interactive mirrors triggered by the RFID (radio frequency identification) chip in some garments, maxi-screening of collection presentations or ‘background' value-add videos and roaming sales assistants with iPads that can call up a customer's personal preferences on demand.

But Burberry also offers a consistent digital experience with an interactive website (you can design your own bespoke trench coat and buy it directly from the site).

There is also the possibility of opening a My Burberry account that records preferences and ‘wish lists' for customers, information that is served across devices including the sales assistants' iPads in store. Burberry posted its best sales for several years last year with a 24% increase in revenues.

Personalised shopping experiences
As the Burberry case demonstrates, technology now offers the possibility to increasingly personalise the shopping experience. This is particularly the case for ‘high touch' fields that could offer ‘opt-in' personalised shopping, according to Olivier.

"Entering a store, for example, the chip of my loyalty card could alert a personal shopper to my presence. They might greet me and make suggestions based on what I have bought previously. We have some clients who are already piloting these systems," said Olivier, although she acknowledged that these applications could touch on delicate privacy issues and had to be conceptualised as ‘opt-in' choices on the part of the client.

"Companies who find these most valuable are the upper end of the luxury market with customers who value the ‘high touch' experience and are quite comfortable with sales associates knowing who they are and what they like," she said.

A revolutionary technology for this level of customer experience has been RFID tagging that has already revolutionised supply chain management and inventory visibility for hundreds of major retailers such as Walmart, JC Penney and Marks & Spencer.

More recently RFID has been used to track shopper behaviour in-store and react to devices like 3D interactive mirrors, but integration of customer data and the development of more detailed customer demographics using RFID has been slow to develop, hindered in many cases by privacy concerns and legislation, especially in Europe.

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: Integrating and evolving online strategies
Omni-channel retail: Online shopping platforms