Business Musings: The Digital Retail Space, featuring Omnichannel (Jumping the Digital Divide Part 2)

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We are moving through this pandemic more divided than ever. I’m not talking about politically. I’m talking about economically and with the virus itself.

First, the virus. Access to the vaccine is deeply uneven across the globe. Early on, poorer countries were unable to buy vaccine. Now, the U.S. and E.U. countries (as well as some others) are donating vaccines, but not in large enough numbers.

The world, as an entity, will deal with this pandemic for a long time to come.

Which is just plain weird, when you think that a year ago, we were all pushing against the same terrible enemy in the same way. For one brief moment, the Earth was unified in its fight against Covid.

(In June, NPR ran an opinion piece that pointed out the privilege many in the U.S. and other places are exercising when they indulge their vaccine hesitancy. The author, Junaid Nabi, makes the points better than I ever could.)

Economically, we’re coming out of this pandemic unequally as well. In the richer countries, particularly the U.S, U.K, and E.U, the pandemic exacerbated income inequality and the gap between rich and poor. A lot of people actually fell into poverty.

But those people whose livelihoods were not disrupted by the pandemic put a lot of money into savings. In the U.S., the personal savings rate (personal savings minus disposable income) grew to its highest levels during the pandemic—up 33% in April of 2020, and 27.6% in March of 2021. As of the most recent information I could find states that the personal savings rate in the U.S. is over 12%. It had been under 10% before the pandemic.

There are obvious reasons for the increase in savings. There was a lot less to spend money on during the pandemic. People didn’t go to movies or eat out or take long trips. They cut their expenses, whether they wanted to or not. So the people who still had money socked it away—not for a rainy day, but for the days when they were no longer trapped by a tiny little horribly lethal virus.

That time has come here and in many other places. And financial experts are worried. They think that all the pent-up demand will lead to a rash of spending. What worries financial experts isn’t the spending; it’s that they’re afraid people will overspend.

A survey conducted in February 2021 by McKensie and Company showed that 51% of consumers planned to splurge when they came out of the pandemic. Behavior since has shown that a lot of people are now acting on that plan.

Las Vegas, where I live, is roaring back to life, which surprised all of the experts. After the economic collapse in 2008, this city took years to recover. By the first weeks in June, it became clear that the city might return to prepandemic economic levels within the year. And for those of you who don’t know, much of our economy is based on tourism, so we’re a great bellwether.

Even with the virus surging in July and the return to mask mandates, the boom has continued. People are traveling here. And the mask mandates are working. Our test positivity rate is slowly going down.

Experts are having trouble reconciling the post pandemic trends. The first, which I dealt with last time, is that people are going to do so much more of their shopping and business online. The second is this, the in-person splurge. People are trying to figure out what consumer spending will look like in the 2020s.

In June, WWD (which once was Women’s Wear Daily) spoke to an expert, Michael Renz of EY, on this very topic. (All these initials to hide the old fashioned names. EY used to be called Ernest and Young, which was a financial services firm. That sorta still exists, but the company has since branched out significantly.) Renz’s job description (so 2021) is “global retail technology leader,” which I guess means he studies retail technology on a global scale.

Anyway, he put his finger on what’s been bedeviling other experts. How can consumers continue to spend money online while claiming they want to go back out into the brick-and-mortar world?

In that article, he said this, “…expectations are bifurcating between hyper-convenience and experiential shopping. The former of these accelerated and the latter suffered during the pandemic as consumers sought to minimize risk exposure, but both will assert themselves more as consumers grow in confidence.”

In other words, people want the convenience of online, but they want to shop in stores and retail centers as entertainment. I spoke to a wealthy Gen Z shopper a few weeks ago, and it turned out she had never been in a retail store in her life until she got vaccinated. She found the experience “fun” and she would certainly do it again. She was also shocked at how much she bought because something caught her eye.

The convenience of online won’t go away. Study after study is showing that. People realized how easy it is to order something that they knew they needed and to get it delivered.

On the other hand, they want to experience retail, and find new things. But they want it to have the seamlessness of online shopping. According to Renz:

Retailers could once point to a clear distinction between high-touch physical and high-tech digital retail, but consumers now want the best of both worlds. They want their physical shopping experiences to be augmented by technology to make things easier and they expect the same levels of service and advice in their online shopping experiences. People have talked of omnichannel for over a decade as an aspiration for retail but it’s fast becoming a basic expectation for those who want to thrive in the future.

I had not registered the word “omnichannel” before, so I had to look it up. Every article I saw compared it to “multichannel” so I’ll do the same thing.

As we cobbled together an online world from a purely physical world, it became common to ask, say, a bookstore if it had an online presence. If the bookstore did, it provided a multichannel experience to the consumer. The consumer could buy books in person or they could buy books online, but that didn’t mean the experience was the same or even similar. In fact, in those dark days, we expected the online experience to be harder.

Over the years, lots of retailers added whatever kind of marketing and media they felt they needed. Some were on Instagram and Facebook, others on Twitter and WhatsApp. None of this was seamless and in many cases, much of it got overlooked.

An omnichannel approach integrates all of these things, from the brick-and-mortar store to the social media applications to the online storefront, and makes those experiences seamless and relevant.

From Nobelbiz, which has a great webpage explaining all of this:

The principal way omnichannel and multichannel are different is in integration. Multichannel means doing all the communication channels separately, omnichannel means doing them together, in a single tactic and with a conscientious approach.

I gotta tell you: Every time I read this, I get a little frisson of fear. Dean and I put WMG Publishing together when we realized all we wanted to do was our projects—writing, teaching, and editing. Learning the new tech, figuring out how to properly market, keeping up with the changes in publishing tech took more time than we wanted to spend.

So we hired a staff who does a lot of this, and thanks to our production schedule and their dedication, they’re being run ragged.

So I see something like “seamlessly blending” all of our retail work and I realize just how hard that is going to be.

At the same time, as a consumer, I appreciate an omnichannel approach. I’ve gotten used to it, in a variety of ways. I want to access some things without a lot of thought. I’m really tired of revamping my tech.

I just got rid of a music system in my home because the company decided to upgrade all of their equipment and discontinue the service I was using. So the equipment I bought years ago that worked just fine was not only being discontinued and no longer being supported, it would no longer work at all in their ecosystem.

To replace it would have cost about $800, which they wanted me to spend immediately. I canceled and went with an Alexa because it integrates so many things that I already use. (I’m in the Amazon ecosystem and the Apple ecosystem.)

I opted for an easy omnichannel experience as the multichannel from the other company became not only burdensome, but costly.

I think about these things as I plan our business. But I also know we need to move into the 2020s properly, so that we don’t lose customers.

And I see the opportunity that we’re going to have as the entire culture jumps across the digital divide (as I discussed last time). We no longer have to worry that our customers aren’t going to know how to access our systems.

The online world has become ubiquitous. Now, we’re not trying to convince customers to try new things. We assume they will, just like people will stop at a new brick-and-mortar store.

Now, we need to figure out what will attract the customers. We have to go where they are and find ways to use the changes to benefit us. We need to make the experiences they have with our brand as pleasant as possible.

Each business is different, and the writing/publishing business is very different from, say, a clothing retailer. But we can learn from them, and one thing we will need to learn is the omnichannel approach.

That approach will include the basics of all retail businesses (I took the list off a website which I will link to below. The discussion is all mine, though):

  1. The product…

which, let’s be honest, is the thing that interests all of us the most. A good product will bring in readers no matter what we do right or wrong with all this other crap. However, doing some of this other stuff right will bring in more readers.

  1. Marketing

which includes but is not limited to social media and all other forms of media, including older media.

  1. Sales

which means you need to be where your customers are. If you’re Amazon-only, you are not where your customers are. You’re where Amazon’s customers are. You need to build your own sales in a way that should one of your sales channels vanishes, you can still contact your customers and sell your books.

  1. Customer Support

which means be as responsive as you can. If you’re a one-person shop, you’ll have to be careful with this, because some customers want to be in the middle of what you write and that simply cannot be allowed.

  1. Customer Success

which is what I discussed about that other company above. My experience with them was awful and they sent me a survey (stupid people) in which I told them I would never recommend them to anyone. This, after spending years enjoying what they did. I was an unhappy customer whose experience with them was a complete failure. If you’re setting up an omnichannel experience, you want your customers to enjoy it and have success with it.

It took me a while to completely grasp the omnichannel idea. In fact, it wasn’t until the other night, after I had watched an episode of Loki that I got a hint of what it all meant. I finally clicked on all the buttons next to the description of the episode. I learned some things—many of which I will discuss next time.

Disney+ had set up an easy way to access all of its different options. I didn’t run into any barriers. In fact, it was all so seamless that I almost fell into a situation I didn’t want to be in. But it was just as easy to get out of that situation as it had been to get into it.

Win-win for them, and for me.

The website I mentioned above is HubSpot. It has a lovely list of big name brands that provide a good omnichannel experience. Number one on the list is—no surprise—Disney+. But take a look at the other things here as well. It’s quite an education.

(One note: At some point, I’ll discuss the Disney royalties kerfuffle that happened in publishing in the spring. I’ve been putting it off because I was missing a piece. I have it now, and it has a bit to do with omnichannel thinking. Now that I’ve teased you, I’ll move onto other things.)

I know that as small shops we can’t do all of the same things that Disney or Starbucks can. But we can think about integrating our business into a much more seamless experience. It’ll take work, but it is a wave of the future.

There’s a lot more that we can do, as people combine their physical and online shopping experiences. It used to be nerdy tech outliers that combined online and physical. But now, most people are combining them now will help. And because they’re not techy, they’ll want things to be easy and seamless.

That’s on us. But the nerdy tech people have designed a lot of programs to help us. I’ll probably not get into that weediness. Life’s too short and my brain is not wired that way.

But I did want you to be on the lookout for these changes.

I’ll have more on this next time.


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“Business Musings: The Digital Retail Space, featuring Omnichannels” copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / TarikVision.


1 thought on “Business Musings: The Digital Retail Space, featuring Omnichannel (Jumping the Digital Divide Part 2)

  1. Eek! You said there that ‘we need to move into the 2020s properly, so that we don’t lose customers’. My worry as a customer is that with the move to all this integrated high-tech stuff, I’m going to be lost.

    I hate learning new tech. All my stuff is really old and I use it until it can no longer be repaired. I don’t have a smartphone. There are bank accounts and other services that I can’t have because they’re app-based. I’m dreading the time my HDD recorder finally dies and I’m forced to buy something that streams the Internet.

    I think I’m in the dinosaur minority, though.

    Here comes the meteorite. 🙁

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