There are few things in American pop culture more beloved than the Blue Light Special. Ask anyone in the United States over a certain age about it, and chances are you’ll get a smile and some happy childhood memories. The Blue Light Special was one of the greatest retail inventions. In the mid- to late-20th century, shoppers at the discount department store chain K-Mart would see a bright, spinning police light in a certain area of the store that would announce a special sale of a certain item for a very limited time — for as long as that blue light was on.
Shoppers would rush over to wherever the light was, and even if the sale item was something they didn’t necessarily want or need, the spontaneity and limited time of the sale would often influence an on-the-spot purchase. This all might sound quaint in the early 21st century, but the Blue Light Special was not unlike what the online ‘flash sale’ is like today. The bright light, the limited time, the rush of shoppers trying to get to the merchandise — it all sounds very ‘omnichannel,’ doesn’t it?
I was just reading a news item about a study from Juniper Research that reports that by 2020, retailers will spend US$ 2.5 billion on the IoT, up from the US$ 670 million it estimates they will spend over the course of the current year. The reason is that retailers are creating ecosystems that will combine beacons and wearable technologies and even in-store tablets, so the sales associate helping you find that perfect jacket also becomes the cashier — an instant point of sale. Those retail ecosystems will appeal to all your senses and, more importantly, be available to you wherever you are and whenever you want to shop. Seamlessness and simplicity are retail qualities that everyone talks about but not everyone has achieved.
I co-founded Skava (now an Infosys company), an innovative firm that has brought the omnichannel retail experience to new levels of seamlessness and simplicity. During Oracle OpenWorld 2015, Skava’s co-founder, Sudha Varadarajan, spoke about the one thing that should be on top of every retailer’s mind: giving consumer’s the best experience. Our solutions portfolio, including smart zones, search, mobile merchandising, customer recommendations, registrations, and wish lists is helping many retailers do just that. During last year’s ‘Black Friday’ peak, the combined client traffic of Skava experienced five million page views per hour.
We keep hearing a lot about ‘creating’ or ‘making’ a consumer experience that combines so many digital channels because that’s the future of retailing. Remember when bookstores went out of business because they didn’t have a good online strategy? And then online booksellers started to slump because consumers missed the experience of browsing through dusty bookstores and coming upon a unique book? That’s the essence of omnichannel commerce: when a retailer creates the optimal experience for the shopper whether it’s on a mobile device or within a bricks-and-mortar outlet. The experience is a seamless and simple one whenever and wherever it happens.
Combining all those channels isn’t easy. It got me thinking about how a famous restaurateur made headlines last week when he declared that he would institute a ‘no-tipping’ policy in all of his company’s 13 gourmet restaurants. At first, consumers complained that the policy was a ploy to raise prices across the board. But then the CEO made an interesting point: tipping is an outdated custom. A ‘no-tipping’ policy places the onus on the servers, cooks, hostesses, and other employees of each restaurant to provide outstanding service – every time. After all, consumers pay a flat rate for a digitally coordinated car service like Uber to pick them up. They don’t expect to ride in dirty taxis with unpredictable service, and tip the driver when the experience is otherwise (or surpasses your expectations).
The restaurant example is just one example, where the consumer browses for reviews online, make a reservation from her smartphone, ride to the restaurant in, yes, a car service like Uber, and comment on the meal in real-time across social media outlets. With coverage like that, you can bet the onus is on the restaurant to deliver dazzling service and excellent food. That’s because the various tools and features in a typical suite of omnichannel products places the enterprise and the consumer on equal footing, and through analytics and Big Data, empowers the business to improve its relationship with its consumers every step of the way.
Just as K-Mart’s Blue Light Special of the 1970s kept shoppers excited, so do perfectly developed omnichannel retail experiences. Better still, omnichannel commerce works so well because it keeps shoppers engaged AND retailers on their feet – with ever rising expectations on service and experiences — wherever those experiences might take place.