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Omnichannel vs multichannel: what’s the difference and which is best for retail success?

May 23rd 2022 ecommerce

Omnichannel vs multichannel: what’s the difference and which is best for retail success?

The modern customer experience is one of ease, personalization, and seamlessness. In a digital-first world, retail customers expect their browsing, purchasing, and product discovery to be tailored to their needs, no matter which sales channel they’re using or which they’ve used in the past. 

The days of having marketing efforts focused on a straightforward, single-channel retail strategy are a distant memory for many companies. Let’s look at omnichannel and multichannel marketing strategies and identify the key differences so you can decide which is the best approach for your business. 

Multichannel, omnichannel…they sound like the same basic thing in terms of customer interactions, right? 

In one sense, they are indeed the same: they both make use of multiple marketing and retail channels, such as in-store shopping, a smartphone app, an online marketplace like, customer support, and social media (e.g., Facebook). 

However, that’s where the similarities end. And beyond that point, there are some pretty major differences.

What’s the difference: multichannel vs omnichannel 

So both strategies can employ multiple sales channels. Then what?

Multichannel: many separate silos

A multichannel retailing strategy uses a number of separate sales channels. These different sales channels may each work perfectly well to guide potential customers in the shopping and buying process, but unfortunately, they exist and operate independently. That means customers may feel like the overall shopping experience with the retailer is clunky and outdated. 

How would a multichannel retailing strategy seem clunky? 

Let’s say a shopper is offered a discount on a product they’ve learned about by clicking on a Facebook ad. Later, they remember the item and go online shopping on the company’s ecommerce platform. Hmm; the Facebook discount doesn’t appear along with their shopping cart at checkout, as the shopper might expect if the shopping experience had been integrated. That’s a potentially disappointing user experience for new customers. 

Maybe they go back and see if they can find that earlier touchpoint, that Facebook ad, but you’ve probably lost some of their enthusiasm (and maybe the sale).

Another multichannel strategy miss: a shopper has bought items from a retailer online in the past, but when they go offline and simply wander into the company’s physical store and step up to the register with a different item, the salesperson asks for their contact information as though they were brand new to the company, instead of pulling up their customer data profile details. That’s annoying, especially in an era of so much personalization.

The multichannel approach is typically product focused, with all the channels using a traditional sales funnel to get customers to buy through the company’s ecommerce site. The focus is on closing deals and onboarding customers.

Omnichannel: many connected routes to a purchase

An omnichannel retail strategy requires that all these channels are connected, that they have a consistent look and feel, and that any or all of them can be used together for a seamless experience, regardless of how the customer learns about the product and ultimately decides to buy it. As opposed to linear multichannel retailing, the buzzword “omnichannel” is centered around engaging with the customer at the particular point where they connect with your brand, then seamlessly meeting their needs as they may pick up different devices and jump among various channels. That’s different from expecting shoppers to follow just one straightforward channel route to purchase. 

If, for instance, a shopper can browse product information, watch a video they find about it on YouTube, and even leave the ecommerce site to mull over their purchasing decision for a few days, all while remaining inside your company’s lead-generation ecosystem, the customer journey becomes more robust. The online sales focus is on engagement with the customer and the overall customer experience, rather than on getting people to quickly buy through a single channel.

An example of an omnichannel marketing strategy

Let’s imagine that Shouze is a footwear retailer that has both multiple brick-and-mortar retail stores and an ecommerce site as its main channels. The company also has a storefront on Instagram, plus its own mobile shopping app. So its four channels include: 

  • Physical store 
  • Ecommerce website 
  • Instagram 
  • Mobile app

These channels are all functioning well independently. However, the branding visuals and message are slightly out of sync across these experiences. And if someone needed to switch from one channel to another, such as go from their mobile device to a physical store, it could be an awkward experience. 

So Shouze could do more to facilitate strong customer experiences and build customer loyalty; it could unify its various channels to more effectively serve its customers. By implementing an omnichannel retail strategy, the retailer could show prospective shoppers a social media ad, offer a discount as they browse Instagram Shopping, and then, later, as they’re downloading the Shouze app, show them the same sandals they’d been checking out earlier with a link to the item page in their online store. 

This kind of customer-centric personalized experience makes people feel like the company is paying attention, subtly “knows them,” and is genuinely making an effort by providing the functionality to optimize the shopping experience.

Another example: if someone buys a pair of Shouze in the company’s brick-and-mortar store, an omnichannel approach would ensure that the shopper is shown similar styles when they’re later browsing the website or poking around in a shopping app.

The benefits of an omnichannel approach 

An omnichannel approach reflects the fact that these days, given all the ways customers could learn about products through various different channels, the typical customer journey may be nonlinear and relatively complex. Effective engagement (and patience?) with the customer as they’re potentially moving among several sales channels is the priority. And a reliable customer experience across channels helps build the appearance of consistent branding.

Statistics back up the fact that shoppers prefer an omnichannel marketing approach. “Companies with omnichannel customer engagement strategies retain on average 89% of their customers, compared to a customer retention rate of 33% for companies with weak omnichannel customer engagement,” according to Invesp. Another reason for online retailers to invest in omnichannel: 50% of digital shoppers cite the convenience of having their profile details available across channels for easy access. 

Easily switch to omnichannel with intelligent search

Moving to an omnichannel strategy can be a bit daunting. Not only do you need to determine which retail channels are relevant to include, you must figure out how to sync each of them with the others so that no matter which ones your customers traverse, they’ll find a similar type of satisfying experience.

No matter the number of channels your business has, you can bring them together and streamline with a centralized search engine that lets you ensure a smooth and consistent customer experience tailored to increasing conversion. Algolia links multiple omni marketing channels through a single search console, which you can then access to create a consistently professional omnichannel experience for your shoppers. Our pricing scales with your needs. To find out how we can help your retail business succeed as a thriving multichannel enterprise, contact our team or start building for free.

About the author
Catherine Dee

Search and Discovery writer


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