Steve Jobs once famously said that his job was to figure out what consumers want before they know they want it. As was often the case, Jobs was ahead of his time. This concept of starting with a deep understanding of the customer (at times more deeply even than they understand themselves) and building from that point is also the basic premise of retail’s latest technological and philosophical movement — unified commerce.
“Unified commerce isn’t just about implementing a platform,” said Justin Racine, Principal for Unified Commerce Strategy at digital consultancy Perficient in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “It’s about figuring out what your customers and employees want and then aligning those expectations back to pieces of technology that deliver on that promise.”
The exact definition of unified commerce, and in particular its relationship to the idea of “omnichannel,” varies depending on who you ask. Some see it as the next evolution of omnichannel, others as the technical underpinnings that make true omnichannel experiences possible. Either way, the goal is to bring the total shopping experience, across every channel, closer to customers’ expectations — and even anticipate expectations they don’t yet have.
“Customers don’t think about channels,” said Penny Gillespie, VP and Analyst at Gartner in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “They just want what they want when they want it. It’s pretty simple, but it requires extreme collaboration across all the potential [channels] and technologies that touch a consumer to be successful.”
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Executing on the Omnichannel Vision
“The omnichannel vision is that through any channel or touch point, a customer is able to see the right products, the right pricing, the right promotions, the right availability, the right order information — that is the outcome you want to achieve, and unified commerce is how you get there,” noted Joseph Harouni, Connected Commerce Practice Lead at digital experience consultancy Hero Digital in an interview with Retail TouchPoints.
While this isn’t necessarily a new aspiration for brands and retailers, delivering on it has always been hard — and it’s even tougher now. But it’s something that almost every company operating on the consumer-facing side of retail must undertake. And without a doubt, the primary driver of this shift is consumer expectations.
“Customers are no longer looking for a brand to buy a product from — that’s a very one-way, transactional model,” said Racine. “Now, they’re looking to have conversations. They want to interact and communicate with the brand. They’re not focused on buying something, they’re focused on connections. In [the previous idea of] omnichannel, you might market to a specific customer, but you weren’t digesting back the behavior of that customer based on the email they opened, based on what they’re buying, based upon how many times they visit your physical storefront versus your digital storefront. That’s where unified comes into the dialogue.
“It’s about taking the technology — whether that’s a commerce platform, a CRM, a CDP, an ERP or any of the other three-letter technologies retailers work with — and leveraging those to connect all the different pieces so that a customer’s experiences are tailored in real time based upon who they are, what they’re interested in, and how they grow and mature as a consumer within the lifecycle,” Racine added. “It puts the customer in a living, breathing conversation with a brand versus a monologue.”
Taking the Customer-Level View
The key to having this kind of “conversation” with customers is switching the lens, from an organizational view of the shopping experience to a customer-level view, according to Gartner’s Gillespie. “When you’re thinking about a customer from the inside of your organization, you’re taking that customer and putting them into your processes, technologies and applications, and expecting them to conform to you,” she said. “When you look at it from the customer perspective, you start to understand what the customer needs and you recognize the disjointedness.”
As an example, Gillespie shared a story of a banking client that realized that customers in the Bill Pay section of its website would often open a separate screen to check their account balance before completing a payment, so the bank put an account balance window on the Bill Pay page. “It really boils down to making connections for customers,” she said. “Uber is another example. Uber made a lot of connections [in an experience that was previously] very disjointed — standing on the street corner waving, not being able to use your desired payment type, etc. What’s happening in commerce is we’re making those connections from the physical world to the digital world, from all the channels, from all the touching technologies, to deliver that optimum experience for the customer.”
A World Where the ‘Last Best Experience’ Rules
The cost of not making these connections for your customers can be high: “Not only are customers now demanding that anytime, anywhere shopping experience, but they get frustrated if they know something available to them in one channel — whether it’s a promotion, a specific product or configuration — isn’t also available to them in another,” said Harouni. “If you’re not able to serve up that data and information in the channel where the customer wants to buy, that leads to frustration, which leads to dips in your [sales] funnel.”
Failing to deliver on consumer expectations doesn’t just impact immediate conversions; it can also hurt long-term relationships with consumers at a time when loyalty is already at an all-time low. “There’s all this talk now of the ‘zero’ consumer — consumers have zero loyalty, there’s zero influence in some cases [in terms of] what a brand can actually do to get them to stick,” said Zach Zalowitz, Principal in the Order Management Practice at Perficient. “The last best experience is what all consumers are benchmarking future experiences on, and customers don’t owe brands anything. At the end of the day, they’re going to shop where they have the best experience, they get the best price and they feel comfortable. And this all shifts and pivots so quickly that you have to align with what customers’ expectations are on a day-in, day-out basis,” he said in an interview with Retail TouchPoints.
That extra work is worth it because beyond meeting all-important customer expectations, shifts toward unified commerce systems also can help improve employees’ experience. “Unifying your [data and technology] means more information, presented in a way that’s easier to consume so you’re able to serve up actionable insights for employees,” said Harouni. “Which levers should I pull? Where should I allocate marketing spend? Which channels should I be doubling down on or pulling away from?”
Learn more about foundational elements needed to creating a unified commerce ecosystem and how to develop your own unified commerce strategy in our free report, “The Ultimate Guide to Unified Commerce: Evolving Your Technology (and Mindset) to Drive Experience Innovation.”