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In times past, anyone who wanted to buy something went to the local store for it. Today the relationship between customer and supplier is somewhat more complex. There are various channels and points of contact to which the customer can turn, depending on the time and place in which that customer finds himself. For the supplier, the issue is to coordinate everything and offer the customer a seamless experience across the various channels. “It’s difficult to draw a general line,” says Gino Van Ossel, Professor at the Vlerick Business School. “Every company must make a choice based on its strategy.” In practice a website – or other form of online presence – often turns out to be a new gateway to the analog store. “Potential customers seek online information before they go to the store. So it’s important to offer more online than just an overview of the product selection. The customer is not only seeking information on products or services but also wants to know what you should watch out for, how you should choose, and so on. The customer is seeking rich content, for example in the form of video.”
The evolution toward ‘omnichannels’ – with a store, website, online shop and apps – is especially visible in retail. “But major differences remain between various sectors,” said Van Ossel. “In supermarkets the choice online is usually much smaller than that in the store. The customer also usually chooses one channel; he buys either online or in the store.” In food the share of online sales remains, in fact, very limited. In retail electronics there is much more interplay between on- and offline, with customers who gather information via the website, come to the store to examine things, and then still make the actual purchase online. “Someone planning to buy a new car spends a third less time, on average, visiting various showrooms,” stated Van Ossel. “The customer makes his choice largely online, and then goes to the dealer with a very specific request for a quotation.”
The customer is central to the whole story, but that doesn’t work without technology behind the scenes. IT demands the necessary attention, with regard to the budget. The ‘omnichannel’ approach only works well when all the systems involved talk to each other. “Above all, however, the IT environment must be agile and flexible,” concluded Van Ossel. “There must be a solid backbone that the company can build on further in the future.”
Gino Van Ossel is Professor of Retail and Trade Marketing at the Vlerick Business School. He studies, among other things, how digital channels influence the buying behavior of the customer. His book ‘Omnichannel in Retail’ is the first Flemish work to be named Management Book of the Year in the Netherlands.
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