As the year is drawing to a close and retail is going through its busiest time of the year, it seems a fitting time to reflect on a year of significant change in the multichannel world; a year that has seen multichannel mature and take prime position on board level agendas globally. What are the key changes that have taken place?

–          Multichannel has become the new default operating model for retail…

With early adapters now firmly in their multichannel driver’s seat, 2011 was the year where main stream retail publicly converted to a multichannel retail model. Retailers such as Debenhams, John Lewis and Marks and Spencer either launched or announced major multichannel initiatives, answering the customer’s demand to serve them wherever they want, whenever they want and through whatever channel, device or touchpoint they want… Each of them serving a number of initiatives, powered and integrated by this beautiful invention called the Internet.

And it is not just retailers that are making the move – most organisations that have goods or services to sell are looking at making the switch; brands and manufacturers are now regularly selling direct to the consumer and traditional B2B models are being re-shaped to serve customers online as well.

–          From single channel to multichannel customer experience

During last year it has become clearer than ever before that the customer is in control – they choose how they would like to interact with the retail landscape and information influencing their decisions is at their fingertips, that being online forums, blogs, social networks, websites – all accessed via the ‘traditional’ browser or via mobile devices.

Once you have reached the consumer to attract them, it is now easier than ever to lose them as well; they will decide how they are going to investigate your item further and the barriers to change retailer in this process are lower than ever. So, in 2011, the multichannel customer experience was born, well, at least took some firm steps towards centre stage. In this day and age, retailers will need to use a combination of channels to attract and convert consumers going forward rather than focussing on channel centric approaches.

–          2011 – The year of the mobile

Each of the last 5 years or so was touted to be ‘The Year of the Mobile’, but after falling short in previous years, this year mobile devices seriously delivered and 2011 can quite comfortably take that crown; the change was significant at multiple fronts….

  • The mobile/smartphone – With smartphones now easily covering at least half of the mobile landscape (and rising), today’s consumer holds in his hand a piece of technology more powerful than what the Americans used to put a man on the moon. And they use it! Maybe not so much as a ‘shopping channel’, more as a device to find information, find their nearest store, check prices or product reviews in store.
  • The tablet – The introduction of the iPad to the world (only just over 18 months ago!) has made a significant impact in a very short space of time and has established itself as a serious mobile device, with a multitude of applications – as a replacement of PC or laptop for many of its users, to sales tool in-store, the iPad has many applications many people had not imagined at the start of this year.
  • The e-reader – A small step from the tablet, this year also saw the emergence of the Kindle and several other e-book readers. Maybe not as powerful as the iPad, but still a landmark of significant change in the retail/consumer landscape, with digital books now outselling physical ones  at Amazon.

Another great result in the mobile landscape this year was the resolution of the Mobile App or Web debate; with the arrival of HTML5 I think people will be hard pressed to prioritise Apps over Web, although I’m sure Apps will stick around for the time being (if only because Apple would want them to!).

So, enough change in 2011 – a landmark year indeed. In the background this has resulted in significant activity in the ‘multichannel’ space over the last year. Companies relying on selling goods and services to their end-customers have to re-cast their operational and technical infrastructures to compete or even survive in the years to come. With investment levels generally low due to the economic malaise, multichannel investment is still strong. But make sure the investment you make is selected wisely – multichannel is not a matter of patchwork, it requires strategic change in your organisation and IT. My advice for people in this process;

–          Be strategic – Establishing a single view of customer, order, product and stock data will be the key  to successful multichannel commerce; rich front-end functionality will only be effective if the right foundations are in place.

–           Be quick – We live in an era where the customer moves fast. Put the basic infrastructure in place first, as quickly as possible, and then evolve with your customer.

–          Be agile – Multichannel will change over time and the ability to adapt  easily to new customer demands will be crucial.

For 2012, we should keep our eye out for the changing role of POS in the multichannel environment, alongside the changing role of the store. The ever changing role of  brands and manufacturers will be interesting to follow – how will this impact retailers? Mobile and its role will no doubt further develop, and so will cloud based solutions, but most of all I will be looking forward to the unexpected – next years’ Groupon, Facebook or iPad – and the influence that will have on this fascinating industry.