We've come a long way from the days when locals bought everything they needed from the same corner store. Back then the retail experience was consistent because shopkeepers and customers were on a first-name basis and the single channel (and the close-knit nature of the communities stores operated in) allowed for more complete knowledge of a customer's purchases and needs. Since then other, more diverse, shopping channels have opened. Mail-order catalogues, online stores, and lately IoT-enabled shopping have given retailers other avenues to build out customer experience – and further challenges when it comes to ensuring consistency of service in the face of rising customer expectations. Under-prepared retailers risk a fractured experience, one where customers are presented with entirely different levels of service in-store or online – where retailers have no way of knowing what's happening with any given customer from one channel to the next.
From this related-but-distinct experience of multi-channel to the integrated ideal of omni-channel, the move has continued towards a seamless customer experience; buy something online and have that purchase reflected in all marketing, all staff interactions, with every visit to a store or use of the smartphone app. For many brands the omni-channel experience is still aspirational, as they struggle with the complexity of integrating these channels – in many cases fighting against outdated technology and unaware of the groundswell towards personalization automation and unified commerce.
Unified commerce takes omni-channel to the next level – one where channels cease to be the focus and the key consideration becomes creating a consistent, personalized customer experience through every brand interaction.
"Unified commerce transcends channels and enables store associates to personalize the experience to a customer based on her digital footprint." - Boston Retail Partners.
This experience is customer-led rather than dictated by brands; concrete customer journeys and purchase-focused promotions give way to flexibility: responding to customer behavior, meeting customer needs at exactly the right time, and operating from a better understanding of customers as individuals. Which of course means collecting more complete customer data – and more of it in real-time.
Live data streams – from e-commerce sites, social media, store associate interactions, mobile app usage, in-store beacons and Wi-Fi - are collected into a single data ecosystem for the sole purpose of creating a personalized experience for each individual. An individual that will ideally turn into a happy, loyal, valuable repeat customer – this is an exercise in creating a mutually rewarding commercial relationship, not pure altruism. The relationship starts from the first 'anonymous' visit, when potential customers are only identifiable through device or contextual clues, through the customer journey and beyond, because with this level of information behind experience design it is far easier to personally re-engage lapsed or at-risk customers than it was in even the multi-channel retail era.
This move towards more detailed, real-time customer information across all touch points also allows for greater transparency into the nuts and bolts of the business – what BRP calls the 'glass pipeline'. Given a sufficiently capable unified platform it should be possible for retailers to see how, where and why each customer is interacting with the brand, to suggest (personalized) next steps and solve any issues – from service to stock-related - in real time.