Mark Twain once remarked, “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” If the word “omnichannel” had a voice, it would say the same thing.
Recently, numerous pundits have urged that we close the lid on the coffin and inter the word “omnichannel” forever. They claim the phrase “Omnichannel Retail” is dead, and instead argue that we should just say “Retail.” Forbes contributor Greg Maloney put forward this exact argument in his piece, Can We Stop Saying Omnichannel and Just Say Retailing? Maloney exclaims in his opening, “Who’s sick of the term omnichannel? I for one certainly am!”
With Maloney’s hope for eliminating the word “omnichannel,” I died a little inside as I read his piece. It made me feel like Elliott must have felt watching E.T. struggle with all the threatening adults inside the makeshift medical facility. Unlike the children, the “so-called” adults in E.T. struggled to understand what was happening around them; we see the same phenomenon in retail today amongst our “more experienced” leaders.
Retail by Another Name
Omnichannel is not dead. It is flourishing despite a lack of understanding its full scope due to what the scientific community calls “neuroplasticity;” the idea that the more accustomed we are to doing things a certain way, the harder it is for us to rewire our brains to do something new.
A great example of neuroplasticity comes from noted engineer, Dustin Sendin. Sendin reversed engineered a bicycle so that if you wanted to turn the bike to the left, you had to turn the handlebars to the right. He then taught himself to ride the bike. It took Sendin eight months of consistent daily practice to learn how to ride his bike. Sendin next gave the bike to his eight-year-old son. Guess how long it took his son to learn to ride the bike? Only two weeks!
This bicycle analogy is germane because instead of learning to ride the newly engineered bike, our leaders and many pundits have sought solace in the merchandising playbooks they grew up with, while Amazon, Wayfair, and other upstarts have attacked the problem with the same raw and fresh perspective as Sendin’s son. The “retail is retail” argument falls into the same area of concern. It is a pacifying blanket for what is more likely the unrealized cognitive dissonance of many retailers.
Omnichannel retailing is alive and well and is in no way like the retailing we have known for hundreds of years. To be clear, omnichannel retailing is neither legacy brick-and-mortar retail nor is it e-commerce retail. Omnichannel is powerful. It defines something 100% new. It is not a term that connotes distribution. It is a term that describes consumption – the power of the individual to consume literally anything whenever and however he or she wants.
How Does a Word Mean?
Technically, omnichannel retail is the blend of bricks and clicks. It is still an emerging model for more traditional laggard retailers and for many pure play e-commerce players as well. Until we see this model spread like a prairie fire across our national landscape, it is important to understand its subtle points of differentiation.
Why? The English language is limited by its words, and the lack of shared understandings of specific words affect their meanings To say “We just need to be better retailers right now” rings hollow. What exactly does that mean? We can share the meanings of words when we understand the details. What we are lacking today is a clear and precise definition of retailing that embraces new delivery platforms, business models and innovations. Omnichannel, like the term or not, is a way to reframe retail and it means exactly what it connotes: retail from all angles that is perpetually “on” and comes at us from every direction. The word symbolizes the new digital and physical retail experiences we seek to build.
What’s in a Name?
Look at all these innovations that have earned their own nomenclature. It should spark our imagination to re-think and redefine what we call retail and omnichannel today. These iconic “names” have changed how we feel about what they represent.
- Is Uber just a taxi service?
- Is streaming just watching TV?
- Is Netflix just watching a movie?
- Is Turo just renting a car?
- Is Wikipedia just an encyclopedia?
- Is Tesla just a car?
- Is blogging just writing?
- Is LinkedIn just a resume?
- (and my personal favorite) Is e-commerce just retail?
The list could go on and on. The new names we have come to know are important because they each relay meaning with nuance, creating the subtle brand differences that intrigue us and make us curious to learn more. Retail needs this nuanced reframing too. The word omnichannel gives us the context we need.
Things change and our vocabulary changes with it. New terms are created to reflect the changes in our world. “Google it”, “GPS it” and “Tweet it” are now commonly accepted phrases. Retail today requires a redefinition or reinvention. We need to readdress the process of how digital and physical experiences blend together to reveal hidden joys combined with the efficiencies of time. We need a term that is our industry’s equivalent of “ride hailing” or “self-driving” — that is the brilliance behind a shared understanding of what Uber and Tesla mean. Omnichannel is that term.
To take a laissez-faire attitude and assume “retail” will always be retail as we know it is negligent. It is too limited. It also assumes that the handlebars of the omnichannnel bike will always be engineered the same way they have been engineered since we were in kindergarten.