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Growing a business

Understanding omni-channel vs. multi-channel selling

Think about what retail looked like a few decades ago. The process was pretty straightforward: Customers made purchases at a brick-and-mortar store.

Sure, they might’ve had a few other interactions with a brand or business—like receiving a direct mail advertisement or making a phone call to ask about store hours—but the actual purchasing experience happened in one spot.

Today, the process isn’t quite so linear. Between your own website, various online marketplaces, and social media networks, you have more interactions with your customers than ever before. They might discover your products on Etsy, get more information on Instagram, and eventually make a purchase directly through your Shopify site.

It’s a lot to manage, and that ever-increasing number of touchpoints has paved the way for two similar (but different) retail strategies: omni-channel vs. multi-channel selling.

What is a multi-channel retail approach?

A multi-channel strategy involves using multiple channels to communicate, market, and sell to your customers.

These channels not only include the different platforms you use (such as your own website, social media, online marketplaces, and perhaps even a physical store), but also the devices that your customers interact with your brand on (such as their phones, tablets, and computers).

Multi-channel retail makes use of a variety of different customer touchpoints, but the important thing to note here is that each channel stands on its own—there isn’t any intentional overlap or integration between them. They’re entirely distinct entities that you manage separately from one another.

Let’s clear this up with an example. Meet Gavin. He owns a successful online business selling paper accessories and party supplies—like themed banners, paper plates and napkins, invitations, and more. He sells primarily on his own Shopify website, Etsy, and Amazon.

If Gavin were using multi-channel selling, then a customer visiting those platforms might have a completely different experience with each one. Not only is there the potential that each one will use different messaging, but each platform might also offer different products. For example, Gavin only sells a small selection of his most popular products on Etsy, but offers a much larger variety (and even custom orders) directly on his own Shopify site.

That’s multichannel retail. Multiple sales channels are involved, but they operate entirely separate from one another.

What is an omni-channel retail strategy?

An omni-channel strategy is similar to multi-channel in that numerous sales channels are used. However, omni-channel means that those channels are integrated with one another to deliver a seamless and consistent customer journey.

Think about it this way: Even if customers use different sales channels, each one of them is still representative of your entire brand. That’s the biggest thing omni-channel keeps in mind—that the various sales channels are all part of a singular customer experience, and that experience should be cohesive everywhere.

Have you ever looked at an item online and been shown how many of that item are in stock at your nearest physical store? That’s omnichannel marketing in action.

Need another example? A customer first learned about Gavin’s paper supplies business when perusing Gavin’s booth at a local craft show, where Gavin provided a business card. The customer then visited Gavin’s Shopify site and clicked through a few items but ultimately didn’t make a purchase.

Gavin used that data to create a retargeting campaign on Instagram to get the abandoned product in front of the customer again, along with a few other relevant items. After seeing several ads, the customer clicked through to Gavin’s Instagram account to get a better sense for his brand, sent Gavin an email to ask a question about custom orders, and then eventually completed a purchase through his Shopify store.

That’s omni-channel selling, because four different channels worked together to deliver a seamless experience:

  • Physical booth at craft show
  • Shopify website
  • Instagram
  • Email

To put it simply, omni-channel selling isn’t just about using different channels—it’s about using them together strategically.

What’s the difference between omni-channel and multi-channel?

Omni-channel and multi-channel selling often get confused, as they do share one big similarity: they both involve the use of multiple sales channels.

However, remember that the distinction is how those sales channels are used:

  • Multi-channel marketing: A retailer uses numerous sales channels but each channel is managed independent of the others.
  • Omni-channel marketing: A retailer uses numerous sales channels and strategically creates a cohesive customer experience between them.

Imagine that multi-channel marketing is a violin, viola, and cello—playing beautifully alone in entirely different locations. Omni-channel marketing is when they come together and form a string quartet.


What are the benefits of omni-channel vs. multi-channel?

So, which is better: omni-channel selling or multi-channel selling? It appears that omni-channel is the wave of the future, as customer’s expectations continue to evolve.

67% of customers admit that their standard for what constitutes a “good experience” is higher than ever, and 51% say most companies fall short of their expectations.

That means more and more retailers will invest in omni-channel strategies to keep customers happy—but that doesn’t mean that multi-channel selling is without its benefits.

Benefits of omni-channel selling

  • Improved customer experience: Omni-channel is less focused on how you manage your sales channels and more focused on how you manage your customer and their entire experience with your business. The result is less roadblocks and frustrations for your customer, which leaves them with a more positive impression of your brand (and greater likelihood of returning and repurchasing).
  • Increased sales: When all of your sales channels work together, you have more data and opportunity to provide personalized recommendations, upsells, cross-sells, and more. Those suggestions and strategies can help increase overall sales.

Benefits of multi-channel selling

  • Easier to manage: While multi-channel might not be as beneficial to the end consumer, it’s often easier for the business owner. They can look at each sales channel on its own, rather than having to zoom out and manage the intricacies and overlap between them.
  • Unique experiences: There could be instances where a sales channel works best on its own. For example, Gavin might review his data and realize that his Etsy store sells to an entirely different customer segment than his Shopify site—meaning he’s better off using different messaging and making that a unique and separate experience.


How can you make a multi-channel retail approach work?

Whether it’s multi-channel selling or omni-channel selling, customers have more touchpoints with a business than ever before—with 74% of customers admitting they’ve used multiple channels to start and complete a single transaction.

The unprecedented access to your customers and the huge amount of data about their interactions is a big benefit for your business, but it can also feel overwhelming to manage.

To avoid feeling like you’re drinking through a firehose when implementing multi-channel or omni-channel strategies, make sure that you:

  • Focus on the platforms that matter most: You don’t need to be everywhere—you need to be where your customers are. Review your sales data and then dedicate your time and attention to the sales channels your customers use most to interact with your brand and make purchases.
  • Get the right technology to help: Part of what makes multi-channel and omni-channel so complicated is maintaining accurate records about all of your platforms. A solution like QuickBooks Commerce makes it easy to manage your orders and keep track of inventory across all of your sales channels from a single, easy-to-use dashboard.
  • Monitor and learn: Like anything else, this will be a learning process for your business. Set aside regular time to analyze your sales data and make changes. A little bit of trial and error will help you land on the strategy that works best for your business.

Gone are the days when a customer’s journey involved a single stop into a brick-and-mortar store. Today’s customers have frequent and regular interactions with businesses.

Fortunately, having the right strategy in place allows retailers to capitalize on the ever-increasing number of touchpoints in the way that matters most: boosted sales.

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