Omni- Or Multi-Channel: That Is The Question

5:11 PM EDT August 19th, 2013

There are plenty of adjectives we see used to describe mobile’s growing role in the payments world. From “explosive,” to “transformative” to “revolutionary” and with every glowing modifier in between, payments analysts and execs aren’t afraid to heap praise on mobile’s potential.

Yet on Day One of PYMNTS Summer School 2013, Faisal Masud, executive vice president, global eCommerce at Staples, gave a unique take on mobile during his “Fireside Chat” with MPD CEO Karen Webster.  According to Masud, despite all of its accolades and hype, mobile still isn’t being given enough attention.

“I think the penetration and proliferation of mobile as a traffic channel is understated,” he said.

That sentiment framed the conversation between Masud and Webster, who spent the better part of two hours discussing mobile’s role in one of retail’s hottest trends right now: omnichannel.

Both respected and feared by retailers, omnichannel opens up new opportunities to both lose and gain traction with consumers. A seamless experience across all retail channels is the goal, and mobile devices serve as a key enabler to this experience for consumers and merchants.

According to Masud, mobile and omnichannel provide brick and mortar retailers with the ability to attract and satisfy customers in ways they never could before.

“Mobile is another channel customers expect and want to take advantage of,” Masud said. “It’s a massive opportunity more than a conflict for retailers.”

Masud said Staples has seen this first hand, with 25 percent of its traffic now coming via mobile – a number he called “staggering” and that “no one at Staples believed would happen” so quickly.  He also noted that omnichannel spend shouldn’t be looked at as cannibalizing from eCommerce, but rather as a way to retain and cater to customers who are becoming increasingly savvy.

“What we call omnichannel [leads to] disproportionate spend at Staples. If customers are using a mobile phone and purchasing after coming online, they tend to spend more than regular customers,” Masud explained. “It’s incremental.”

Yet as Webster pointed out, omnichannel cannot be debated without addressing its “dark side”: showrooming. But according to Masud, having customers who hunt for the best prices can be advantageous for a store – even a brick and mortar one – if the customer’s needs are met correctly.

To illustrate his point, Masud spoke about Staples’ “endless aisle” kiosks that allow consumers to search for products in store and order them for next-day delivery if they’re not physically part of that store’s inventory.

“If you don’t find it in the store, we will find that product for your. It’s a fairly seamless experience … and we’re agnostic as to where the customer purchases,” he said. Masud admitted that Staples’ “core assets,” such as its fleet and next-day delivery capability, give it advantages in this category, but noted his company’s mindset nonetheless.

“Staples’ advantage is that showrooming for us is, let them come in and decide what they want,” Masud said. “I think it’s a high-class problem to have, to have mobile-enabled customers come in and ask tough questions. It drives the supply chain to be more efficient.”

Webster wrapped up the chat by asking Masud to impart some wisdom on the Summer School audience from his experiences at Staples, Groupon and Amazon. Masud used the floor to reinforce two ideas: first, that mobile’s growth as a commerce channel is truly explosive, and second, that omnichannel is more about a seamless experience than an identical or similar one across platforms.

“The customer is going to be hyper-intelligent in five years. Competition is going to be further ahead, so what we have to do is break this down into pieces to figure out what customers really want,” Masud said. He went on to say that being good in each channel, first, is far more important than trying to tackle omnichannel from the start. Without excellence in each channel, it becomes difficult to even contemplate the delivery of the seamless experience that characterize omnichannel commerce.

And according to Staples’ omnichannel guru, what customers really want is an Uber-like experience in a retail setting. In Masud’s example, consumers can walk into a store, be recognized and then have a transaction completed all without facilitating a payment via card, phone or other device.

“Friction should not exist,” Masud said. “A seamless transaction is what we’re seeking, and the storefront and logistics should be a huge facilitator in that.”

For more on PYMNTS Summer School, check out our recaps of Days One, Two and Three.

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