Now that e-commerce is “all grown up” and retailers are getting more and more sophisticated, the next challenge to tackle is creating a true omni-channel business. Companies have been talking about omni-channel for years, but the reality is that most are just barely scratching the surface when it comes to matching the vision for omni-channel and taking advantage of all that it could potentially offer. Capitalizing on this next big trend in retail is going to take a change in thinking for many companies, and achieving true omni-channel success will mean accepting the philosophy that brick-and-mortar (B&M) and online are one entity – albeit an entity with separate teams and separate processes all working toward the same goal.

That goal is customer loyalty. In an increasingly customer-centric world, customers want what they want, when they want it and where they want it. The customer journey is no longer one-size-fits all. Even if the purchase experience begins online, customers then have a number of ways they can move through that journey. And retailers need to be nimble when it comes to engaging with customers each step of the way, providing a seamless, consistent and complementary experience across all channels. Many of these changes will impact, or be enabled by, the ability to process and ship small parcels quickly and from multiple locations in order to meet the expectations of your customers and to drive operational efficiency for the business.

The Omni-Channel Promise
The retail sector is in the midst of a revolution, as consumers embrace new technologies that enable them to research and shop at their convenience – anytime, anywhere. Customers can take advantage of a multitude of sources of product information, including in-store displays, retailer websites, mobile apps and social media. These trends have opened up the possibility of purchasing products or services that may not have been available to the customer otherwise. And, if done right, the needs of the customer are met at every step of the purchase journey, regardless of which channel or combination of channels the customer chooses to use.

In addition to the convenience and time-saving omni-channel offers to customers, there is also the promise of increased efficiencies for retailers, as well. One of the biggest challenge for retailers looking to provide a seamless brand experience is integrating existing channels of interaction. Information and data must be able to flow between the applications and systems that support each channel. Achieving this integration by having the right infrastructure in place means you are able to know your customers across every channel, at every step of the customer journey.

And taking it one step further, very few retailers have the ability to take a holistic view of their inventory. Merging inventory order management systems (OMS) is key. Consumers expect their orders to be quickly delivered direct to their homes or available for them to pick up at local stores at a specific time. The last thing you want to happen is that an item is sold online, only to have the consumer find that the item is actually not in stock or available at their local store. When all of your data is integrated and readily available, regardless of whether the inventory position is in a distribution center (DC), a store, or a third party vendor, you are better able to meet customer expectations.

Having the ability to know your customers every step of the way also yield benefits when it comes to the returns process. Having a sophisticated data integration infrastructure in place helps to manage returns, speed up disposition to DCs and allow for faster processing. All of this means faster credit to the customer, increasing the likelihood that they’ll make another purchase right away, while they’ve been recently browsing a site and making mental notes of other products on their wish list. 
Interestingly, streamlining the returns process may have even more of an impact on the customer experience and maintaining customer loyalty than the shipping process. Customers already expect fast shipping, but many companies are still struggling to perfect fast returns and exchanges. Leveraging a superior returns solution that enables the merchant to define the speed or cost of the return will help to offer a fast returns experience, which can be a key differentiator. 

Training a Specialized Workforce
Another factor that comes into play with omni-channel and its effect on the small shipping process is the need for specialized training of all employees – whether they be e-commerce employees dealing with returns at B&M locations or workers in your DC. Optimizing packaging practices is now more important than ever thanks to recent changes in dimensional (DIM) weight pricing. Since January, FedEx, UPS and others in the shipping world have broadened their use of DIM weight by eliminating the exemption for packages measuring less than three cubic feet and making DIMs apply to all shipments.
Retailers dealing with small- to mid-sized packages need to train their workforce to deal with these new realities. Train them on box selection and packing techniques or build rules into your warehouse management system (WMS) to optimize packaging and help minimize the financial impact. Another tactic is to diversify shipments and returns with multiple vendors to include a provider that does not charge for dimensional weight and offset some of the costs associated with a national carrier. There’s no need to put all your eggs in one basket. 

Making It Easier on Your E-Commerce Workers
Achieving smooth data integration between channels can help your workers in other ways, as well. By leveraging a returns solution that offers advanced visibility you ensure your workers are not overwhelmed by unexpected volume coming in for processing. Knowing how much is coming in and when improves operational efficiency, allows for more accurate labor planning and means that returns are processed and back in stock for faster resale. In an omni-channel world, this visibility is more important than ever because returns parcels need to be “smart” – meaning that they are visible for sale, re-routed to the appropriate destination and workforce optimized, allowing the merchant to best manage the receipt and processing of merchandise. 
Operational efficiency means faster processing, which in turn leads to a decrease in call center volume. When customers receive automated emails updating them on shipment status and are able to track their returns in transit, there are fewer “WIZMO” (where is my order) calls to customer service. 

Give the Customers Even More Than They Expect 
Providing a consistent experience is a key driver of brand trust. As customers engage with your brand across multiple touchpoints, technology systems must be integrated across store, web, mobile, tablet and catalogue. 

Anything that makes the experience more convenient for customers will only make them happier. Give them the option to return or pick up items in the store, even if they’ve bought them online. Offer conveniences like pre-paid return labels so, if shipping it back is their preferred method of return, all they have to do is apply the label to the box and pop it in the mail. Branded tracking so customers can monitor where their package is in-transit and in the returns process helps to continue to build trust and deliver a higher level of customer satisfaction.
Achieving true omni-channel takes a shift in philosophy. Creating a single, consistent brand experience is no easy task; but having a solid infrastructure, robust tools and a clear strategy will help to fulfill the omni-channel promise. 

Jane Bergos is Director of Marketing at Newgistics. She can be contacted