Over the last couple of decades, traditional brick & mortar stores have increasingly moved to multi-channel models in order to compete with their pure E-commerce counterparts. Throughout that transition, retailers relied on brand loyalty for consumer retention. Online commerce generally existed in parallel to the in-store experience, effectively as a separate, and in some cases competing business to the physical stores, duplicating many of the lines of business.

As retailers worked to manage all their discrete channels, the term “omni-channel” evolved to become synonymous with retailers who operated both online, E-commerce and other channels. Consumers demanded the ability to purchase online and return in-store, and retailers responded by putting processes in place that offered those options. However, the actual channels remained distinct within the retailers’ operations and created a new set of problems including revenue recognition and inventory movement between the channels.

Multi-channel Retail

Retail is seeing a resurgence of experiential and in-store shopping experiences and the industry has been forced to make the effort to move to a true “multi-channel” model. Online and offline are now integrated and experiences tap into the capabilities of every channel the retailer offers. Buying online and returning in-store is only one of many possible combinations of the online/offline shopping journey. Retailers are moving from managing individual shopping experiences to managing a customer experience spanning multiple shopping trips and channels. Integrating all the possible options into a truly multi-channel experience, that allows the consumer to shop and transact on their terms, gives retailers more opportunities to strengthen customer retention and brand loyalty.

Attracting and Engaging Customers

In today’s online world, retailers must embrace the ubiquitous connectivity and engagement expectations of many consumers. While not everyone is always connected, retailers must plan their engagement strategies for everyone on the spectrum of connectivity. From those who use the internet only for specific tasks, to those who are online constantly. Retailers need an online presence that offers all customers (and potential customers) unique ways to engage with their brand. Targeted campaigns and contextual engagement are key to balancing opportunities to connect and maintain relevance without overwhelming or irritating consumers.


One of the clearest opportunities to integrate the various channels that retailers manage, is in the shopping experience. Whether consumers shop online or see something in-store and want to learn more about it later, giving them the information, product selection, and fulfillment options, they want when they shop is critical. When competing with online-only retailers, providing consumers the opportunity to experience products in the store and take those products home with them are significant differentiators. However, these scenarios also provide potential sources of customer dissatisfaction. For example, if inventory information is incorrect, customers might make trips to stores only to find products are not available.

Purchasing and Fulfillment

The purchasing process of the shopping journey has changed as well. Retailers are evaluating existing and emerging opportunities to partner with mobile-phone manufacturers, banks, cryptocurrencies, financing companies, and others to provide more options for payment.

Fulfillment has also changed dramatically in recent years. Whether picking up in the store or at curbside, click-and-collect options have been extremely popular for consumers. Online retailers have deployed locker-based pickup stations to allow for 24/7 access to deliveries, and traditional retailers have responded with their own staffed and unstaffed 24/7 options. Fulfillment options for consumers that also extend the reach of brands are continuing to develop. We’re seeing store-in-store partnerships that give consumers opportunities to shop specialty brands in mass-merchandise retailers in addition to flexible fulfillment via online shopping and at-home delivery.

Service and Support

The pre and post shopping experience is vital to maintaining customer satisfaction and brand affinity – the longer the retailer engages the customer, the greater their intent-to-return to the brand.

Customers do not want to have to navigate restrictions and complexities of returns or exchanges but instead expect those processes to be as simple and as seamless as possible. Retailers have, for the most part, eliminated restocking fees or other hurdles to returning products in-store from online orders. Now, retailers are looking at returns and exchanges as opportunities to begin the next shopping experience as customers enter the store. Retailers with a physical presence near their customers can provide more complete and on-brand experiences in comparison to third-party service providers or shipping partners. This can help retailers save-the-sale and, in many cases, grow the basket with service offerings and complementary products.


Online and mobile experiences provide retailers with more ways to engage with consumers. These channels offer a full suite of options for businesses to transact, fulfill, and service orders. Integrating these channels to complement their physical presence is critical if retailers want to capitalize on their capabilities while maximizing their return on investments.

Consumers want the ability to shop, transact, receive, or return their orders how, when, and where they desire. If retailers can effectively provide those options, customer affinity and brand loyalty will follow.

See how Cisco’s portfolio of retail solutions provides the capabilities retailers need to embrace multi-channel commerce in retail.


Mark Scanlan

Global Industry Lead for Retail

Industry Solutions Group, Cisco Systems