Beyond Retail: Omni-channel, Multi Platform and the Unified Experience

"Omni-channel" was an oft-heard buzzword at the National Retail Foundation's (NRF) 2013 annual conference, though it goes by a variety of names including all-channel, multi-channel, cross-channel and channel-clustering. Ultimately, however, the terms used by different tech providers all boil down to the same thing: offering consistent back end access to services, tools, and data, as well as consistent and reliable customer experiences across retail channels from web to mobile to in-store and beyond.

This obsession with consistency isn't just limited to the retail business, however, as companies begin to act like consumers - seeking holistic business intelligence (BI) experiences across multiple platforms including on premise, through software as a service (SaaS), virtual machines (VMs), and mobile.

Change the Channel

A recent ChainLink Research article discusses omni-channel retail hype, noting that while there are a wide variety of players in this game, there aren't yet any clear front runners because "there are so many dimensions to doing omni-channnel well." The article discusses several "centers of gravity," including the unification of both front and back-end functions, along with mobile development, making a market leader hard to come by in the omni-channel space.

Several technology giants are trying to find their retail strenths, including IBM, which rolled out analytics back end apps at NRF, aimed at helping retailers obtain shoppers' long-term business. Recent studies by Big Blue show that while most consumers (89%) are willing to spend 20 minutes creating a client profile if it leads to better offers, over half expect the a company to track their purchases and adjust marketing efforts accordingly. According to IBM, "shoppers are willing to help the retailer initially, but the long-term heavy lifting is up to the retailer."

Microsoft, meanwhile, is touting its Dynamics for Retail offering, which runs on a Dynamics AX 2012 R2 core and has a fully integrated SharePoint storefront and POS with Windows Mobile 8. Michael Griffiths of the Redmond giant says that "Microsoft Dynamics for Retail is the only one that is fully omni-channel." The technology that makes up the Microsoft Dynamics for Retail omni-channel architecture is a series of service modules for functions including payment integration, shipping, and taxation that can be run centrally or in a decentralized setup to draw in end points like POS, e-commerce, marketplaces, and social networks with an identical model and consistent data interchange. He calls Dynamics the "unifying fabric" that ties together Microsoft's multiple solutions into a single, integrative package.

Make the Call

Beyond this trend for seamless retail consumer experiences across channels is the need for BI solutions to present as consistent across platforms for business users who have become consumers of reports and analytics. Another ChainLink Research report found that while mobile is driving competition and profits in B2B applications, other areas - cloud, hardware and software - are gaining ground in terms of their impact on the B2B world. But for app development overall, mobile has evolved from a no-show in 2012 to a serious contender, nearly equal to numbers posted by SaaS, virtualized platforms and on-premise hardware.

Providers have most certainly noticed the shift - Microsoft is stressing the use of the Surface tablet in retail store environments, and for the executive suite, it has put forward a new version of Microsoft Dynamics Business Analyzer, redesigned as a Windows 8 app in the Windows Store. The new version of Business Analyzer can display reports for Dynamics GP 2013, SL 2011 FP1 and AX 2012 R2, and offers a host of user-friendly, profile-specific functions for real time reporting. But can it take the next step and add versions for other devices like the iPad and iPhone?

Separate but Equal

Think of the omni-channel retail consumer trend and multi-platform BI trend as separate in form but equal in message: both speak to a need for holistic consistency in the technology space, a need that wasn't even conceivable a year ago. The rise of mobile and power of the cloud have conspired to create a market where consumers - both retail customers and business-level BI users - demand consistent experiences. For retail shoppers, this means consistency no matter how they interact with a business, and an expectation that data will be shared across all parts of an organization and available at all points.

For business users, this trend means consistency of use across platforms, where apps they use aren't constrained by physical hardware, network virtualization or operating system. Polino said it best about Microsoft, but the sentiment applies across the technology sector; companies "need to go where their customers are," be it channel or platform.

About Doug Bonderud

A freelance writer since 2009, I have a particular passion for technology and its impact on our daily lives. As an evolving resource, technology changes us as much as we inform its development, providing fertile ground for thought.

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