Mobile or else: Why omni-channel is your only hope

Mobile technology has changed the world, but not all businesses have kept pace. David Gewirtz looks at why mobile must be your top priority.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

One of the hottest buzzwords in business strategy is "omni-channel." The idea is that customers are so mobile and so active that it's necessary to reach them on their own terms --whether that's in a brick-and-mortar store, via a desktop-based Web site, through a mobile app, or anywhere else the customer might be evaluating his or her options or making a buying decision.

The idea of reaching customers on the go is not new. In fact, it's positively medieval. It started with the humble flyer. As far back as 1498, printer Aldus Manutius created a brochure of documents he produced. In 1667, an English gardener named William Lucas distributed a printed price list of plants and seeds.

In 1744, good ol' Ben Franklin got into the act, publishing a catalog of volumes available from his Library Company of Philadelphia (which is still around to this day). If you ever wanted to know why, to this day, you can return most purchases and get your money back, thank ol' Ben. He is credited with the first use of "satisfaction guaranteed."

Aaron Montgomery Ward and Richard Warren Sears were among the first to take advantage of new infrastructure advances like the postal system and railroads. By the late 19th century, both the Montgomery Ward and Sears catalogs reached more than 500 picture-laded pages, selling everything from spoons to house-building kits.

Many of us remember growing up watching commercials hawking products on TV. Some may even remember the common "allow six-to-eight weeks for delivery" disclaimer that nearly every highly-promoted mail-order product carried as its tag line.

Six to eight weeks! Can you imagine? How the times have changed!

Today, in the United States, estimates of Amazon Prime's reach into American households range from 20-25 percent. Each of these households pays a modest annual fee to ensure that goods nearly always arrive within two days with free shipping. Heck, for a few extra bucks, the product can be there the next morning.

It isn't even necessary to drive across town to rent a movie anymore. Courtesy of Netflix, we've grown to expect to choose whatever movie we want, and watch it at any time we want, anywhere we want -- even on our phones. Don't even get me started on binge-watching entire TV series.

Consumers expect instant, which means the challenges facing businesses today are enormous. Not only must they get their core business practice right, they must also be able to reach buyers everywhere, instantly, with 100 percent availability, in a way that's compelling, easy-to-understand, and highly flexible.

In addition, businesses need to be able to add and modify products and services in rapid response to everything from stylistic whims to supply chain issues resulting from sudden geopolitical conflicts. Companies not only need to be everything to everyone, they also need to be able to connect everything to everyone.

That, of course, brings us to mobile, which must be high on the priority list, if not right at the top.

For justification, we need only to look at Walmart, that bastion of brick-and-mortar retailing. Last Thanksgiving, during the so-called "Black Friday" and "Cyber Monday" period ranging from November 28 to December 1, 2014, shoppers looked at 1.5 billion pages on the Walmart website. That's astonishing all on its own, but consider this: 70 percent of that traffic came from mobile devices.

Digital marketing firm Criteo (who, admittedly, might be a little biased because their business is selling digital ads) claims that 40 percent of all e-commerce transactions will be originating on mobile devices by the end of 2015.

Statistica, citing Gartner and Goldman Sachs, estimates that the total global mobile transaction volume will more than double by 2017, from $352 billion in 2014 to a whopping $721 billion in 2017.

Writing here on ZDNet, Drew Turney summarizes the digital transformation in one short paragraph:

The general idea is that when considering how customers, users, and stakeholders will interact with you online, assume they're doing so from a mobile device more often, and in greater numbers, than sitting at a desk in front of a PC using a mainstream web browser.

Welcome to the future. Is your business ready?

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