omnichannel vs multichannel

Omnichannel vs. multichannel: What’s the difference and who is doing it?


Omnichannel is a buzz word that has been around for over five years, but is still often confused with multi-channel when it comes to retail.

Most retailers are now multichannel, where they sell their products across more than one channel. Very few, however, are truly omnichannel.

Multichannel vs omnichannel

Although both multi and omnichannel involve selling across multiple physical and digital channels, the key difference is how the customer experience is joined up across those channels. A traditional multichannel retailer may have a website and physical stores. These two channels are generally very siloed, and have very little interaction with one another.

Stores will have their own stock and will sell directly to customers, while the website will have its own stock. Items purchased in stores can only be returned in store, and sometimes online orders cannot be returned in-store. As a customer, your online interaction with the retailer is completely separated from your offline interaction. In essence, the online and offline channels are treated as separate businesses.

Today’s consumers do not tend to see a brand in silos. They are likely to have multiple touchpoints with a retailer and expect their customer journey between each touchpoint or channel should be seamless. I don’t see a retailer’s stores and website as different companies or silos, but often my experience across one channel is completely separated from another channel. I want to be able to interact with the brand online, through social, on my mobile, or in-store, and I want each of these interactions to be unified.

Today’s consumer will script their own journeys across the multiple channels and touchpoints, and every one of them matters. Forcing a customer to stick to a single channel or making them start at the beginning when switching channels creates friction and impacts the customer’s experience.

The key difference between multichannel and omnichannel is that omnichannel joins these touchpoints together so that, whatever journey the customer chooses to take, the experience is consistent and unified.

If it is that obvious, why isn’t everyone doing it?

Although many retailers have elements of omnichannel within their business – click and collect or reserve in store for example – very few have fully embraced or implemented it throughout their business.

Retailers like Office Shoes and Oasis have an endless aisle solution that allows users to make in-store purchases for items that are available online, but not available in the store, as well as making stock that is in store available on the web. Other brands like Argos have been leaders in initiatives like click and collect. However, it is hard to find examples of retailers who have driven omnichannel throughout their entire business.

Cost and ROI: Barrier and benefits of omnichannel

One of the biggest barriers to the implementation of omnichannel is the cost and complexity of doing so. A retailer with a physical presence is likely to already have a legacy in store POS system that has been highly customized for them. Their order management and ERP systems are likely to be very bespoke and highly integrated into their internal business systems.

The implementation of omnichannel across a business is likely to require significant investment in technology and business change. This technology will need to integrate right across the business and even replace some legacy systems. This takes a huge amount of vision and commitment by a business, and needs to be driven from the very top for it to be successful.

Availability of suitable technology

Whilst there are a number of companies offering solutions that can help a retailer move towards omnichannel, there are very few technology solutions available that cover multiple significant areas of an omnichannel business. There are many sophisticated POS solutions available, but how many also offer enterprise web or mobile capabilities? There are many enterprise e-commerce platforms available, but how many could replace a POS in-store?

Platforms are beginning to get up to speed with solutions which, when customized, can act as a POS for certain retailers. Demand and innovation is driving the technology forward, but there is still a long way to go.


Another large barrier to the adoption of omnichannel commerce is the culture of a business. For a business to be successful in any kind of digital transformation, it needs to be driven from the board downwards. It requires almost every member of staff to embrace it and to adapt in their role.

One of the biggest cultural challenges a bricks and mortar retailer will face when implementing omnichannel is resistance from in-store staff. In a multichannel world, store staff are likely to see the retailer’s digital business as competition. They will get commission from selling in-store, so they have little incentive to encourage customers to purchase online.

If you are paid on commission for orders in-store, you are much less likely to focus your attention on someone who you think will buy online, rather than someone who is likely to buy in-store. Sales staff may even try to encourage the customer to purchase something that is available there and then, rather than what they actually want, which will, ultimately, be a to detriment to that customer’s experience.

The key to overcoming this cultural challenge is to ensure that your technology allows you to track and log in-store interactions with a customer who then continues to purchase online. For high-ticket items such as furniture, a user may have multiple online and in-store interactions with multiple people within the retailer’s business. This may be in-store, online, on the telephone or via live chat and probably a combination of many of them.

If all of the data can be tracked and joined together, it is possible to create an incentive scheme that rewards a member of staff for a sale, no matter where it is placed. There is no point in breaking down the barriers between channels for your customers when you staff still act in a siloed way.

The future of omnichannel and multichannel

Whilst there are very few retailers who have yet to fully embrace omnichannel, the expectations and behavior of consumers should start to drive brands to invest in the technology and cultural change that is required to make it happen. Multichannel will introduce barriers to customers who want to script their own journey, and this will ultimately drive them towards the competition.

I expect to see more innovative and affordable technical solutions that allow brands to bridge the gap between the channels and allow consumers to script their own journeys with that brand. E-commerce platform providers will continue to innovate to provide in-store capabilities rather than simply online capabilities. Providers of in-store solutions will need to adapt to more fully integrate with other channels. This change is primarily driven by digital which is why providers of traditional in-store solutions probably have the most catching up to do.

Payment providers also have some work to do. A few providers such as Adyen and Worldpay are beginning to provide omnichannel payment solutions, but I would expect to see further innovation within this area, specifically to seamlessly allow customers to make web purchases in-store, using chip and pin as well as other payment types such as Android and ApplePay.

Download the Gold Guide on connecting in the experience economy here.

Branwell Moffat
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Branwell Moffat

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