In this virtual discussion on LinkedIn Live, The Globe and Mail’s Katherine Scarrow spoke with commerce experts on how to develop a long-term omnichannel strategy and asked them to identify the next big trends in commerce.

The global pandemic changed and shifted many aspects of daily life, especially the way consumers buy and sell. For a business, however, selling online doesn’t necessarily equate to building a sustainable omnichannel strategy. If you’re looking to keep tabs on consumers’ changing habits, learn what’s next in eCommerce, and see what the future holds for omnichannel retail, this post is for you.

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What are the key differences between omnichannel vs. multichannel marketing?

There probably aren’t any marketing aspects that create more confusion or have more overlap than omnichannel vs. multichannel–two of marketing’s most trending buzzwords.

Because these two marketing styles have similarities, it’s often tough to distinguish the key differences.

Multichannel marketing means you’ve got your business in front of consumers everywhere, from your physical store to your website, and social media. While that’s great, there’s a disconnect between all these different channels–silos of data. Omnichannel marketing is everything a multichannel approach offers, only better–everything is connected for a seamless experience. Customers enjoy a single brand experience regardless of the fulfillment channel. But what makes omnichannel marketing a success? According to David Nagy, Founder of eCommerce Canada, “Brands that do omnichannel marketing well are usually driven by data. They have great customer relationship management; they understand where their customer has come from and the multiple ways that they’ve been touched by the brand [from brick-and-mortar stores to online sales].”

Multichannel marketing offers all this same customer data, but gathering it requires multiple tactics. Omnichannel ties it all together so you can see all touchpoints a customer has with your brand–all in one place. “Omnichannel is…the holistic global effect of pulling [it] all together and drawing from one resource to do your marketing.”

How can companies get started with an omnichannel strategy?

Before jumping in, guns ablaze, it’s important to take a step back and really understand the differences between a multichannel and omnichannel customer experience. Because omni is one of the newest marketing trends, a small business owner might feel impulsive at first–ready to grab the bull by the horns and hold on in hopes of generating better business.

But it’s really important to get educated about omnichannel vs. multichannel retailing methods first. Managing Lead at Digital Main Street, Darryl Julott, says, “If you’re a smaller business, you need to look holistically at your business, your customers, and your current omnichannel marketing strategy to see where you have gaps and where you can actually begin implementing a full-fledged strategy” because you don’t want to get “so far down the road” and “into the weeds” with no direction. Pull back before you jump in–figure out how you’d be able to “correct things and make adjustments on the fly.”

How have consumer expectations changed over the last two years?

The greatest change in consumer expectations has been akin to the 1980s when microwave ovens became the newest gadget for the impatient. Today’s consumers want what they want, when they want it, where they are. Being able to meet customers where they are with a personalized experience through an omnichannel approach is perhaps the most influential aspect of business today. What does this mean for the customer journey? For customer engagement?

“When the pandemic started, the first thing we did…was cultivate a superhuman customer experience,” said Laura Carinci, Head of Brand Marketing and Partnerships at Jenny Bird. “Customers’ expectations have absolutely increased over the past two years. Customers are at home, and they’re on mobile apps on their phones or tablets. And if they need something, they need it, and they want it right away, they expect a quick response, and they also expect human interaction. Moving away from scripted responses and treating all customer interactions with a one-to-one approach is important. No matter where customers come to you, you’re meeting them there.”

Can Square’s resources and tools help small businesses start or refine their omnichannel strategy?

Square’s resources, such as Square Marketing, Square Messages, and even Square Point of Sale, can help small businesses start or refine their omnichannel strategy across all sales channels. Chris Sheridan, Square’s eCommerce Head says, “On Square’s website, we [have] starter kits and setup guides that really outline step-by-step our recommendations for a successful launch [of omnichannel for] food and beverage experiences, physical retailer experiences, or service industry experiences. We rely very heavily on our Seller Community, which is made up of sellers and Square staff answering questions and providing advice. We also have an account management team and folks in Support that are very trained on giving specific advice for sellers.”

How an effective omnichannel strategy can humanize the eCommerce experience

Really nailing the omnichannel strategy comes down to meeting the customer where they are, when they’re ready. This always-on, constant availability adds a human element to a brand. Laura explains, “The pandemic actually presented a really interesting opportunity to rethink humanizing the one-to-one experience and really becoming customer-centric.

It’s important to remember that the medium [you use] is [also] the message. If you’re going to invest in really rich content, you [have] to repurpose it. If you’re sending an email out one day, your Instagram [should] mirror that email to hit the customer in both places. And you need to consider that you may have a different customer on TikTok than you do on Instagram. You need each medium to serve its intended purpose or the intended customer that’s going to be there ingesting that content.”

On challenges businesses face when adopting an omnichannel strategy
When a small business attempts a big change, such as omnichannel marketing, it can pose challenges the owner might never have considered, such as staffing or customer service issues. Can your business handle it? According to Chris, “Staffing is a huge challenge right now. You have to ask yourself: ‘Am I staffed enough to support pickup, delivery, and my in-store operations operating [all] at once?’ It can be overwhelming.”

And it’s okay–but having no success or too much success all at once are two sides of the same coin. “I think businesses need to be aware that it’s okay to turn off online ordering sometimes. It’s okay; everyone does it. A lot of these tools are very advanced to provide really good ways to manage your business, and more importantly, manage your staffing and other resources, and prioritize the most important things.” It’s a bit of breathing room.

The landscape of eCommerce has had a massive shift over the last two years or so. From consumers supporting more local small businesses and those offering truly sustainable practices to adopting a mobile-first attitude, omnichannel is forever changed–and will continue evolving. Digital Main Street’s Darryl says, “There is a conscious shift to supporting local and supporting SMBs. I think we’re seeing the impact that a really good omnichannel strategy can have for a brand, and I think that’s going to lead to a continued shift in brands focusing on direct-to-consumer marketing, as opposed to other channels, as many brands are pulling out of general retail chains.” And Square’s Chris on the mobile-first shift: “Mobile phones will be the only thing that people really optimize for [going forward]. Right now, 80% of traffic to Square Online stores comes from a mobile device. If you’re in that mobile mindset, you’re going in the right direction.”

So, what’s ahead for omnichannel?

“We’re entering the era of the marketplace, where there’s a demand for understanding marketplaces, development, and new marketplaces—not just Amazon or other online eCommerce sites. The demand for b2b eCommerce is probably as prevalent as direct-to-consumer right now. There is much opportunity for technology and customer experience development that still has to be explored,” says David Nagy.