The owner of a clothing boutique store smiles as she helps a customer.
Omnichannel and multichannel sales strategies use two very different approaches to the customer experience. Learn the differences and which strategy is right for your business. — Getty Images/Thomas Barwick

Omnichannel and multichannel sales are two terms that, at first glance, seem to say the same thing. These buzzwords, however, have completely different implications for how you run your retail business.

Omnichannel and multichannel sales strategies take two different approaches to the customer experience. And understanding the difference between these strategies can help you improve the buyer journey.

Omnichannel vs. multichannel: What’s the difference?

In retail, multichannel selling is the use of two or more sales channels that have separate customer experiences. For instance, a multichannel retailer may sell products online as well as in a physical storefront. A customer who shops with the merchant online will have no interaction with the in-store employees. Or a customer who visits the store in person may only be able to return those items in-store.

On the merchant’s side, this means setting up separate sales channels that each have dedicated technology, data, operations, and staff. These sales channels are part of the same brand but provide different ways to engage with customers and flexibility in targeting unique customer segments.

“Think of multichannel marketing as a wheel with spokes. At the center of the wheel is your product (i.e., a sale). On the outer rim of the wheel are your customers, where each channel offers a separate and independent opportunity to purchase,” wrote Shopify.

Conversely, omnichannel retail provides an integrated, unified customer experience across all sales channels. The goal of an omnichannel sales strategy is to provide the same purchase experience no matter how a customer interacts with your brand.

“This approach accounts for the fact that many consumers tend to switch from desktop to mobile to in-person shopping. It allows consumers to choose their customer journey across all channels and touchpoints, each being equal in importance to the overall customer experience,” wrote Webgility.

[Read more: Outdoor Voices Turns to Omnichannel Technology to Meet Customer Demand]

More than half of customers engage with three to five channels during each buying journey.

Which approach is right for your business?

Today’s customers expect to get products and services when they want and how they want them. No matter how consumers interact with your business, they expect great customer service, easy browsing, and fast checkout.

At first, the omnichannel approach is best suited for meeting the needs of today’s customers. A study by BI Intelligence found that shoppers who engaged with a company on multiple cohesive channels made a purchase more often.

But there’s a catch. Especially for smaller retailers, it can be challenging — not to mention expensive — to deliver the same level of service and convenience on every sales channel. More than half of customers engage with three to five channels during each buying journey. That means your Amazon storefront, e-commerce website, in-store experience, and social media selling all need to meet customer expectations.

“Converting a retail business to omnichannel requires significant resources. Worse yet, there’s no stopping halfway. Non-functioning omnichannel technology will create the same experience as absolutely no technology at all,” wrote Shopify.

How to transition from single-channel sales

Single-channel sales — businesses that offer only one way to shop — can start with a multichannel approach to see if it’s worth investing in other ways to reach customers.

“Before deciding which channels to advertise or sell on, it’s a good idea to do some research to determine if the products are accepted on the channel, if it would be profitable in light of different fees per channel, if there is a market for the products on a particular channel, and if the business is prepared to handle an increase in volume or operations without sacrificing quality,” wrote Big Commerce.

It’s possible to build toward an omnichannel approach by slowly integrating processes and technologies across your multichannel operations. Start with a clear understanding of your customer’s path to purchase. From there, you can start investing in technology that can unite your sales channels.

[Read more: Walgreens Upgrades Mobile Tech to Better Meet Consumers’ Omnichannel Buying Demands]

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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