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How the pandemic jumpstarted “omnichannel” commerce

As consumer expectations rapidly shift, leading businesses are adapting new technology to unite the best of the physical and digital worlds into engaging new experiences

How the pandemic jumpstarted “omnichannel” commerce

Picture this: You’re heading home from work when you notice your vehicle’s fuel gauge is hovering dangerously close to empty. You pull off the freeway at the next exit and head to the nearest gas station. As you pull up to the pump, you say, “Alexa, pay for gas.” Then, without even pausing to remove your wallet or phone, you get out of the car, select your fuel grade, and start fueling. When you’re done, you hop back in the car and drive off, safe with the knowledge that your tank is full, and payment was processed digitally following a simple verbal prompt.

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This isn’t a scenario from some far-off future. As of September of 2020, “Alexa, pay for gas” can be used by consumers to refuel at more than 11,500 Exxon and Mobil stations across the U.S. The contactless payment experience was developed alongside Amazon and ExxonMobil by Fiserv, a leading global provider of payments and financial services technology solutions. It’s just one of many new multifaceted payment experiences that Fiserv is enabling for its clients via Carat, a new omnichannel commerce ecosystem that is redefining commerce in a post-pandemic world—with big potential benefits for retailers. “The winners are going to be the brands that understand how to step above the fray and build lasting engagements with consumers,” says Nandan Sheth, head of Carat and Digital Commerce at Fiserv.

For years, having an omnichannel strategy meant little more than operating both a physical store and an online storefront. That binary no longer holds. Today, omnichannel retail encompasses a variety of mobile, social, and voice transactions that span physical and digital channels, including contactless payment and buy now, pay later options, as well as the ability to buy online and pick up in store or at the curbside.

What’s more, the lines between physical and digital consumer experiences are becoming increasingly blurry. Today, the most successful omnichannel strategies enable a seamless customer experience that moves fluidly among channels, devices, and payment options. And retailers are increasingly using digital elements to augment the physical experience, rather than replace it.

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BLENDING DIGITAL AND PHYSICAL EXPERIENCES

The COVID-19 pandemic fast-tracked trends in omnichannel that were already in the making. According to a recent Carat Insights report, omnichannel spending increased more than 70% year over year in the first quarter of 2021 across the restaurant, retail, and grocery industries. The same report reveals that half of consumers used “buy online, pick up in store” in the past month. Meanwhile, contactless in-store payments have increased a staggering 450% since the start of the pandemic.

This data reveals a truth that may surprise casual observers: While the pandemic undoubtedly drove a lot of digital commerce, it did not signal the decline of in-person retail interactions. In fact, it may even have ignited a stronger desire for them.

“The pandemic has taught us that we are social creatures,” Sheth says. “The notion of 100% digital commerce in the future is folly. In reality, face-to-face experiences enhance the commerce journey for consumers.” He adds that the next wave of omnichannel commerce will center on how retailers blend digital and physical experiences to meet consumers where they are.

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Many of us have encountered versions of this new blended experience in the past year and half. For example, diners at many restaurants can now access menus and pay for their meals using QR codes. These customers aren’t abandoning in-person experiences; they’re just using new digital tools to make their in-person experiences more convenient and pleasurable. Similarly, if a customer is shopping in a physical store and an item they’re looking for is not in stock, they may want to order it then and there on their phones and have it ship to their home. To achieve long-term success, these blended experiences will need to add more than one-dimensional value, potentially by integrating with a loyalty program or by delivering marketing offers that benefit the consumer.

Conversely, businesses are also using digital channels to drive foot traffic back to physical stores. A simple example could be your grocer understanding you are a regular buyer of wine and cheese via their mobile app, then inviting you to attend a wine-and-cheese–pairing class with your spouse on a Saturday afternoon at your local market.

The ability to deliver seamless experiences to consumers whether they are engaging with a business in-store, online, or through a mobile app is defining the next generation of customer engagement.

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TAPPING INTO AN OMNICOMMERCE ECOSYSTEM

Merchants that meet these shifting consumer expectations with a flexible, forward-looking omnichannel strategy will be best positioned to succeed in today’s retail environment. But retailers face important challenges when it comes to integrating the many different aspects of omnichannel. For instance, some businesses lack the expertise to integrate the data from multiple sales channels. What’s more, omnichannel solutions involve multiple capabilities that stretch across many departments, and it can be difficult to coordinate them under a single coherent strategy.

That’s where being part of a bigger ecosystem can benefit many businesses. Carat is one example of a next-generation suite of omnichannel solutions that is driving commerce and increasing customer satisfaction for retailers around the world. Through a simple API (application programming interface), Carat integrates emerging omnichannel technologies such as scan and go, order ahead, voice command, endless aisle, and the connected car to deliver innovative new commerce experiences.

The pandemic not only highlighted new trends but opened the door for new kinds of customer engagements. As Sheth says, “There’s a massive opportunity for retailers to use the mega trend of omnichannel to forge a new way of driving commerce.”

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