“Omnichannel” is one of those buzzwords, like “innovative” or “content marketing,” that seem to be on everyone’s lips these days. It’s generally used to describe the practice of traditional brick-and-mortar (B&M) retailers incorporating their online, mobile and in-store channels to deliver a more convenient, seamless retail experience.

When it’s intuitive and customer-centric, omnichannel can work incredibly well. The clothing brand Zara, for instance, just launched a mobile app that lets you scan an item in the store that’s not available in your size, purchase the product and have the proper size shipped to your home. (The only roadblock I hit was being forced to explain the app to Zara employees in the store who didn’t understand why I was “photographing” the tags with my phone.)

But what’s most interesting in the omnichannel age is not the fact that B&M brands are embracing the web, but the reverse. It turns out that a new generation of web-native retailers are extending their customer experience back into the physical realm.

Try it before you buy it

“I’m more convinced than ever that offline retail isn’t going anywhere,” Andy Dunn of online retailer Bonobos recently told the Business of Fashion blog. “The focus is just shifting from distribution to experience.”

Dunn is convinced that his will be the first billion-dollar menswear brand of the digital age – and it is well on its way – but part of his strategy involves getting physical. Bonobos has created tiny by-appointment brick-and-mortar showrooms, called “Guide Shops,” where customers can try on items. The brand also has showroom spaces inside upscale fashion retailer Nordstrom. The catch is that even if a purchase is made, customers leave the stores empty-handed.

I’m more convinced than ever that offline retail isn’t going anywhere.

“Most people in retail think the instant gratification of walking out with the product is a core part of the retail experience,” Dunn says. “It’s not. It has been astonishing how little our customer cares.”

Canadian luxury online retailer eLUXE has also been operating a pop-up by-appointment showroom, Luxe Lounge in Toronto, for more than a year. Erin Lubelsky, eLUXE’s marketing director, calls it “a really great customer acquisition tool.”

The lounge gives the startup the ability to host private and semi-private consultations and group shopping events for customers. It has another marketing benefit, according to Lubelsky. “It is a great space [for our team] to go into and play with the clothing for email ideas and for Instagram posts,” she says – something that would be more difficult to do in a traditional warehouse space.

Nordstrom, already a veteran in online shopping, is also bringing the internet into its showrooms. Understanding that Pinterest is extremely popular with its customers (with more than 4.5 million fans), the brand has begun tagging items on its in-store shelves to allow customers to see what’s getting the most traction online.

Warby Parker's "Class Tour" involves a school bus that has been repurposed as a pop-up shop. Image by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts via Flickr.

Warby Parker’s “Class Tour” involves a school bus that has been repurposed as a pop-up shop. Image by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts via Flickr.

Showrooms also work well in the eyewear industry. Web-native brands like Warby Parker and Clearly Contacts have always offered extraordinary service and shockingly low prices (Clearly Contacts has even experimented with giving away the first pair free), but they have faced the hurdle of hesitant buyers; people want to be able to try it before they buy it.

Warby Parker initially resolved this by offering a free at-home trial of non-prescription frames. But more recently, both brands have taken the showroom route, which, in the case of Warby Parker, involved turning a retrofitted school bus into a cross-country touring showroom.

The brand has also set up showrooms inside hot retailers like Philadelphia’s Art in the Age, Chicago’s Apartment Number 9 and Miami’s The Standard Hotel Spa. As long as the showroom includes an iPad, or better yet, the customer brings a smartphone, there is no limit to where Warby Parker’s next retail location could be.

Shopify's POS lets small businesses sync their online  and offline sales channels.

Shopify’s POS lets small businesses sync their online and offline sales channels.

Software solutions

A number of smart tech companies are paving the way for online retailers to make the switch to B&M. The trend was led by point-of-sale hardware startups like Jack Dorsey’s Square, which gave both small e-retailers and at-home craftspeople the ability to accept live credit card payments from their phones – bringing their online stores to life.

Shopify’s POS lets small businesses sync their online and offline sales channels.[/caption]But for reverse omnichannel, my money is on the e-commerce software solution Shopify, which originally shot to fame by providing at-home retailers with the tools to create amazing online stores (think of it as a merchant’s version of Tumblr).

The company just launched ShopifyPOS for iPad, which now takes all the information from a retail location and syncs it with an online store. Small retailers no longer need to deal with keeping track of multiple inventories, product catalogs or payment systems. Instead, they can track integrated customer behaviour and sales data from both online and retail locations, delivering omnichannel metrics no matter the size of the business.

The Amazon locker system is a solution to the problem of waiting for the postman.

The Amazon locker system is a solution to the problem of waiting for the postman.

Thinking in reverse

Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, remains firmly entrenched in e-retail – even if rumours persist about the company launching a brick-and-mortar store. While that’s unlikely to happen, Amazon has recently taken up some real-world real estate in the form of lockers. Allowing customers to ship items to a secure location delivers a number of benefits, including no longer being at the mercy of the postman. (Additional benefits can be seen in this hilarious company-made video).

Creating a successful omnichannel experience is no longer about translating B&M to the web.

For the vast majority of retailers, going “omnichannel” means recreating their B&M concepts online. I would challenge those merchants to stop for a moment and imagine how they’d approach the same task from the other direction. What if they were tasked with taking a virtual store offiine? Would they re-imagine their existing locations as showrooms that complement the website? Would they select a permanent venue or make it mobile? How would they make their customers’ lives easier?

Creating a successful omnichannel experience is no longer about translating B&M to the web, or vice versa. It‘s about harnessing the strengths of each channel, then blurring them into one unique value proposition.

Because in the end, it doesn’t matter where the customer shops, so long as you make the sale.