Does omni-channel need a new definition?

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Ben Farrell, head of central operations and transport at John Lewis, asked delegates the question: Is it time to move on from the definition of omni-channel?, when he delivered the keynote address at the Omni-Channel Conference in London yesterday.


Ben Farrell, head of central operations and transport at John Lewis.

Farrell used the example of Amazon’s Alexa to demonstrate the changing retail landscape. “You can now ask Alexa for a space hopper, and the next thing you know the space hopper arrives,” he said. “There are new channels opening, there’s disruptive technology out there which can change things.

“And omni-channel is a view from the retailer, not the customer – the customers don’t care about our channels.”

He said that omni-channel is channel focused in the minds of those working in the supply chain, but customers imagine more widely – they want they’re products delivered as quickly and efficiently as possible

Retail is becoming more disruptive and asymmetric, he said, and that this is driven a lot by innovation, but also by the strength of retail giant Amazon.

“It’s driven a lot by innovation, and the strength of amazon,” he said.

At John Lewis, store footfall has decreased, while online shopping is growing year by year. Last month saw online usage grow by 13 per cent compared to the same time last year.

One problem that both the supply chain and retail are facing due to the increase in online shopping, is pressure to offer one-hour delivery slots.

“Amazon Prime offers one-hour delivery, will we all reach this stage? And at what cost?” he said. “Others are pushing boundaries, but is it a race to the bottom?”

He questioned whether or not customers actually want one-hour delivery slots. “Are retailers driving customers to want more, or are we responding to customer demand?” he said. In other words, he said, no one knew they needed Apple until the company put an IPhone in their hands.

John Lewis is looking closely at shopper behaviour. “The Oxford store opens next month, so we expect online activity to grow significantly like it has elsewhere,” he said.

He said that John Lewis alone can’t change the diminishing footfall on the high street. But there might be another way to use its current stores.

He said that John Lewis is heading in a direction where customers can go online and see that a product is in their local branch so they can collect it. “But then you have to be bang on with inventory management,” he said.

The Omni-Channel Conference continues today at the Grand Connaught Rooms in Central London, when Vinesh Patel, operations manager – mobile at Sky will focus on the issue of returns. He will look at robust strategies for returns to work more efficiently, how retailers benefit from free returns, and the importance of communication with the customers to ensure they find the right product. Patel will also take part in a panel discussion looking at why return rates are so high.

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