Multiple Access Is Crucial in Web Economy

Before the 1999 online holiday shopping season passes completely from memory, it’s worth taking a moment to discuss one of the hot e-tailing subjects currently being debated: multi-channel marketing.

What is multi-channel access? And do consumers care what it is? While everyday people might not embrace the term “multiple channels of access” and will look at you like you have two heads if you try to have a discussion with them about it, they sure know how to respond to it when they see it.

Customers only need to know that they have a relationship that they can pursue via whatever means – Web, phone, retail store or catalog – is most convenient to them at a particular moment. Today there is no question that consumers have embraced this multi-pronged model in every area of e-commerce.

Multiple channels also provide more opportunities to build your brand. With 8 zillion new dot-com companies popping up this year, the customer is drowning in choices.

Who gets the customer’s business? The company with the best brand and the one offering convenient access. If your company only offers one access point, you are at a severe disadvantage to competitors offering more. That doesn’t mean you’ll lose the fight for your customer, but why leave yourself vulnerable?

All the media buzz these days is on clicks and mortar, and how retail giants such as Wal-Mart or The Gap could truly dominate the online shopping experience by setting up Internet kiosks in their stores. There’s one thing, though, that must be made clear: The phone will not go away. Despite the continued growth of e-commerce, the phone will only increase in importance.

For most retailers with multichannel access, the Web business is by far the fastest-growing part of their company. Still, a large number of their customers regularly alternate between ordering online and ordering by phone. It just makes sense. If you happen to be in a taxi or dashing through an airport, nothing will beat the phone for convenience. Aside from the convenience factor, it’s easy to forget that the entire world is not yet wired and may not be for some time to come.

What everyone does have is a phone, which is why so many virtual companies are scrambling to add a phone infrastructure to their back-end. Those that fail to integrate this type of technology will lose customers in the very midst of their online shopping, creating antipathy in the process.

Still, there are times in customer service when only the phone will work. Like that time you ordered a baby gift sent to a friend’s wife in the hospital but, after placing the order, learned that mother and baby had already been discharged. Your only thought at that moment was, “I must talk to someone…now!”

These two platforms are beginning to converge – surfing the Net via phone will become more mainstream – which will be the next big technological challenge and opportunity for e-commerce.

But until the entire world is trading stocks from computers that they wear like socks, providing consumers with multiple points of access will be crucial in guaranteeing success in the “click and mortar” world. Survivors of the impending e-tailer shakeout are not likely to be those who provide PC-based, Internet contact only, nor are they likely to be the retail dinosaurs who refused to embrace the online world that the customer is migrating toward.

Instead, the winners will be found among those companies who combine the best of all worlds – from tried-and-true retail stores, to the convenience of phone and catalog orders, to the breadth of products and services available through the Internet and their PC. Customers don’t want to be forced to choose either steak or lobster; they want both – or at the least the option to choose between the two in today’s “surf-and-turf,” clicks and mortar world.

And choice is what it’s all about.

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