Greenhouse Canada

Features Business Retail
A seamless experience

October 22, 2014  By Michelle Brisebois

Retailing used to be a straightforward interaction. The customer would enter the shop, browse the merchandise, make a purchase and leave. We had complete control over the interaction and as such could influence the information presented.

Today’s customers interact with retailers on their own terms, be it in-person, online or by phone.


It’s clear that the advent of the Internet has altered that dynamic considerably. Customers may very well research your product line prior to contacting you for a purchase. These purchases may show up in the traditional way – in store – or they may arrive via the telephone or the Internet. Retailers must co-ordinate, manage and promote more paths to purchase than ever before, and if those paths don’t all lead home, the road can be bumpy indeed. Enter omni-channel retailing: a philosophy that promotes a singular view of the customer as one of its cornerstone beliefs.


Marketers love their buzzwords, and “omni-channel retailing” is one of the most current terms in vogue. However, the idea has been around for over a hundred years.

The first major retailing omni-channel initiative is widely believed to be the Sears catalogue. In the late 1800s, Richard Sears realized that a blossoming railroad line and postal service would allow him to distribute catalogues for customers to order from and he could then deliver the goods. If you insert the word “Internet” in place of “postal system” then you can see that taking advantage of a new means of communication is a tried and true strategy for retail growth.

According to the Sears website, the Sears catalogue launched in 1888 was generating $750,000 in sales within its first seven years. By 1907, Sears’ mail order business was worth in excess of $50-million and changing the face of retailing forever. The retail stores came many years after the mail order business.

The Sears story reminds us that there is great power in giving consumers easy ways to access our products and services if we ensure that their experience is positive, easy and seamless as they shift from one channel to another.

The advent of catalogue marketing introduced a new concept to retailing – the “multi-channel” structure.

When phones became commonplace, call centres were created to deal with the orders flowing in and two channels became three. No doubt as each new channel emerged, trend watchers predicted it would replace the existing channel, but consumers are funny creatures. A new way of accessing services or information doesn’t necessarily replace the old one; it augments it.

Microwaves were launched in the 70s and the death knell for conventional ovens was sounded (remember those cookbooks that came with the ovens?). As we all know, conventional ovens are still alive and well. Microwaves are used alongside traditional ovens to speed up the process of conventional cooking, not to replace it.

Consumers above all want convenience and flexibility. Customers are interacting with your business on their own terms. They may connect with your business in person, in your store or at a trade show, via your website, phone, email, text or mobile app. They may also use several different devices to connect – mobile phones, desktop computers or tablets.

What was perhaps three channels of connectivity 30 years ago can easily now be six or eight channels. Treating retail channels all like separate little stores no longer works for either the customer or the retailer.

Omni-channel by definition breaks down the silos and looks at all of these paths as being interconnected rather than separate. The customer may search for information on your website, call and speak to your office team and then come in to your bricks and mortar store at a later date to make a purchase from your front-line retail team.

They will demand that you are able to pick up their transactional journey at each step of the way as though it were one continuous conversation. If they have to begin at square one each time, you’ll risk losing their interest – and commerce. The customer experience is a journey that connects to every aspect of your business, from warehousing to human resources.

Garden centres stand to gain tremendously from an omni-channel approach because our industry has connected to its customers through multiple channels (phone orders, catalogues, web and in-store) for many years. Omni-channel retailing is more about a state of mind than it is fancy software and buzzwords.

The Sears catalogue succeeded because Richard Sears demanded that the orders be filled with impeccable levels of customer service. The first step is to understand your customers’ path to purchase. Look at your website analytics and understand what sites and key words drove traffic to your site.  Customers may “shop” online but purchase in store or use the store as a display room to assess their options before ordering online or by phone.

Make sure that your pricing is the same whether ordering online or in store and that your staff is well versed in what specials are being offered on your website or in any catalogues or print ads you produce.

Most point-of-sale systems have the ability to track customer purchases and manage the relationship. Use this feature to set up a database of customers and to allow your team to see their order history.

Staff meetings should include an overview of what’s being offered in store and online or in print. When a customer calls to say, “I saw this bulb, seed or accessory on your website…,” your team can speak to it with confidence instead of acting as though this is the first time they’re hearing about this product or offer.

Look at how you reward your employees. If you have more than one store location and the team is rewarded with a bonus for hitting sales goals, do these goals include online sales and sales of gift cards? Does your reward system encourage referring customers to other locations when the customer wants to pick up the product closer to home? If what’s best for the customer is flexibility, then make sure your employees are rewarded for providing flexible solutions.

Many garden centres are recognizing that more consumers are comfortable buying their plants online. In a recent article in the Vancouver Sun, PanAmerican Nursery Products’ location in Surrey, B.C., reported it sees online sales as a key driver of its future success. It sold more than $200,000 in product through the Costco site last year.

Seed catalogues are as well established as the Sears catalogue, with many of them first appearing over a century ago. This omni-channel stuff isn’t scary or new for those in the gardening business. In fact, perhaps the industry should consider itself one of omni’s pioneers?

An omni-channel view
Consumers want options beyond the bricks and mortar store when making a purchase.

Online sales in Canada now total an average of $954 per person per year, according to the 2014 Ipsos Canadian Inter@ctive Reid Report.

In total, 82 per cent of Canadian Internet users made an online purchase this past year.

Online purchases of furniture and housewares now account for 23 per cent of online purchases – up five per cent from 2013.

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