The ever-demanding omnichannel world – leading the charge with leadership

The battle to gain and retain consumers continues across sectors and markets. As the National Retail Federation’s largest global retail conference and expo highlighted earlier this year, the winners will be those that have the ability to create a seamless end-to-end experience digitally as well as in-store, as well as in-store digitally.

But, who at a brand is responsible for omnichannel success? While this market trend has long been on the agenda of any forward-thinking retailer, creating an effective omnichannel strategy comes down to strong, proactive and committed leadership.

Let’s get digital

Across the board, e-commerce and digitisation has forced retailers to constantly adapt for fear of being left behind. The new breed of savvy shopper calls for a cutting-edge multichannel experience, with 78% getting their information online before buying in-store, often switching between channels throughout the journey. Successfully marrying the variety of consumer touchpoints is now seen as the ticket to driving optimum buying decisions.

Nowhere is this more visible than in the consumer lifestyle sector in areas such as cosmetics and beauty, where technology has led to more personal, influencer and social media-led communication between brands and audiences. Customers no longer need to walk into stores to try before they buy because they can experiment and test products virtually while accessing global influencer videos, reviews and price comparisons in a few clicks.  

As a result, this market, once dominated by a collection of well known brands and high street retailers with big budgets and prestige, is now full of SMEs taking advantage of the fast, easy and low-cost routes to market presented by digital. Case in point is Glossier, which through a highly personal product approach, nimble digital marketing and influencer engagement, is turning heads and winning sales. For established industry stalwarts, the term ‘innovate or die’ has never been more appropriate – but delivering at pace and scale versus agile SME competitors like Glossier is the challenge.  

We’re talking top-down team transformation

The principles of omnichannel impact all areas of a business, and as such it can not be achieved overnight, especially in large, complex organisations. To improve the chance of success, it needs complete buy-in from the whole organisation, starting at the top. The primary responsibility falls with the CEO, or an equivalent, to prioritise, invest in and resource omnichannel before steering it through their workforce. Historically, if it’s not on their agenda, or misperceived as something that sits purely within marketing, sales and IT, there’s limited chance of traction.

While some CEOs and leaders may lack the level of experience or understanding in areas such as digital, IT, marketing and HR when it comes to omnichannel application – they should look to assess the talent around them, and if needed, bring on board specialist leaders with relevant skills and know-how. But importantly, they must allow these leaders decision making powers and influence at board level. Recent examples include H&M CEO Karl-Johan Persson’s appointment of data specialist Christopher Wylie as the retailer’s new Research Director.

With a background at Cambridge Analytica, where he exposed its widespread misuse of data, he’s applying a passion for ethical data use to improve H&M’s digital appeal. Wylie’s appointment also reflects a continued shift away from finding leaders with sector experience to those with the skills needed to support omnichannel across disciplines such as digital, data, HR and finance.

We’re also seeing a greater appetite for younger talent at leadership level. Take Victoria Beckham’s appointment of James Wintle, formerly of AllSaints. As new Chief Digital & Technical Officer for VB, he’s tasked with driving commercial results beyond high-fashion and catwalk success. Brands are fast learning that sometimes the best individuals are those that have grown up living and breathing digital and multichannel.

Omnichannel’s omni-leaders

As well as a top-down approach, there are some key leadership traits required in the battle to become omnichannel. The ability to make smart, strategic investment decisions is increasingly important. David Walmsley, Chief Marketing Officer at media company Future Plc, during past tenures in leadership positions at M&S and House of Fraser, focused not only on putting weight behind end user-facing innovation, but ensured equal investment into the back-end processes and systems spanning real-time stock availability and check-out procedures. Balancing investments across different functions will help brands to not only talk the talk, but walk the walk, to create a seamless consumer journey – not one that fails to live up to unrealistic promises surrounding product, payments, deliveries and customer service.

A prime example is Proctor & Gamble, the owner of Estee Lauder, Always and Oral-B. Millions in omnichannel investments have fuelled end-user innovations such as chat-bots for Smashbox Cosmetics that helps customers explore products, read instructions and locate in-stock stores. While this is doing its job to drive online purchases, P&G is also investing in back-end systems such as E-Centre, a programme to develop its digital capabilities including supply chain visualisation, real time social listening technologies and thousands of hours of digital training for staff.

This commitment to a 360°approach also calls for core soft skills to support the practical application of omnichannel, especially in large brands where change will be sizable. From marketing to IT and HR to finance, leaders with the ability to unite teams, build relationships, coordinate internal and third party stakeholders and manage transformation in the workforce are essential. Take Jacqui Gale, appointed as Managing Director for luxury candle brand Wax Lyrical; her key focus being to develop and implement an omnichannel strategy for the brand. A big thinker with a far-reaching vision, and the foresight and experience to manage risk, Gale is working to ensure that the different aspects of Wax Lyrical work together harmoniously.

While many continue in their efforts to achieving the holy grail of omnichannel, the key to moving in the right direction is bought-in leadership that understands their role in the process. From CEOs that embrace omnichannel to the changing mould of senior talent across disciplines, leadership teams have to drive change from above.

By combining real commitment and support from CEOs with a dynamic leadership team, reflective of the diverse nature and needs of omnichannel, brands big and small can be proactive and steer their way toward success.

Claire Stewart is head of the Consumer Lifestyle Practice at executive search firm Berwick Partners

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