If you are employing a multichannel sales strategy, there’s no doubt you’ve experienced integration challenges. While multichannel increases revenue and attracts more customers due to increased choice and convenience, both B2B and B2C industry leaders are engaging in integration strategies to eliminate the complexity of multiple business processes shared between multiple systems. But the challenge of choosing an effective, long-term integration solution still remains.
What I’ve learned from researching this issue is that in a little less than 10 years ago, comprehensive, off-the-shelf solutions that managed or automated technology retail operations were hard to come by. Companies who could afford the tools invested in many different bespoke systems (custom made to task specification) and created their own DIY eCommerce platforms consisting of a patchwork of unwieldy and cumbersome disparate systems. Despite giving companies an online presence, these first-generation platforms have some serious issues and required a lot of time and money to operate and maintain.
Thankfully, time has been on our side and today we have complete, easy-to-use multichannel solutions widely available and more affordable than ever, but selection can still be tricky. Here are a few considerations to make when evaluating multichannel integration platforms for your own environment to ensure an approach that will be cost-effective, non-disruptive, and flexible and scalable enough to grow with your business.
Multichannel Platform Considerations
- System Interoperability – In a multichannel sales environment you are probably using a point-of-sale (POS), ERP or accounting system and one or more eCommerce websites and marketplaces. To accomplish maximum multichannel efficiency you will want all these systems fully integrated. If your systems support API connectivity, integrating them will be much easier. If they are not flexible and have rigid limitations with import/export capabilities, this will add additional expense to build integrations. In many cases the cost to upgrade inflexible systems outweighs the cost to build custom integrations.
- Connection Management – Once you’ve determined the systems to integrate,it is important to decide how the connections will be made: a series of point-to-point connections or a hub/spoke model. Additionally, as your business changes, you will want ease and the ability to add or remove connected systems or channels quickly without disruption. Ultimately you want a platform that is:
- Setup with fewest number of connections possible – every connection point is a risk, so limiting the number of connection points with a hub/spoke model versus multiple point-to-point connections is safer
- Easy to monitor – receive proactive notifications so you can easily identify and fix issues with connection points
- Simple to connect – use open API’s to ensure end-to-end interoperability with sales channels and apps
- Easy to manage – use a consistent approach with every integration, especially if you have multiple systems’ vendors involved so there’s only one method to learn
- Flexible and scalable – add new channels and scale to manage and process the resulting data growth from the expansion
- Conveniently maintained – web-based upgrades and enhancements can occur behind-the-scenes eliminating down-time
- Data Preparation – In order to simplify and speed up system integration, it is critical to take time to prepare, organize and cleanup data. Reducing sources, eliminating duplicates, and putting data in acceptable formats for your connected systems and channels will eliminate errors, speed throughput and improve data integrity. Data cleanup is a necessary step in your multichannel integration plan and time must be scheduled to complete.
- Channel Management – A robust multichannel platform needs to be flexible and scalable. Market conditions change quickly and having the ability to add or remove channels responsively is key. When conditions favor expansion, your platform should be able to accommodate quick entry into new channels like Amazon, eBay and other marketplaces. Likewise, when a channel is underperforming, your platform should proactively provide tracking and cost analysis to aid decision-making to scale down or shift business to better performing channels.
- Item Syndication – Companies selling through many different channels must constantly provide accurate and updated product information and content for successful merchandizing. In order to expedite this, multichannel platforms syndicate product data across channels, including individual and bulk item changes from the master system continuously.
- Product Information Management– Built-in PIM capabilities enable sellers to organize, enhance and smartly group merchandise by attribute data improving a customer’s search for items online. PIM puts your products in shopper’s baskets by making it easier for them to search, find and view all the item information, specs, reviews and photos they need to make an immediate purchase. Without PIM shoppers have trouble finding your products and listings, abandon your sites and quickly go elsewhere for convenience.
- Order Management– Logging into each and every marketplace or web store to access, view and process orders is inefficient and inhibits growth. Multichannel platforms eliminate this by automatically pulling all your orders and triggering fulfillment, email confirmation and shipping processes. This automation improves customer satisfaction with speedy response, accurate fulfillment and quick delivery. Corporately, the automation provides significant cost savings eliminating manual labor and errors, reducing customer return rates and increasing customer retention.
- Inventory Management– Managing inventory with multiple sales channels can be a challenge, especially when hundreds or thousands of items are being sold, turnover is high, and many channels are operated. Multichannel platforms eliminates costly and manual efforts by keeping automatic counts across channels and proactively provides inventory planning and replenishment info. In addition, robust inventory management can intelligently route or split inventory between channels, suppliers, or warehouses based upon demand, availability or other business rules.
- Business Intelligence – For analytics to be useful, they must be highly accessible and provide actionable insight for smarter decision-making. Without integration, sales data sits in one system, inventory in another, customer data in another, and spend data in yet another. None of this disparate data can show relationship analysis to the week-to-week or month-to-month changes. Multichannel BI can offer real-time, 360-degree views of your sales activity across all systems and channels with immediate and direct access enabling more informed and quick decision making. View sales activity by location, channel, category or SKU, measure velocity, turns and GMROI, conduct trend analysis on locations, web versus brick & mortar, wholesale versus retail, or period-over-period, or year-over-year.
- System Audits & Controls – Data getting from point A to point B is the goal but how do you know if it actually got there? Multichannel platforms with intense levels of audits and controls will evaluate your data at many points along transmission confirming data is intact as well as formatted appropriately. Robust platforms proactively provide alerts and thorough audit reports for maximum reliability and control.