What’s the Difference Between Multi-Channel and Omni-Channel Retail?

There are two questions that we hear most often from retailers who are exploring multi-channel and omni-channel retail:

  1. What’s the difference?
  2. Which one is the best fit for my store?

What’s the Difference Between Multi-Channel & Omni-Channel Retail?

First, we’ll check the word authorities: dictionaries.

Channels are defined as “a method used for communicating information or for sending or receiving something,” says the Macmillan Dictionary.  In regards to retail, your channels could be for sales and/or marketing. These channels may include sales made through your offline store, print catalogue, website, email, online marketplaces like Amazon, social media, instant messaging, or a growing number of other options.

The omni prefix means “in all ways or places,” according the Oxford definition. They define omni-channel as “Denoting or relating to a type of retail which integrates the different methods of shopping available to consumers (e.g. online, in a physical shop, or by phone).” An accurate, if general, definition.  They have no applicable definition at all for multi-channel retail.

It’s little wonder merchants are confused. Let’s explore it further.

Omni-channel commerce means your company is utilizing all appropriate channels under one strategy, which is firmly focused on a seamless, smooth customer journey. Your offline store, website, social media and other touchpoints are brought together to create the ultimate shopping experience by being all things to all people. You’ll appeal to those who prefer to research online before they go to a store, or while they’re in the store using their smartphone, or in the store before they purchase online, and so on.

Additionally, you’ll be able to target people directly with customized communications and offers that are based on their behaviour or auto-determined preferences. You can address sales objections before the consumer knows they have any, and continue to target them with customized marketing after their first purchase. Ultimately, you create an evolving world that revolves entirely around the consumer.

Multi is described as “more than two” and/or “many times over.” It tends to focus on sales or marketing that situationally overlaps, but isn’t necessarily integrated into a single strategy. Each channel offers the opportunity to buy your product. Consumers are able to browse, research and shop from their preferred channel. Evaluating the success of each channel will steer your strategy toward the most lucrative ones.

Have you ever viewed a product on a website and then started seeing that product everywhere you go online? Such as Facebook, Amazon, websites that use Google ads, and in your inbox? That’s ad retargeting. It’s also multi-channel digital marketing, focused specifically on multi-channel sales. The advertising might focus on bringing the shopper back to the product page, or it may offer the opportunity to purchase on the spot, such as buying directly through Facebook or Pinterest.

Multi-Channel vs. Omni-Channel: Which is Best for Your Business?

There is a very good reason why businesses are exploring multi-channel and omni-channel retail and marketing – it works.

“Organizations who sell via onsite, marketplaces, mobile, social, and/or a physical location generate 190% more revenue than merchants who only sell through a single channel,” states a recent Shopify report on the topic. “73% of shoppers use multiple channels in what is increasingly a nonlinear path to purchase. Whether it’s offline-to-online, vice versa, or a mixed variation, channel hopping is now the norm.”

Most small-medium businesses start with multi-channel retail and marketing, often one channel at a time. Once you’re sure it’s going to work for your business, you can expand until you’re fully omni-channel. This method also allows your growth from adopted channels to fund the expansion to new channels, if necessary.

If you don’t have a physical store or other way to integrate offline channels (such as arranging a way for your customers to pick up or return products offline), you’re left with a digital, multi-channel retail and marketing strategy.

Deciding what’s best for your businesses hinges on your knowledge of your ideal or typical customer. You need to know what their shopping preferences are and then try to meet their demands, testing and tweaking your strategy along the way. A deciding factor is often based on just how much you can pull off at one time. If you don’t have the resources or infrastructure to implement and maintain a truly omni-channel experience, you’ll have to start with multi-channel.

The easiest and most efficient way to adopt either strategy, is through a robust ecommerce platform. The best ecommerce platforms will integrate online or offline channels, and automate multi-channel or omni-channel sales and marketing.

The most popular choice in North America is Canada’s Shopify. Between core functionality and apps, there is very little Shopify can’t do. It’s suitable for businesses of all sizes in any niche, and it grows with you. They have experts to help you build everything at once, or properly position you for later expansion. It’s affordable, scalable, user-friendly, and one of the most feature-rich platforms in the world.

“Our new ecommerce experience builds on our industry-leading omni-channel experience,” said David Boone, Chief Executive Officer, Staples Canada, after teaming up with Shopify.

If you want to build an omni-channel business, it can take several years to be fully operational and optimized for peak performance. Is it worth it for small businesses? An RSM Retailer Omni-channel survey of middle-market retailers with functioning omni-channel strategies, found that participants had a 40 percent average increase in new customers and a 36 percent increase in total sales volume in the past 12 months. Overall retail sales growth for the same time period was in the single digits.  Clearly, it’s worth a shot.

Moving Foreword

Both multi-channel and omni-channel are in a perpetual state of change. Your results-driven strategy should be developed and maintained by perpetual learners who aren’t just up for the challenge, but thrive on it. You will fail without that level of passion driving your team. It’s just not an environment that you can stand still in or coast through. The transition will be complete eventually, but you will never be done.

As a starting point, below is an infographic from Salesforce that shows current trends in Omni-channel retail.

Omni-Channel Retail Trends Infographic

“Retailers that are not offering omni-channel shopping and frictionless transactions will increasingly lose market share,” states the 2019 Blended Commerce Imperative whitepaper by the Retail Council of Canada (RCC).  “Consumers want speed, selection, service, experience, and price—well…they want it all.”

??? Does omni-channel or multi-channel sales and marketing frighten or excite you? For most Canadian retailers, it’s a little of both. Please share your thoughts or questions in the comments below.

✔ You may also be interested in reading:
Checklist: How to Start an Online Store (eCommerce Business) in Canada
Multi-Source Report: What Canadian Online Shoppers Want


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Digital Business & Marketing Manager at Online Business Canada | Website | + posts

Melody McKinnon's formal education is in business management, which she enhanced with more than 60 certifications revolving around business, marketing, health, general sciences and writing. In over 20 years of working online, she has owned or managed both educational and eCommerce websites.

Melody has worked with many businesses & brands in a multitude of capacities. She can often be found on CanadiansInternet.com, CanadianFamily.net and AllNaturalPetCare.com, as well as other quality digital publications. Her content has earned reference links from highly-respected websites, magazines and university textbooks.

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Very comprehensive article