There’s no one-size-fits-all method for meshing the digital and physical retail experiences, which is why retailers everywhere need to start thinking creatively about bringing the omnichannel revolution to their customers.

Ever since the first Sears catalogue was mailed out in 1894, the department store became the leader in bringing the full spectrum of a retail warehouse to the comfort of consumers’ homes.

Printed in vivid color by 1898 and including wallpaper, paint, and material samples by 1906, the Sears catalogue was effective not only because it pioneered mail-order shopping, but because it sold this new remote retail experience with elements of their real, physical stores.

For much of the 20th century, little changed in the industry — customers either ordered items via mail or over the phone from the catalogue, or purchased goods in brick-and-mortar locations.

Even since the 1990s, when eCommerce first came into being, we’ve tended to think of every shopping channel as separate markets with separate customers pursuing separate needs. Retailers have forgotten what Richard Sears knew all along: new channels should either bring the store to customers, or customers to the store.

The Omnichannel Experience

Slowly but surely, however, retailers are learning that online and in-store shopping aren’t mutually exclusive experiences. Customers love the convenience of ordering products from their phones, tablets, and desktops, but still crave the satisfaction of actually having the purchase in their hands when they’re finished.

That’s why many of them, for instance, like to use online stores to check on an item’s availability, then go to the physical location to make the actual purchase.

The companies that are most successful at unifying their various shopping channels often leverage whatever niche in retail they occupy. Crate & Barrel, for instance, offers an app from which customers can manage their wedding or gift registries from any of their devices, as well as from within the store.

By scanning barcodes of items he sees on the actual shelves, a shopper can see exactly how much money he’s going to spend before he ever gets to the check-out counter.

Starbucks is one of the few brands widely recognized for its ability to incorporate multiple channels into one experience. The company knows that people need to actually go to a location to get their coffee, but streamlines that in-store experience by letting customers order, purchase items, and collect rewards from their phones.

Chipotle does something similar, giving diners an app from which to customize orders using the chain’s preset assortment of ingredients that they can then pick up at any store location.

Has the Future of Retail Arrived?

While there are several examples of brands who have used omnichannel experiences to their advantage, the plain fact is that digital isn’t being integrated as extensively throughout retail as it should be.

Despite the widely-held interest in pursuing omnichannel initiatives, as described by IAB, many in the industry are daunted by the costs that features like online returns and direct shipping would entail.

Still, keeping up with the times takes growth into new sectors and services, and growth takes investment. The expectations of consumers everywhere are only getting higher, and brands that fail to deliver mobile apps or websites that don’t dovetail with a trip to the retail location will fall seriously beneath them.