Unified Commerce: The Future of Retail?

Fall 2018 Issue
By: Julie D. Stern

Big data and integrated cloud-based retail platforms enable retailers to provide customers with seamless, secure, personalized shopping experiences, both in stores and via computers and mobile devices.

SOON AFTER THE slow but steady rise of e-commerce began, “omnichannel retailing” appeared on the scene. The omnichannel strategy involves retailers maintaining both brick-and-mortar and online presences and enables shoppers to purchase or return goods in a store, online or by phone. Many retailers embraced this cross-channel strategy in the early part of the 21st century: online-only retailers began adding physical storefronts or kiosks where shoppers could order goods to be delivered directly to them, whereas traditional big box retailers like Walmart and Home Depot added online presences that enabled shoppers to order goods for delivery or in-store pickup.

A new term, “unified commerce,” goes beyond omnichannel strategies. As shoppers increasingly expect a seamless cross-platform experience, unified commerce platforms are emerging that enable retailers to improve the customer experience and facilitate purchases and returns from anywhere and everywhere. The concept is simple: all shoppers, whether they chose to purchase or return an item in person or online, should have a seamless, secure, personalized purchasing experience.

Cloud-based unified commerce platforms like Microsoft Dynamics 365, PredictSpring and Amazon Web Services – which use a network of remote servers connected through the internet to store, manage and process data – enable retailers to deliver these  customized consumer experiences. These platforms can, for example, enable customers to see current prices and inventory availability at all times from their smartphones, laptops or other devices. Customers can also access records of their past purchases, returns and exchanges, whether they conducted those transactions online or in a store.

Unified commerce platforms can also help retailers increase sales by presenting a customer who has searched for a particular item with examples of similar or related items, as well as promotional items. This capability can also be adapted to the in-store shopping experience: a sales associate can view a customer’s “wish list” or past purchases on a tablet or other mobile point-of-sale device and guide the customer to those items and related products in the store. In this way, the unified commerce platform can connect a customer’s online and in-store shopping experience.

Finally, unified commerce platforms can provide real-time sales and inventory data that retailers can use to make decisions about pricing, staffing and stocking stores and fulfillment centers as well as about real estate needs, including which stores and fulfillment centers to expand, downsize or close. Although some large retailers have been collecting and analyzing this data on their own for years, the cost savings provided by cloud-based data platforms now enable many more retailers to do so.

According to Boston Retail Partners’ “2018 POS/Customer Engagement Survey,” “The new customer engagement model centers [on] a personalized, holistic experience that is channel-agnostic – in other words, unified commerce. According to the firm’s survey of 500 top North American retailers, 28 percent of respondents have already implemented unified commerce strategies, and 81 percent expect to do so by the end of 2020.”


By Julie D. Stern, freelance real estate writer and former managing editor, Development