How to Create a Successful Multi-Channel Experience

Jennifer Schiff

Updated · Jul 08, 2008

Figuring out how to successfully market products and/or services in one channel, be it retail, the Internet, or a catalog, is always a challenge, especially if you are a small or mid-sized business. Marketing your business across two or more channels, however, can be two or three times as challenging — and can cost you customers and revenue if you don’t do it properly.

So to help small and mid-sized business owners develop or refine their multi-channel strategy, spoke with two small but very successful multi-channel businesses as well as several multi-channel marketing experts.

Orient Expressed: Casual Elegance in Any Medium

New Orleans-based Orient Expressed is a 30-year-old business that sells everything from children’s clothing and accessories to linens and home décor to antiques. Originally a trunk show-based business, the company opened its first retail store in the early 1990s and went online 10 years later. (Orient Expressed also has a catalog.)

Marketing director Vicki Moran describes the store as “a cozy place for people to come and shop.” And Orient Expressed wanted to keep that same sense of coziness — of being a warm, inviting, comfortable place to shop, with unique and hard-to-find items and great service — when it expanded to the Web.

Just as the store features more formal items (such as antiques) in one area and more informal wares (such as children’s clothing and accessories) in another, the Web site is broken up into sections. Featured prominently in the center of the Home page are sections designated For Girls, For Boys and For Home. Then above and below, in easy-to-read, easy-to-navigate menu bars, are eight, more specific product categories — Girls Clothing, Boys Clothing, Linens, Gifts, Home Décor, Antiques and Accessories. (The catalog is also broken up into categories.)

That cross-channel consistency — in Orient Expressed’s case, projecting a feeling of coziness and casual elegance while making it easy for customers to find what they are looking for, no matter which channel they are using — is something all multi-channel businesses can and should strive for. And it’s not difficult to achieve, even with a small budget.

“If you don’t have a big budget, don’t try to do everything,” said Phil Siegert, a multi-channel marketing expert and co-founder of Twiss Creative Consulting. “Just do the simple things, the things that are the greatest priority to your users, your consumers. Start with those things, like architecting the right user experience. Then you can scale from there.”

In Orient Expressed’s case, the company has created a consistent user experience across channels by using good photography, a simple yet attractive design, and providing user-friendly navigation (placing items in easy-to-find sections). As a result, the company has built a loyal clientele which shops in all three channels.

“We have people who know us from our catalog and our Web site who come here and know our store and how we operate,” explained Moran. Similarly, she said, “We have people who come here and experience the retail store then say, ‘Is this available online?'” who then become online shoppers.

Orient Expressed also uses multiple channels to advertise goods and sales, which has further helped the company attract new customers and grow and prosper.

Karmaloop: A Fun, Funky (in a Good Sense) Integrated Experience

Boston-based Karmaloop is another example of how an integrated multi-channel marketing strategy can boost brand awareness and sales.

“We can only show 10 to 15 percent of what we show online. So we try to pick the best of our brands to showcase in the store,” explained Greg Selkoe, the founder and CEO of Karmaloop. “But we have four computer terminals in the store, so that people can shop online [while still in the store] if they don’t find what they want.” That way, he said, “they can get the whole experience, not just what’s physically there at the store.”

Selkoe also created Karmaloop TV, so people surfing the Karmaloop Web site could get a better feel for the brand. And the company always shows its hip, urban streetwear on models with personalities that match the clothes.

As for the store, which Selkoe calls “a work of art,” it’s colorful and quirky, with TVs and computer monitors, and fun and/or funky clothes, shoes and accessories artfully arranged, creating a hip, urban vibe – and making Karmaloop a fun place to shop.

As for marketing his brand in multiple channels, Selkoe believes the most important thing is “matching the feel and getting across the attitude and the branding of who we are as a company,” not necessarily matching colors or a particular look.

In fact, Selkoe said he has seen retailers get so carried away with design and bells and whistles when translating their brand to the Web that they risk losing their customers.

Retailers, he said, “should be mindful that whatever they do affects their brand, and that their first priority is making sure their Web site works and that people can find stuff without being distracted. If you go overboard [with design and/or video and/or music and/or too much content], you hurt people’s ability to buy,” and that hurts business.

Conversely, you don’t want your site to look and feel like a static (or print) catalog. If you go that route, “people will come to your Web site and be disappointed, especially if they love your store. They’ll be, like, hey, this is boring,” he said.

The trick is to strike a balance, which means having “enough of your personality and uniqueness shining through, so that people are excited to shop at your store,” while making sure your site is easy to use/navigate and is constantly updated — i.e., fresh — so people will be excited about shopping in each of your channels.

Multi-Channel Marketing Tips from the Experts

According to Siegert and his partner Craig Wilson, who spent many years at multi-channel merchant Patagonia, when marketing a business or a brand across channels, you need to create “a larger brand story,” and tell that same story (albeit in slightly different ways) in your store, on your Web site and in your catalog. It is that story, what makes your business or your brand unique or special, which “is going to create an emotional response and attachment to your brand,” said Wilson.

What that story is, of course, will depend on who you are and/or what it is you are selling. And it doesn’t necessarily need to be told the exact same way in each channel.

“How you translate the look and feel of your store to online or vice versa should always have some measure of synchronicity, but you don’t have to be literal about it,” said Carlos Manalo, a multi-channel architect and user experience expert who has worked on a number of leading retail sites, include Crate & Barrel, Lands’ End and Harley Davidson.

“Trying to do a one-to-one replication of how you display product lines in store to online can be precarious,” he said. “If your store brand is all about clean exploration paths, strong educational vignettes and great upsells at point of purchase (gift cards, incidental items and warranties), at a minimum the site should match this experience (translation to online: strong product categorization navigation, clean and clear merchandising features, and shopping cart and checkout upsells).”

The bottom line, said Manalo, is “to always keep it direct and simple across channels,” so customers can find and purchase your products quickly and easily, no matter which channel they use.

Jennifer Lonoff Schiff is a regular contributor to and runs a blog for and about small businesses.

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