We are at a tipping point in the history of retailing, when taking a multi-channel retailing approach will become the de facto way of retailing.  Why?  Because increasingly customers expect a multi-channel retail experience – more than that, they demand it.

Globally, the world is a smaller ‘trading’ place, a move being facilitated by technology.  It is now as easy for consumers to shop from abroad as their home nation.

Our interaction with and usage of social media sites such as Facebook, and our mobile phones is changing how we think.   It is instilling in consumers a sense of immediacy of information.  We want information and purchases now, and find it hard to cope with loss of our internet connectivity.  We want to be able to swap between channels as we see fit: if we’re in store we buy there; at home, its online; on the move, its mobile – the customer is at home at all of them.

And this phenomenon is not going to slow down. Telstra’s 2011 Smartphone Index found that the rate of adoption of smartphones in Australia has outstripped the UK and US, with almost "one in two Australian mobile phone customers owning a smartphone", a figure which is predicted to rise to two-thirds by the end of 2012.

Therefore, delivering the ‘customer experience’ is no longer about doing so through a single channel. These days the customer experience has to be across all channels, sometimes even with multiple channels simultaneously.

However, there seems to be reluctance in the Australian market towards online trading and in particular, taking a truly integrated multichannel approach to business. This seems especially true amongst the more ‘traditional’ retail business.

How do I know this? The thing that is interesting working within an international organisation is that you get a top-level view of different markets, and to see what they are doing that is similar and what is different.

Why is there an Aussie reluctance? There are a number of reasons, amongst which includes the fact that Australia is a big country so shipping times and costs are greater than for smaller nations.  There is a strong high-street ethic and an ingrained social side to shopping – a willingness to chat.  There is also a retail mindset that seems wary of multi-channel or sees it as merely equating to getting online.

So what should Australian retailers look to do?

One of the main things is to get a multi-channel mind-set. Merchants must link up the different channels already used by consumers to meet the requirements of different buying patterns. Only with a cross-channel approach can they reach their customers where the purchase is made, whether in the shop, over the internet or by browsing a catalogue.

There are also some misconceptions to overcome. Even online it should be recognised that shoppers still want to ‘talk’, whether that is closely integrated ‘human’ customer service or shopping clubs and integrated customer communities.  There are also times when customers don’t feel the need to talk.  For example, you can provide excellent customer service without incurring the expense of call centres by providing a knowledge base or Ask&Answer portal on a retailer’s website.

Mobile will play an ever increasing role in the multi-channel journey.  Interestingly, it is not necessarily always for buying, but as a tool to aid the multi-channel shopping journey.  Sometimes it is a back-up tool for more information, or a vehicle for discount vouchers.

In addition, having good data is key to a multi-channel approach.  By that I mean consistent, relevant and accurate data that can be accessed instantly and across all channels. If you fail at this step, all the additional effort could be wasted. It is this data that can hold the key to ensuring the customer experience is a good one, enabling retailers to understand customer behaviour across channels, manage the multichannel experience and improve reaction times.

Given that consumers in general and in particular the younger generation, are becoming what I call ‘natives of the multi-channel world’, taking these steps will be a ‘must’.  But before you give a reason why not to embrace the multichannel approach, take heart.  I am not talking about re-inventing retail, merely responding to customer change and for those that do, it will be a marriage made in heaven.

Kees de Vos is vice president of Hybris, a global vendor of next generation, end-to-end and multi-channel commerce software. Hybris has the luxury of working with retail customers at a global level.