The Omnichannel Omnishambles

Welcome to the latest in a series of columns brought to you in association with experiential marketing, brand activation and consumer engagement specialist CircleSquare. This monthly column aims to inform, surprise and provoke. This time the team at CircleSquare argues that too many brands and retailers misunderstand the promise of ‘omnichannel’ and think it just means they need to invest in digital. Instead, they say, the secret lies in showing up for the right customers, at the right time, where it really matters and in a remarkable way.

Given the number of times the word ‘omnichannel’ has been used recently, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was contagious, particularly in light of the damage the pandemic has brought to travel retail and the desire to force change for the long-term good of the industry.

In fact, maybe you are one of the many people who have uttered this strange term in the past few weeks. It appears to have a ‘Marmite’ effect, being something you either love or hate. Moreover, just saying the word ‘Omnichannel’ out loud can send ice-cold shivers shooting down your spine (just try it if you don’t believe us). But have you ever asked yourself why?

“It is regularly used in connection with things that are very much not omnichannel at all but actually just incorporate an element of digital”

CircleSquare Executive Creative Director Philip Handley

Given the fact we are known for being at the cutting-edge of retail, our team of experts at CircleSquare understand the problem better than most. “One of the main issues with the term ‘omnichannel’ is that it is not particularly well understood,” says Philip Handley, one of our founding partners who has always been at the forefront of CircleSquare’s pioneering and award-winning retail solutions.

“Much of this has to do with the fact that, on the one hand the term is indistinct and inaccurate, and on the other hand it is regularly used in connection with things that are very much not omnichannel at all but actually just incorporate an element of digital.”

Added to this, we often find the term is seen as an alchemical elixir which will magically fix all the challenges faced by retailers, be that in domestic retail or our own world of travel retail. Unsurprisingly, our team at CircleSquare do not share this over-optimistic view.

“Onmichannel might sound like a contemporary idea but it is actually quite an outdated concept, if you take it at face value,” adds Stéphane Zermatten, our Managing Director who has overseen the ongoing growth of our global network, most notably in Asia where we have recently announced the creation of a team dedicated to Hainan in China. “The idea of brands showing up in every channel cannot possibly result in the type of irresistible experience we aim to deliver for our clients; it just delivers a lot of white noise which will turn consumers off.”

A Johnnie Walker Gifting Station at Changi Airport engaging passengers with unique gift wrapping options outside of the traditional store environment

“With retail having been badly impacted by the pandemic, reacting by simply increasing your investment in digital is like chasing debts in a Las Vegas casino”

Stephane Zermatten

The way consumers shop these days is almost unrecognisable to how they did in the past and, if anything, the pandemic has simply accelerated this rate of change. In contrast, retail stores have hardly changed over the past 20 or 30 years, relying on a ‘tried and tested’ formula which does little to encourage passengers to enter a store and even less to remove the hurdles from the processes of choice or transaction. The statistics don’t lie. Travel retail has been sub-optimal for a number of years, but this fact has been disguised by the +6% year on year increases in passenger numbers. Naturally, this has now been brutally exposed by the pandemic.

“We need to stop thinking in terms of channels because that’s not the way our consumers view their retail experience nor how they interact with it,” adds Handley. “The old channels have overlapped so much they have blended into one, within which our consumer can seamlessly switch from digital to physical and back to digital again, whenever they like and as many times as they like. Essentially the consumer has become the only channel that matters and we need to focus on how we help them navigate their way around this fluid shopper journey, removing any points of friction and weaving in new, meaningful experiences for them along the way at the points that are most open to them.”

Indulging in a La Prairie digital experience at the point of sale

This naturally means the smart integration of digital to complement and bring out the best of physical retail, not only connecting the shopper journey at all times but actually extending it right back so it begins at pre-travel and ends right the way through to the destination market, not forgetting social media amplification.

“The danger is that brands and retailers misunderstand the promise of omnichannel and think it just means they need to invest in digital. This is the banana skin waiting to trip them up,” continues Zermatten. “With retail having been badly impacted by the pandemic, reacting by simply increasing your investment in digital is like chasing debts in a Las Vegas casino by putting all your chips on black and crossing your fingers.”

So what is the secret that allows our global CircleSquare network to find the perfect balance between digital and physical anywhere in the world? And what are the implications for our pandemic-impacted industry?

“The trick is to let digital do a lot of the heavy lifting, freeing up physical to do what digital can never achieve; tangible, evocative experiences which provide an emotional and memorable connection to a brand,” outlines Handley. “There is no need to dedicate all that precious retail space to shelving units loaded with stock or endless queues snaking towards cash registers when all of this can be managed much more efficiently using digital,” he says.

“This frees up a great deal of spare retail space which can be utilised to deliver the type of irresistible experiences that international travellers have been screaming for. When those passengers who chose not to enter a travel retail store at an airport were surveyed by m1ndSet, 51% of them said they would have gone into the store had there been an exciting experience.

A Kiehl’s pop-up takes the experience out of the store and out to the concourse

“If those statistics are to be believed, it means that if we get the balance right, we can double the store penetration. This is an enormous incentive for us all. And don’t forget, all that space we can liberate will help us significantly when it comes to delivering social distancing solutions too.”

The success CircleSquare has enjoyed in delivering refined omnichannel solutions to brands and retailers convinced us it is an area worth investing in. As a result, we recently acquired a sizable stake in digital marketing agency, comTogether, which brings us in-house expert data analysis and media planning to add to our existing digital capabilities and physical experiential prowess. This means we can extend the shopper journey like never before.

“This bold new step has allowed CircleSquare to offer the industry something totally unique; using precise and relevant customer data we can target international travellers pre-travel and stay connected to them throughout the shopper journey, driving store penetration and encouraging interaction with our game-changing experiences,” concludes Zermatten.

“Showing up for the right customers, at the right time, where it really matters and in a remarkable way is exactly what we believe represents a truer sense of what omnichannel was – and is - supposed to offer.”

*About Circle Square

CircleSquare are experts in experiential marketing, brand activations and consumer engagement, with a special focus on global travel retail where they’ve been delivering award-winning work for over 15 years. CircleSquare’s in-depth understanding of this unique channel has earned them an impressive client list, including Diageo, Mondelez, Luxottica, Lacoste and L’Oréal Luxe, alongside retailers like DFS, Dufry and Heinemann.

CircleSquare has offices in London, Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai, covering every phase of the experiential journey process from strategy and creative to design and delivery. You’ll find their work in retail stores, pop-up spaces and airports all over the world.

Contact: Executive Creative Director Philip Handley at

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The Moodie Davitt eZine

Issue 283 | x September 2020

The Moodie Davitt eZine is published 12 times per year by The Moodie Davitt Report (Moodie International Ltd). © All material is copyright and cannot be reproduced without the permission of the Publisher. To find out more visit and to subscribe, please e-mail

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