The Wizards of Omni: How Disney and Uber Transformed Omnichannel from Fantasy into Reality

Jump Associates
Jan 9, 2015 · 9 min read

This post was written by Jay Newman, Director of Strategy here at Jump. You can find him on Twitter , or get in touch with him by commenting on this post

A few years ago, a retail executive asked me to show him examples of great omnichannel retail experiences. The question he wanted answered was, who is really getting this right? As with many of his peers, the exec was grappling with the disruption from emerging competition from online powerhouses like Amazon and mobile-first shopping upstarts like Gilt. He was nervous about how showrooming was changing the shopping experience script, and taking a huge bite out of sales.

At this point, we were certainly tuned into omnichannel as it emerged at the intersection of retail, technology, and culture. We pride ourselves as interpreters of trends. We immerse ourselves and play with the startups. We survey the big guys. We decode trends and forecast their futures. But in this case, I couldn’t give him a complete example of a retailer that was nailing the omnichannel experience. It just didn’t exist.

At a mass level, no one was executing omnichannel well enough to be truly exemplary. Yes, there were meaningful experiments with mobile check-ins, barcode scanning, endless aisle browsing, price matching, and in-store pickup. And we’d uncovered a few beautiful examples of startups at the fringes who we thought could provide analogs to understand an ideal experience — examples of what good would look like for an interconnected mobile at-home, and in-store experience. But that was it.

Fast forward two years. Given the rapid growth of , you’d expect the conversation around how to set an omnichannel strategy would be wrapping up and that retail would be well on its way to achieving a standard operating model. But no! Figuring out what to do continues to be an everyday debate in retail, in financial services, in healthcare and, heck, even inside the halls of federal, state, and local governments.

The end result is that great experiences that truly meld all channels together still aren’t in retail! Sure, retail experiments continue today, and . And there’s been progress — these experiments have moved beyond the retail startups and are being steadily deployed by the mainstream. When retailers like Macy’s announce disappointing pre-holiday results, as the reason to believe that their November and December sales would pick up, you know that those plays to combine channels have become legitimately core to the retail business model.

So retail hasn’t figured it out yet. But two companies do exist who can show us what what the future of omnichannel looks like. Those two companies are Uber and Disney. The approaches they take make their overall customer journeys more cohesive, their experiences more customer-controlled, and their services more personalized. For Uber and Disney, the way all the channels work together leads to an enhanced experience that is far more than the sum of their parts.

Here’s what they’ve created.

1. Journey Bridges

Don’t just connect the channels–build bridges to new moments in a customer journey.

At its core, omnichannel strategy is about forming strong connections between all the different parts and pieces of a customer journey. In retail, the goal is typically to design a seamless and common experience, no matter the channel. But I think that’s just a description of what omnichannel does. An omnichannel experience, however, should be much more than these mere linkages.

With the interconnections that omnichannel creates for the customer, there are opportunities to create new experiences moments before, during, and after the main event. You can use these new moments to build anticipation, to set preferences for later, to personalize, to offer up options, to increase the likelihood of conversion, and to lock a first interaction into an ongoing habit. These new moments are Journey Bridges.

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Disney’s new $1 billion is a perfect example of a Journey Bridge in action. Having spent years crafting theme park experiences that turn even the hours-long waits for rides into a delightful(ish) adventure, Disney knows a thing or two about how to build anticipation for the main event. And they played to their strengths by designing anticipation into the Disney+ platform.

Let’s say you decide to take a family trip to Walt Disney World. Your experience starts from the very beginning. Once you’ve booked your hotel, you’re off to the races. Disney sends you an email to create an account on their system. It points you to websites to review to understand the parks, review restaurant options, and make a few reservations. About a month before the trip, Disney sends a branded box to your home. Nestled inside the box are your family’s MagicBands–each a different color with your names etched into the foam holder. During the trip, your MagicBand is your bus pass. Hotel room key. Mobile payment device. Park admission ticket. Ride reservation system. You live off that personalized RFID bracelet when you’re inside the park–it’s almost as important as your smartphone.

And it doesn’t stop when you leave. After the trip, there’s the follow-up. Thank you messages. Emailed photos from rides. Invitations to share on Facebook. Reminders of upcoming events.

Disney’s MyMagic+ experience certainly delivers on the standard omnichannel story of making an experience seamless by drawing connections between web, mobile, and in-park actions. But the magic is all in the new moments these connections create–and the usefulness of those moments in making the overall park experience even more memorable, and stickier, than it was before.

2. Support Cycling

Stop thinking that full-service and self-service are separate models for separate channels. Give the customer control and help them cycle back and forth between the two.

Web and mobile channels have been designed from the ground up for self-service. Initially, this evolved as a way to reduce the expensive interactions with staff, either in-store or through call centers. As customers became more comfortable with these channels, they got hooked on the control, immediacy, and rich information available at, literally, their fingertips. Web-first retail competitors started winning with better experiences online. And mobile brought that same customer-centered power into the store — and retailers had to deal start with showrooming.

So the first forays of major omnichannel efforts have focused on combating showrooming. Essentially, that means retailers are working to make sure their mobile and web channels work well enough so their existing customers can shop on whichever platform they prefer–all while quietly hoping that in-store experiences and hands-on service would tip the scales back in favor of brick and mortar retail.

It’s a good start…but it’s not enough, indelibly. In today’s digital age, expectations for experience and customer service have been transformed. Customers sometimes know more about the inventory than the staff–an unsettling realization for both parties. Folks are getting accustomed to websites knowing their shopping history and making quick tailored recommendations. All this means that omnichannel-first customer experiences need to put the customer in the driver’s seat. The customer expects full control over how they move between web, mobile and face-to-face interactions.

No one is doing this better right now than Uber. Their entire value proposition is built around taking control from the cab driver and putting it into the rider’s hands. With on-demand reservations, cabs work on your schedule. Your Uber will show up whenever, and wherever, your heart desires. Once in the vehicle, the service is no longer digital, and you can start interacting with a real person. But the power remains in your hands. You can let the driver direct the route, or track it on your phone and recommend alternatives if you know the area. If you want to listen to your own Spotify playlist, you to the driver’s radio and blast those tunes. And the payment interaction, long the biggest hassle of taking a taxi, goes invisible–the ultimate flip of control.

This is what customer service will look like in retail when omnichannel matures. The customer will always be in control–using mobile and web on their own to drive discovery and selection like never before. In the store, the customer will cycle between self-service and guided-service. When they ask for help, they’ll trust that the store’s associates will have quick access to whatever profile, preferences and shopping history information the customer wants them to know. And whenever they want, they can take back the reigns, wrapping up a trip immediately with an on-the-spot purchase without even heading to a cash register, or saving options for when they’re back at home, sitting on their couch with their iPad.

3. Attuned Recognition

Move beyond consistent experiences across channels toward personal recognition and moments where the customer just feels like you get them.

There’s just one thing at the center of every well-designed omnichannel strategy–the customer. Consistent branding and messaging, common UI elements, and clean handoffs from one application to another are certainly important, but these pieces are all really there for the customer. Eventually, this means that omnichannel efforts need to move beyond the impersonal to the personal on every single channel.

And this is where it gets hard for mass retailers. The plethora of legacy technology, systems, and data means that creating a single picture of the customer — and then reflecting it back to him or her — is a monumental challenge. So while the upstarts like Bonobos and Warby Parker are getting this right, and the mass retail experiments continue, great omnichannel service in retail is still to come.

Both Uber and Disney can show us what this is going to look like when it’s finally done right. When a rider first opens the Uber app to book a ride, the screen blinks a couple times (as it updates driver locations and availability) before smoothly zooming into the customer’s precise location on a map. This is the beauty of a GPS-driven car service–it immediately shows the customer that it knows where they are and that its drivers will come to them. No need to walk down to the corner and struggle to flag a car. And no need to reset your transportation preferences–the app remembers if you like UberX or UberPool.

Then, when a car is reserved, the screen shows a countdown timer and tracks the driver’s car as it heads to your location. It also shows you the driver’s profile, including their name and their car’s make, model, and color. This makes it even easier to know when they’ve arrived, if the personalized text that Uber sends you isn’t enough. When the car arrives, the driver already has your information on their phone and will welcome you by name, facilitating a quickly comfortable interaction between two people who were complete strangers only moments before.

Disney’s MyMagic+ does basically the same thing. The wearable bands connect back to a personalized profile, so everything from locks to gates and rides can identify the guest. Food ordered at a kiosk in a crowded restaurant can be delivered right to wherever the guest is seated. Then the characters get involved, and it starts to seem like Disney has gone beyond simply personalizing the experience. When Mickey or one of the princesses walks up to your child and calls them out by name, it’s no longer just personalized. It actually feels like, well, magic.

Looking to the Future

Even though I don’t think retail (or banking, or healthcare) is there yet, we see a bright future for omnichannel experiences. In their own ways, Disney and Uber are making that future real today.

Seeing is believing. So, if you’re trying to figure out how technology can work with your current environment to empower your customers and give them more cohesive and intimate experiences, maybe it’s time to hit the road. Dial up Uber on your mobile, take a ride to the airport, and jet off to Orlando. You’ll be amazed by what you see–take notes.

photo credit: via

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