Multi-Channel vs. Omnichannel Selling: Is There a Difference?

Consumers are constantly evolving, their behavior influenced not only by retail brands themselves but by uncontrollable and sometimes unpredictable external factors. One such factor is the rise of technology, which has led to a more connected and savvy shopper.

These consumers’ paths to purchase are no longer linear. Instead, their shopping journey has many touchpoints, both online and offline. With an average of nine channels to choose from, nearly three-quarters of consumers use multiple channels during the buying process.

Retailers who are meeting shoppers at these various points are reaping the benefits. Selling on two marketplaces can nearly double your revenue.

Multi-channel and omnichannel, while very similar, aren’t exactly the same thing. So, what is the difference, and why is it important to retailers?

What Is Multi-Channel Selling?

In the earlier days of retail, multi-channel selling typically took two forms: in-store and mail-order catalogs. But times have changed, and multi-channel selling can take many forms, including:

  • Brick-and-mortar
  • Pop-ups
  • Catalogs
  • Telephone
  • Third-party online marketplaces
  • Wholesale
  • Online store
  • Social media
  • Comparison-shopping sites
  • Mobile apps


But the definition of multi-channel selling can change depending on who you ask.

BigCommerce writes: “Multi-channel retailing is an ecommerce selling strategy that targets customers on various channels beyond a company’s website. Multichannel retailing has evolved beyond promotion to include multichannel selling directly to consumers on social media, marketplaces, and other mediums.”

According to Shopify, “Multi-channel retailing means selling to customers through both traditional offline outlets — like brick-and-mortar locations, mail order catalogs, and even direct-to-consumer telemarketing — as well as online outlets — namely, ecommerce sites, social media, email marketing, and marketplaces.”

Regardless, the general consensus is that multi-channel selling is when retail brands make their products available for purchase on two or more commerce channels.

What Is Omnichannel Selling?

The emergence of multi-channel consumer behavior and technologies that have enhanced the shopping journey has led to the inception of the concept behind omnichannel. Omnichannel selling includes more than just the transactional channels — it refers to every interaction and touchpoint customers have with your brand.

Learn how to choose the right channels for omnichannel success >

Again, there are different definitions, though they have many commonalities:

BigCommerce says, “Stores selling both online and offline — likely also selling through multiple online channels (i.e. on Amazon, eBay, Facebook, B2B). We’ve also been referencing the importance of listing your product wherever consumers are already spending their time. This is increasingly known as contextual commerce, a more strategic take on the overarching omni-channel term.”

HubSpot defines the omnichannel experience as “a multi-channel approach to marketing, selling, and serving customers in a way that creates an integrated and cohesive customer experience no matter how or where a customer reaches out.”

Essentially, omnichannel is when retailers look at all of the customer interactions throughout the entire buyer journey — and after identifying those steps, putting them together in a synergetic online and offline total brand experience.

What’s the Difference Between Multi-Channel and Omnichannel?

Needless to say, the main difference at first glance between the two is in the prefix: multi vs. omni. Multi translates to many, while omni translates to all. This key difference in definition is just the beginning to understanding the difference between multi-channel and omnichannel selling.

Multi-channel selling refers to the various selling channels you engage, looking at them as separate entities, customer interactions, and income streams. Omnichannel, on the other hand, is a more holistic approach to understanding how all of the various entities, interactions, and transactions work together to create a singular experience.

Bottom line: The difference between multi-channel and omnichannel selling is essentially in the ability to streamline the various channels and experiences and understanding how they work together throughout the buying process.

New Challenges in Omnichannel

Despite the opportunities that omnichannel brings, many retailers have only started to scratch the surface. Although 73 percent say it’s important to them, less than 40 percent have passed the initial phases of creating that holistic experience. One survey found that not even a quarter of North American retailers made omnichannel a top priority in 2017.

Expanding into omnichannel, while beneficial to your biz, can disrupt existing processes. Apparel brand Young & Reckless was using ERP and spreadsheets to control their inventory, and when they expanded into multiple selling channels, their warehouses grew too. Those spreadsheets become more labor-intensive and difficult to maintain, causing them to turn to a more advanced inventory software solution in Stitch Labs.

You also have to train staff to keep up with new customer demands, as well as keep everyone on the same page to avoid costly out-of-stocks. The biggest thing to remember is to keep the experience consistent and transparent through every touchpoint. Synergy can create lasting, meaningful impressions on your customers — and you want to make sure you’re cultivating a positive and cohesive experience.

Learn why centralized inventory management is the key to profitability in an omni-channel world >

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