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Bringing the Best of the Store Online (and Vice Versa)

Adam Blair

Editor, Retail TouchPoints

The retail industry is seeking creative ways to create a truly seamless omnichannel customer experience that also amplifies the best elements of each touch point.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic gave a Godzilla-sized boost to ecommerce, consumers were embracing the movement toward greater digital sales. For example, during the 2019 holiday season — before COVID was a factor — online sales jumped 18.8 percent compared to the previous year, while overall retail sales increased just 3.4 percent, according to the 2019 Mastercard SpendingPulse holiday report.

These figures are a bit misleading: It’s true that the ecommerce share of overall sales had consistently increased throughout the decade of the 2010s, but that growth was starting from a far smaller base figure. Even though consumers’ shopping journeys increasingly encompassed digital elements (online product research, inspiration from social networks, price comparison apps), the vast majority (80-90 percent, depending on the retail category) of actual transactions still took place in brick-and-mortar stores.

Even so, forward-looking retailers could see the writing on the wall, well, screen. The big insight of the past decade is that consumers don’t shop “channels,” per se; they shop products, brands, and retailers — and increasingly, they expect those retailers to meet them where they are, and not the other way around.

Immediate challenge

COVID, of course, turned this long-term issue into an immediate challenge, and retailers responded by pumping up their ecommerce operations and launching (or expanding) buy online, pick up in-store (BOPIS), contactless payments, and curbside pickup. 

The deeper question for retailers — and one that will grow more urgent as physical stores continue reopening — will be: “How can I bring the best of the online experience into the store, and vice versa?”.

There is no one perfect solution for all retailers and brands, however, the industry already is grappling with ways to create a truly seamless omnichannel customer experience that also amplifies the best elements of each touch point. And oh, yes, that experience also needs to provide the retailer with large enough profits to stay in business.

In their attempts to find the optimal balance, retailers are testing several types of technology solutions, including:

Augmented reality (AR)

From apps that let homebound consumers visualize how a new sofa, lamp, or rug will look in their living room, to store-based apps that reveal how a shirt would look in a different color, a growing number of retailers are deploying AR applications. Retailers hope that “previewing” purchases at home will help reduce costly returns. 

Additionally, in the brick-and-mortar space, AR is enabling stores to act more like showrooms with digital “endless aisles,” eliminating the space and cost requirements of carrying a complete inventory of every product.

Micro-fulfillment centers and “dark” stores 

Omnichannel retailers stuck with expensive real estate are considering turning their stores “dark;” closing them to the public so they can function as micro-fulfillment centers to support online orders in different geographic areas. In the grocery space, stores could operate as hybrids, with a mini-warehouse for efficient fulfillment of commodity items, and a public area where shoppers could pick out their perfect tomato or get a specific cut of steak.

Central repositories for customer data 

The ecommerce boom has created an enormous opportunity for retailers to gather data from consumers who previously would have been largely anonymous, in-person shoppers. By collecting customer data across all touch points, physical and virtual, in a CRM (customer relationship management) or CDP (customer data platform), retailers can move closer to creating the seamless omnichannel experiences that customers are looking for. 

Those retailers that successfully deploy these and other technological and business process innovations will take giant steps toward offering a customer journey that matches up with consumers’ real-world, channel-agnostic shopping behaviors.

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