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Bringing online shopping to (real) life

It’s the challenge of our times for retailers: you have a physical store and an optimised website, with customers who move fluidly between the two. So how do you merge the two? As consumers have embraced online shopping because of the ease and convenience it offers, bricks and mortar shops have increasingly become where people go to discover and research products. According to a study by The Intelligence Group, 72 percent of Millennials research their options online before going to a shop. So who is leading by example when it comes to combining physical and digital channels – and what can other retailers learn from them?

Making technology part of the in-store experience

Luxury shopping website Farfetch is taking big steps towards the merging of digital and physical channels with the development of its Store of the Future. Still in the beta stage, the store will track, record and analyse shoppers’ movements in the modular store – and link the shopper’s activity to their online account in real time. Farfetch founder José Neves commented: “It’s the offline cookie that closes the loop between a great online presence and a complete omni-channel offering.” One innovation includes a smart mirror which allows shoppers to request items in another size, browse online alternatives and even pay without leaving the dressing room.

Farfetch is just the latest in a number of online retailers also turning to the world of bricks and mortar. Earlier this year, the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba announced a 2.6bn dollars acquisition of Intime Retail, a corporation with 29 department stores and 17 shopping malls. Lured by the footfall of town and city centres, it’s easy to see why online retailers are eager to see how physical stores could become a part of their offering.

Bringing online shopping to (real) life

Making mobile part of the in-store experience

Mobile has become the bridge between the real life and digital experience – and retailers need to examine how they can leverage this. Outside of the world of fashion retail, Dixons Carphone recently announced it’s partnered with Microsoft to develop a chatbot that will help customers shop whether they’re on their sofas or on the shop floor. Stuart Ramage, ecommerce director at Dixons Carphone, explained: “We have a complicated product set. We want to help our customers navigate it better online and then get the added value of our expert colleagues in-store, who can answer specific product questions and know how products work best together.”

As retailers experiment with AI that can assist with in-store queries, this raises a bigger question about how the role of human retail assistants will change. Gartner has estimated that, by 2020, customer service digital assistants will be able to communicate with customers in an experience that will mimic human conversations, with both listening and speaking, a sense of history, in-the-moment context, tone, and the ability to respond.

The ongoing relevance of bricks and mortar

It’s clear mobile and digital platforms can play an important part in the in-store experience for example through geo-targeted push notifications which offer discount codes and incentives at opportune moments. But there’s lots of evidence that consumers still enjoy the tangible in-store experience. According to PwC’s Total Retail 2016 report, 52 per cent of consumers prefer to purchase in a physical store.

For some consumers, the in-store ambience is vital to their enjoyment. According to a new report by Retail Economics and Squire Patton Boggs, 46 percent of 35 – 44 years old said the environment of a shop is the most important element of a meaningful shopping experience.

These consumers want to feel “relaxed, comfortable and encouraged to spend time browsing and discovering new products which are showcased in aspirational settings.” Retailers could potentially reap rewards from getting this right; 43% of shoppers in the Retail Economics’ survey said that they are likely to spend more money in the future with a retailer who offered a meaningful shopping experience in-store.

One way they can achieve the right environment is by offering lifestyle concession space and exciting places to eat and drink; Selfridge’s flagship store in London, for example, uses its rooftop for themed restaurants throughout the year.

The future of merging on-and-offline

With pureplays expanding to bricks and mortar, and high street brands experimenting with how they can link their digital platforms to the shop floor, it’s an exciting time for retail. Apps have the potential to simplify and streamline the in-store shopping experience, which can sometimes be confusing and cluttered, with rack upon rack of products.

As José Neves commented, retailers should see the in-store experience as the offline cookie; the way to close the loop and build a full picture of their consumers’ shopping behaviour. In today’s multi-channel world, the more visibility and understanding a brand can have of its shoppers, the more it can personalise its offering and meet the needs of its customers.

Guy Chiswick is Managing Director of Webloyalty, Northern Europe. He has 17 years’ experience in marketing and advertising and has worked for some of the industry's biggest brands as well as emerging start-ups.

Guy leads a diverse team of experts focussed on client development and category growth, and has spearheaded Webloyalty's retail and multichannel client engagement strategy since joining in 2010.

Webloyalty is a leading provider of online savings programmes designed to help companies build stronger, more profitable relationships.

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