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Blending the Physical and Virtual Store Experience


There has been a recent trend in retail of new dynamic store formats that make the physical store experience more closely mirror the virtual store experience. Examples include Staples “omni-channel” stores that feature kiosks offering access to Staples’ full product inventory and RadioShack’s new concept store in Manhattan that includes interactive product fixtures such as display speakers that customers can test with music from their own personal devices.

As customers continue to blend channels and supplement their lives with constant connectivity, a similar blending of the virtual and physical store environments makes sense. A large percentage of customers are entering the store having already performed basic product research online, and will not appreciate having to hunt for goods or information that were available at the click of a mouse on a retailer’s e-commerce site.

However, effectively redesigning the physical store experience to meet the needs and expectations of digital consumers means more than throwing in some touch-screens or connecting the store to customers’ mobile devices. It means a complete rethink of what the store experience is all about, and does not automatically mean going in a “futuristic” direction. For example…

Indie retailers are getting it right (the Human Element, Part I)

Independent book and music retailers have experienced something of a resurgence in recent years while large chains operating in these verticals have struggled. Go to a large chain that either specializes in or carries book and music products, and you will typically find a wide but shallow assortment of popular, mainstream writers/performers, genres and publishers/record companies. If you want to poke around to find older or more obscure releases, you’re probably out of luck.

On the other hand, independent retailers usually have a selection of the most popular offerings, but also specialize in providing a vast array of products to satisfy more eclectic tastes. Independent record stores have especially thrived by stocking deep inventories of vinyl LPs, which are making a comeback among hardcore music fans. Customers can find almost anything they are looking for, probably place a special order for anything that is out of stock, and the neighborhood nature of independent stores means staff will often come to know their regular customers and be able to make personalized recommendations based on their individual taste and buying history.

Which brick-and-mortar retail model sounds more like e-commerce? Add in the fact that browsing in a store offers tactile rewards that a website cannot provide, and there is no contest between indie and chain retailers in who provides a more personalized customer experience with access to a wider product assortment. And the typical indie store operates using a very low-tech model. Larger chain retailers seeking to “virtualize” their store experience need to remember that e-commerce offers some very humanistic features that technology alone cannot replicate.

The customer carries the store in their pocket

Naturally, the intelligent application of technology still plays a major role in making the physical store environment more comfortable for omni-channel shoppers. And one very important aspect of applying technology intelligently is realizing just how much technology the customer carries in their pocket when they enter a store. Whether a store has any customer-facing Internet access tools (such as touch-screen kiosks) or not, most customers are now coming in fully connected to the Internet via personal mobile devices. Instead of moaning about “showrooming,” retailers can turn this to their advantage and provide a more individually tailored and responsive store experience that crosses multiple channels while saving considerable sums of money on technology infrastructure costs.

For starters, retailers can now develop mobile apps that perform many of the functions, such as price/product information, that are usually performed by in-store kiosks. And on an opt-in basis, retailers can use also location tracking to determine not only when customers are passing by or entering a store, but where they are inside the store. Retailers can then send instant mobile coupons based upon a shopper’s purchase history and proximity to certain items.

To help combat the inevitable comparisons with competitors’ prices that customers will conduct with their mobile devices, retailers can also offer on-the-spot targeted mobile discounts to meet or beat lower prices found on competitors’ website, saving otherwise lost sales and boosting customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Store associates should be part of the mix (the Human Element, Part II)

Store associates are another crucial ingredient when creating an omni-channel store experience. By arming associates with tablets, smartphones or other web-enabled devices (and making sure they are properly trained), retailers can turn them into human versions of the cookies that track and respond to customer behavior on websites. Some higher-end retailers have already pursued this strategy, using web-enabled devices to empower associates to recognize customers and have full access to their preferences and history the moment they enter the store.

However, the pervasiveness of omni-channel activity, both in retailing and in consumers’ private lives, necessitates retailers of moderately priced and even discount goods to start giving their store associates virtual capabilities. As prices in general have come down, customer experience has become more of a differentiator, and it is easier than ever before for consumers to choose to shop at a slightly pricier retailer to obtain vastly superior customer service and satisfaction.

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