Do retailers have any hope of competing in-store with the inexorable growth of e-commerce? The answer is yes, if they can show what sets their physical stores apart.
In practice, this could mean using physical premises to give consumers a memorable, tactile, sensory experience, as well as access to expertise–all of which can be difficult to replicate digitally.
It is worth remembering, however, that consumers will always prefer to make certain purchases online. They may just be replenishing supplies of a product they know they are happy with, for example, or making simple decisions based on utility or price.
But there is a sizeable third category: When consumers want or need more than a simple transaction, they are happy to spend time browsing in person. Indeed, many relish the experience of shopping in-store.
So how can retailers create an experience that keeps customers coming back in person–while maximizing sales?
1. Send in the experts: When consumers engage with store associates who are passionate about the products they are selling, it makes all the difference to brand perception. To achieve this, leading department stores are investing in their associates to ensure they are confident enough to advise consumers on trends and fashion ideas.
Along the same lines, grocery stores build reputations for sustainability by employing people who can talk knowledgeably about the subject. And we see outdoor sports specialists employing associates who have a sophisticated understanding of consumers’ needs because they are outdoor sports enthusiasts themselves.
The in-store experience gives retailers the chance to express their vision, values, and points of view. This resonates with consumers who are looking for a more thoughtful purchasing experience: They might want to hear what the designer thinks about which parts of an outfit work well together. Making that point of view more obvious gives physical stores a vital way to differentiate themselves.
2. See, touch, feel: It goes without saying that consumers making purchases online cannot touch the product before buying. Only physical stores can exploit the correlation between physical interaction with a product and an increased sense of ownership, which can be a powerful driver of sales. Apple’s strategy of setting up its display laptops with a precise 76-degree angle between keyboard and screen–partially closed–is designed to encourage shoppers to touch the tech. The company knows that consumers who do so will be left with a strong personal connection to these items, which will make it harder for them to walk away and choose a different brand.
Stores that enable consumers to engage with their products will attract those who actively want to spend time considering potential purchases. The challenge for stores is to provide an environment that encourages engagement with the product and with associates who can talk knowledgeably about the products and the brand as a whole.
3. The role of multimedia: Technology can revitalize the in-store experience, but here is a cautionary note about deploying too many devices with interactive screens: Innovations that encourage and enable engagement add value but could distract consumers from the product itself.
In the worst-case scenario, technology could undermine sales altogether. Many clothing retailers have installed tablets in their fitting rooms that identify the product the customer is trying on and recommend alternative sizes or colors–which risks suggesting to customers that they’ve picked the wrong item.
One experiment, which was carried out as part of the Accenture/Fjord partnership with The Council of Fashion Designers of America, explored how multimedia can help consumers better understand products and the designer’s intent. Our work involved crafting stories about designer Prabal Gurung for his residency in the CFDA Retail Lab. We began our research by laying out his images of inspiration, crafting simple statements about materials and related philanthropy in sourcing them, and gathering user feedback on how much they were able to understand the full product story.
Next, we created a fixture with three small screens embedded near actual products to help customer understand the full story of the designer’s inspiration and craft. The screens could be perceived as simple storyboard, with a beginning, middle, and end. They featured simple, four-word messages, all optimized for customers to absorb a complete story of the products as quickly as possible. Adding a mirror above the small screens and scarves connected the customer to the story, making them feel part of the discovery and encouraging them to touch the product rather than the screen--the true goal of the experiement.
A Bright Future For The Physical Store
Today, e-commerce is fundamental to how we shop and plan our lives. It’s not surprising, considering the scale and speed of this transformation, that people have talked about physical stores disappearing from our lives altogether. The reality, of course, is more nuanced–and it’s becoming increasingly clear why. Visiting a store is, and will remain, essential to retail. Furthermore, if retailers learn how to maximize their stores’ potential and use them to emphasize their purpose, the physical experience can become their brand’s key differentiator.