As ecommerce continues moving toward the lionshare of sales revenue, it can be easy to count out brick-and-mortar locations as a contender. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, businesses and retailers have been literally closing their doors left and right. But that doesn’t mean the era of brick-and-mortar commerce is dead.
In fact, Retail Dive identified four main reasons why shoppers still prefer the brick-and-mortar experience to what ecommerce offers:
- People can actually see, touch, feel, and try out items before purchase, making the whole purchase less of a gamble.
- Customers can take items home immediately and completely eliminate any anticipation anxiety.
- If a defect is detected after they get home, returning the item is quick and easy. Shoppers know exactly where to go and are met with real people for help.
- A lot of retailers have been upping the in-store experiences, making shopping more enjoyable than ever.
While it’s clear that brick-and-mortar stores offer some unique advantages to the shopping public that ecommerce will never fully match, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re dominating the field. Per Vend, while brick and mortar is ideal for fashion, luxury, and experimental purchases, the majority of convenience purchases are still being made online.
Brands that come out on top, though, understand that retail is no longer about pitting brick-and-mortar sales against online sales. Instead, success is about blending the two into a seamless, omnichannel experience. Merchants now need to identify what people love about the in-store shopping experience and replicate it through their ecommerce strategy (and vice versa).
Is that a bridge that can truly be traversed? Let’s find out.
Try Before You Buy
Sixty-two percent of the customers Retail Dive surveyed valued the ability to try, test, and sample products before purchase. For most retailers, the customer’s ability to tangibly interact with their products is crucial. It reduces customer anxiety that they’ll be purchasing something that doesn’t fit, doesn’t work, or they don’t actually want.
This presents an interesting challenge for online retailers that can offer little more than images, videos, long-form descriptions, customer reviews, and proof of the quality of their products. Some retailers have taken this challenge head on by giving customers a chance to test their products free of charge:
With a company valuation of approximately $1.75 billion, eyeglass retailer Warby Parker has built its wealth on a simple idea: affordable eyewear that customers can try, for free, in the comfort of their homes. With absolutely zero shipping costs, the company sends customers five prescription frames to choose from. Customers then send back the frames they don’t want, also free of charge.
What makes Warby Parker unique among most ecommerce retailers is the seamless shopping experience between its online and brick-and-mortar stores. A customer could theoretically identify their prescription in-store, order their frames online, and return their unwanted frames in-store again. (Warby Parker stores, by the way, are really heckin’ cute and fun to be in.)
In a similar vein, mattress giant Casper offers 100 nights of commitment-free sleep, and free shipping and returns on all mattresses during that same 100-day window. In many ways, this innovation is superior to what’s offered in most mattress stores. Casper understands that their customers need more than just a couple minutes’ rest on their mattresses to get a feel for it; they need to build it into their routines and daily lives.
In ecommerce, trust is a two-lane road. Finding ways to help customers interact with your products prior to purchase can be gamechanger. Of course there can be drawbacks, most notably intentional returners and “wardrobers”; but instituting a try before you buy program can be a great way to promote a hassle-free shopping experience.
Now, Now, Now
No matter how fast the shipping, nothing can ever compare with immediately coming into possession of a product after purchase. Which is why 49%of customers prefer in-store to online shopping. Short of inventing some Star Trek-style teleportation device, there’s no way in ecommerce for customers to get immediate delivery; but some companies are closing the gap.
Online retailer Wish was originally founded on the idea of connecting people with products at wholesale prices. To keep prices low, Wish shipped their products directly from their China-based wholesale partners in a process that could often take weeks, even months, to complete. In short, incredibly low prices often meant incredibly long shipping times.
Wish has innovated again with its Wish Local program that allows Wish users to make their purchases online, then pick up their purchase at an authorized local partner store. Granted this only applies to certain purchases, and customers will still need to travel to these partner locations to receive their products; but they are treated to the unique experience of having near-immediate access to a vast inventory of goods.
Through Target’s partnership with Shipt, customers can place orders online and have them delivered that same day. While this service notably excludes clothing, bath, furniture, and entertainment items, it does allow customers to have grocery and other essential items delivered to their homes within hours of placing their order.
An important part of establishing a truly omnichannel experience is to make buying something online as easy as picking it off a physical shelf and taking it home. Sixty-one percent of customers are willing to pay more for same-day delivery or some form of expedited shipping. Partnering with local brick and mortars can also be a smart and effective way to give your customers what they want when they want it.
Many Happy Returns
On the flip side, nothing can compare with returning the product to the store and receiving an immediate refund or replacement item. The challenge for online retailers is to remove as much hassle as possible from the returns process. According to a recent survey from UPS, for 73% of customers, the ease of the returns experience impacts the decision to make a repeat purchase from a company.
Zappos is known for its lenient return policy: free return shipping and full refund for a year. There are some conditions, however: the product must be in its original condition and packaging to qualify. To aid the process, Zappos’s 24/7 live chat feature allows customers to communicate with an actual human being.
But you don’t need to have a super lenient return policy for it to be hassle-free; if web sales represent a large part of your business, a visible return policy with clear terms is the best way to temper customer expectations. Lems shoes, for example, gives customers a straightforward understanding on what does and doesn’t qualify for a return. The policy language is as plain as if you were returning an item in-person.
Few things dilute customer trust more than a complicated, hard to read return policy, much less being stuck with a product they do not want. Yes, returns inevitably cost retailers money; but the easier you can make it for customers to bring back their products (e.g., free returns shipping, large return windows, credit for un-receipted returns, etc.) the more return customers you’re likely to have.
The In-Store Experience
One in five of Retail Dive’s respondents just like to go to the store for the experience or ambiance, in-store promotions, events, classes, and pop-up stores. It’s hard to understate the value of the social aspect of shopping, the sights and smells. While some of these elements are impossible to replicate online, companies that seek to improve the usability and look of their online stores have seen dramatic gains.
While nothing can replace physically touching and browsing through products on the shelf, you can improve the functionality and responsiveness of your online store. Skullcandy’s ecommerce platform engages the customer at every step of the customer journey:
- Right off the bat, they introduce site visitors with a 15% discount upon checkout.
- Products tell a unique branded story, and customers don’t need to dig through page after page to add products to their cart.
- Customers can either sign into their accounts or checkout as guests. The checkout process itself is four easy steps.
- Confirmation post-purchase is immediate and straightforward.
A New Chapter for Understanding Every Shopper
How did we get this far in the article without mentioning personalization? Much in the same way a customer can visit her favorite makeup retailer and receive a custom makeover right there in the store, shoppers have come to expect a similar level of personalization to their online shopping experience.
For supplement brand New Chapter, personalization is everything: online quizzes, custom bundles, and personalized recommendations allow customers to safely navigate their way through the site to relevant products.
Given that ecommerce merchants don’t see their customers face-to-face, it’s easy to forget the human aspect of online shopping. But that’s the most important part. Design elements and aesthetics, as well as personalized relevant product recommendations, matter in ecommerce just as much as they do in brick and mortar.
Brick and mortar is still very much alive; but if it’s going to thrive in an increasingly ecommerce-driven world, retailers will need to find ways to translate the unique experience of shopping in-store across all channels. Invest in the customer experience online and in reducing the hassle that often accompanies purchases and returns. It’ll take some work, but the more you can bridge the gap between in-store and online experiences, the happier your customers will be.