On a daily basis, readers are inundated with headlines about the impending “retail apocalypse” that brings with it dwindling foot traffic, store closures and the ultimate elimination of brick-and-mortar shopping. And though this might hold true for some legacy brands that have overextended their footprint throughout the years, it remains an unlikely scenario for the broader market. The rise of e-commerce and m-commerce are challenging traditional retailers and changing consumer preferences.But because many people still prefer to shop at brick-and-mortar stores in some capacity, the physical channel will never fully disappear. This leaves brands an opportunity to better merge the online and offline experiences to meet these new preferences and find success at every touchpoint.
Before the advent of e-commerce, brick-and-mortar was the single channel for shoppers to fulfill their needs. Brands expanded rapidly as sales warranted more locations with larger square footage, and shoppers grew accustomed to endless options on every corner. But e-commerce brought with it the ability to purchase without ever leaving the couch, causing a momentous shift in physical store sales. What we’re seeing now from brands is the “rightsizing” of their physical spaces as they attempt to turn their liabilities back into assets.
Brick-and-mortar stores offer advantages that online stores can’t compete with -- the ability to develop a tactile relationship with products, the immediacy of purchase and the socialization that comes with shopping around others. It’s because of this that many shoppers still prefer physical stores over online shopping and that many successful e-commerce retailers are opening up brick-and-mortar footprints of their own.
In today’s retail environment, the line between online and offline shopping is blurring. Consumers are participating in both webrooming and showrooming at almost equal rates, and retailers need to adapt to the physical and digital demands of consumers. Investing in technologies that bridge the gap between the two channels enables retailers to maximize different opportunities in the customer journey and offer unparalleled service, selection and efficiency no matter where they start their journey, ultimately leading to increased customer retention.
For shoppers who begin the path to purchase online or on mobile, investing in artificial intelligence can significantly improve personalization and allow consumers to quickly identify items for purchase without the need for excessive browsing or keyword searching. For example, brands are investing in new technologies that use AI to display similar products from the brand’s inventory when a user takes a picture of an item they are inspired by. This type of recommendation engine can also help avoid lost sales by offering out-of-stock alternatives when an item is scanned in-store and is unavailable for purchase. When AI is paired with physical store technology like "buy online/pickup in-store," shoppers are provided the efficiencies of online browsing with the immediacy of in-store access.
Other retailers are bringing the web directly into stores to cater to digitally inclined shoppers. There are plenty of areas of opportunity within physical retail, with one of the biggest being the fitting room experience. Retailers, including Ralph Lauren and Rebecca Minkoff, are testing smart mirrors that can adjust the lighting in the room, recommend complementary pieces, trigger help from an associate, or order an item in an alternative size or color. Other retailers are investing in ways to improve the checkout experience, with Walmart developing the Scan & Go mobile app that enables shoppers to check out directly through their smartphones. By eliminating lines, customers are able to complete their shopping trip with little interruption and almost no hesitation, a perk usually reserved for e-commerce.
It’s no secret that in order to survive, retailers need to implement new tactics to adapt to changing preferences. When brands bridge the gap between physical and digital retail, it allows them to optimize (and often improve) the experience for all shoppers, no matter their demands or biases. Retailers should remember that today’s changing landscape doesn’t call for the elimination or favoritism of one channel over another. Rather, it's all about investing in technology that highlights the strengths of each and enables them to work together to the benefit of the bottom line.
This article was originally published in Forbes on 18th Sept 2017.