Since the dawn of ecommerce, retail professionals and shopping aficionados alike have been making predictions about the fate of brick and mortar stores. It’s been an unpredictable journey – industry players riding the rollercoaster of quarterly results while spectators marvel at the twists and turns caused by new competitors, changing sensibilities, and evolving technology. Now the pendulum is swinging again, and the notion that the “retail apocalypse is officially cancelled” is gathering momentum.
Brands with a physical presence have the opportunity to capitalize on the demand for authenticity and connection in an increasingly virtual world.
Here are a few things brick and mortar retailers should (and shouldn’t) do to find success in a digital world.
Physical stores offer the original immersive shopping experience, with sensory and emotional joys that shoppers can’t find online. When executed well, experiential stores provide personalized attention, a customized feel, and unique themes, so customers can experience familiar brands in new and compelling ways.
But excellent service and emotional engagement aren’t limited to high-profile, high-budget locations. Friendly, knowledgeable staff, engaging displays, and a tidy, well-kept environment go a long way to giving customers a good experience and a reason to return to any store.
“Try before you buy” is still a powerful pull for customers looking for unfamiliar products, whether a new vacuum or seasonal makeup. Encouraging customers to play, try, and ask questions about a product can dramatically increase confidence about their purchases while building brand equity and loyalty for the future.
Brick and mortar spaces can also reinforce brand values through strategic unavailability. The North Face shut their doors on Earth Day, encouraging customers to “get off the grid”; REI asks employees and customers to “OptOutside” (rather than shop) on Black Friday; Starbucks famously paused operations at more than 7,000 stores for three hours in 2008 to administer “Espresso Excellence” training. It’s not a move that every company can make, but it does send a powerful message about what a brand stands for – and helps cement the loyalty of shoppers who share those values.
Few things undermine customer confidence more than inconsistency and unpredictability – whether it’s from store-to-store, or from online to in-person. The majority of shoppers do online research before buying, so it’s imperative that retailers maintain a consistent brand experience across channels.
This extends to everything from messaging, signage, and visual cues (like color and typography) to pricing, promotions, and product mix. Keeping the customer experience consistent eliminates confusion, makes shopping easier and more enjoyable, and allows retailers to focus on impressing customers with excellent service.
Commission-based pay does have its benefits – motivation, healthy competition, and increased efficiencies, to name a few – but it can also undermine long-term goals for retailers looking for repeat business and deeper customer relationships.
When done poorly, it can create an aggressive sales environment that feels stressful or threatening for customers who might be early in their shopping journey (or are just introverts).
Retailers playing the long-game understand that stores aren’t just about sales. They’re also about marketing – communicating the company’s personality and earning customer loyalty – and that’s especially true in our increasingly digital world. The ability to instill shoppers with confidence in an entire brand (rather than a single product) is a major advantage experiential stores have over the transactional world of online sales.
Building that kind of trust takes time. The shopper journey is evolving: a customer who does research in a physical store may still decide to make their final purchase online. Sales associates, commission-based or otherwise, contribute to long-term customer loyalty by being attentive and knowledgeable – not by aggressively insisting on a sale at every opportunity.
If there’s one lesson to be taken from the last three decades of retail, it’s this: Just because it worked yesterday does not mean it will work tomorrow. Times change; adaptability is key to thriving as a brick-and-mortar retailer in the digital world, and that means embracing new ideas in order to stay relevant.
Sometimes those evolutions will be drastic and unexpected – Michelle Gass shepherding Kohl’s through its Greatness Agenda by launching an in-store relationship with Amazon.com raised more than a few eyebrows – but not all adaptations have to be dramatic. Tiffany is modernizing its brand to appeal to younger “cool” shoppers while respecting its classical heritage; DSW is expanding its model to include nail salons because…well, why not?
Time will tell how successful each of these efforts prove to be, but the fact that traditional retailers are exploring non-traditional solutions speaks volumes about the importance of an open mind and a creative approach.
Most conversations around customer experience focus on what retailers should change, but that’s only half the story. Exceptional service has always been at the heart of a good customer experience; when that service is lacking, every opportunity for a meaningful interaction can turn to a risk of a lost sale – or worse, a lost customer.
Retailers should never forget that attentive, well-trained employees who are familiar with the company’s products, services, and mission are one of the most significant differentiators to an online experience – and vital to the success of your brick-and-mortar stores.
Let Zipline help streamline your communications and operations – so you can focus on offering the best possible experience to your customers. Talk to our team for more details.
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