Online shopping in digital stores and shopping in brick-and-mortar stores offer different forms of experiences. It starts from the environment or setting in which the shopper is situated — being present in a 3D physical retail space or viewing a 2D screen of a computer or mobile device. It is the difference between how much and what specifically a shopper can see and absorb when looking around in a physical store compared with looking at a screen. The difference in setting may have a further impact on behaviour, like how shoppers find products and how they inspect them.
Imagine a shopper, Dan, entering a large fashion store. Dan’s head immediately turns around as much as 180 degrees scanning the scene. Just a few steps in front of Dan there is a low desk with shirts, and another desk with sweaters to the left; to the right Dan observes shirts hanging on a rectangle-shaped stand, and he notices how their designs differ from those on the desk; along the walls are more shirts and trousers, etc. Dan decides to approach first the shirts to the left because they have multiple colours, lifting one or two to look more closely at them; later he also turns to the wall to see trousers and tries to match them with shirts. As Dan’s shopping trip advances he may enter deeper into the store to check on some accessories or another variety of shirts. Very early in the visit the shopper can figure out what may be found in main sections of the scene. Then starts a sort of discovery tour that may be guided by a master goal but progresses as the shopper identifies relevant and visually attractive items (stimuli). The scene is ‘updated’ as the shopper goes deeper into the store, or into adjacent halls, and details that were more distant and vague before become sharper and clearer.
A different kind of shopping process usually occurs in online website stores: first of all because much fewer products (stimuli) can be observed in a relatively short glimpse of the screen-scene. The way merchandise in the online store is located and explored is much more gradual. An online store actually encourages a more goal-driven search process (e.g., choosing names of categories from a menu, selecting attribute options to narrow down the search to a relevant selection of products). Then starts a back-and-forth process of exploration of different items (e.g., by clicking on item titles or images and entering product pages), and visiting additional major categories of products. However, the experience of search and exploration is so different: whereas in the physical store the shopper can ‘wash the eyes’ with shapes, designs and colours of products, and follow the eyes through the shopping trip, it is much harder to do so in an online store where one has to go step-by-step or in a piecemeal manner. Nevertheless, online shoppers have more flexibility and a wider span of possibilities for viewing product options simultaneously on the screen of a desktop or laptop computer than on the screen of a smartphone.
Certainly there are more clever and creative e-commerce or store websites that are able to generate an improved experience of exploration and inspection of products. For example, there are online stores that show grids composed of tiles of images representing major categories and sub-categories of products. The images are more lively, and some of them exhibit motion as well. With some images, hovering with a mouse on the product photo (before clicking) changes the angle in which a garment or handbag, for instance, is shown. On product pages, some options may be selected that immediately affect the product image (e.g., colours, dimensions, designs); products may be rotated dynamically or by selecting from a line of static thumbnail images under the main frame.
- See examples of store (e-commerce) websites chosen by e-Commerce Platforms: ‘Top e-Commerce Websites — Best Designs for 2019‘ or ‘Amazing Online Fashion Stores‘.
A large majority of shoppers enquire about products online before visiting a physical store. According to a Google/Ipsos survey (‘Omnichannel Holiday Study’, Nov. 2017-Jan. 2018), 78% of US holiday shoppers searched products before going into a store; the online search helps shoppers in planning their shopping trip to the store, narrow down the options they should be seeking at the store, but it also ‘inspires the purchase’ (thinkwithgoogle.com, October 2018). In another research by Publicis (‘Shopper First Retailing’, 2018), an even higher proportion of shoppers, 87%, report that they begin searches in digital channels (online, mobile), up from 71% in 2017 (RetailDive.com, 15 August 2018). Searching the Internet is regarded as a productive method to look for directions and learning about product options, as preparation for making purchase decisions. Shoppers do not feel obliged also to make the purchase online, even if they browse the e-commerce website of an online-only retailer (‘e-tailers’) or of a mixed retailer that operates both a website store and physical stores. Consumers like especially to consult reviews of peer users who have already had experience with products they consider.
This learning process seems functional and goal-driven where shoppers need some guidance to put order into their shopping journey. Online sources, including e-commerce websites, seem to provide an efficient solution for this purpose. The process may indeed inspire shoppers with ideas, perhaps to the extent of helping the shopper to focus on viable and worthwhile purchase options and avoid wandering too long clueless in a store. In such a case in particular, visiting the online store of a mixed retailer can prove most useful before arriving to one of its physical store locations — and this makes the website an even more effective tool for the retailer.
However, retailers that operate physical stores would not want shoppers to come too prepared with their minds pre-determined what to buy. While shoppers usually have a general plan of what they are looking for, final purchase decisions are still made mostly in-store. Hence it is so important for physical stores to be designed and arranged in an appealing and stimulating manner — to allow consumers to complete successfully their shopping trip in-store, and furthermore encourage and induce them to purchase a few more ‘treasures’ they discover in the store.
It may be relevant to consider here two scenarios:
For retailers that operate physical stores in multiple, even numerous locations, there should be a stronger incentive to leave their customers with enough reasons to conclude their shopping in-store rather than on the website store. Thus, the online store has to be visually attractive, user-friendly and informative, but it does not have to be fully equipped with features that convince customers to complete their shopping and purchasing online. The website should not go all the way in effort to draw shoppers from physical stores. Whereas the online store may provide more functional, productive experiences (e.g., efficient, time-saving), the physical store would be more capable in creating pleasant emotional experiences (e.g., excitement, thrill, joy). The positive emotions invoked should not be taken lightly because they drive purchases.
For e-tailers with no physical stores there should be greater need to invest in the quality and feel of experiences they can provide in their e-commerce websites. The introduction of shoppers to the online store should be more delightful as well as informative and user-friendly. Visual elements and interactive features have to be inviting and helpful in guiding the visitor into different sections of the store — on the ‘main stage’ of the screen estate and not just through the menu and search engine.
The latter applies, nonetheless, also to mixed retailers that have stores in just a few locations (e.g., major cities) and wish to reach much greater numbers of customers that do not have a store near them. It may also be relevant when targeting customer segments who for any reason have little time free to travel to a store, and in regions where shoppers are reluctant to go out during harsh weather conditions (e.g., steaming hot and dusty or freezing cold and snowy). [Note: Location data might be used to channel a reduced or enhanced version of a store website according to whether the user is in vicinity of a physical store by the retailer, a form of ‘geo-fencing’].
The brick-and-mortar stores remain very much in demand. According to a Google/Ipsos online survey (‘Shopping Tracker’, US, April-June 2018), 61% of American shoppers prefer shopping with brands that also have physical stores than ones that are online only. Key benefits suggested for shopping in physical stores are the immediacy in which shoppers are likely to obtain the products they require; getting hands-on — seeing and interacting with products before buying; and being more fun than shopping online (35% feel so) (thinkwithgoogle.com, John McAteer, November 2018). The Publicis study indicates more generally that 46% of shoppers prefer to buy in physical stores (vis-à-vis 35% who prefer shopping using their laptops and 18% on mobile phones) (RetailDive). Apparently, shoppers are not blind to benefits and advantages of shopping in physical stores over online stores, and many are not ready to leave them to fade out.
It is not suggested that online stores necessarily have to be made to appear like physical stores on the screen — mimicking the scene of a brick-and-mortar store may be perceived as just artificial, awkward and inconvenient (though retailers who also have physical locations can integrate actual store images into relevant sections of the online store). On the one hand, the retailer (or e-tailer) should take advantage of the strengths of the digital medium in organising, displaying and tracing information in the online store. On the other hand, online stores may have to breakaway in some degree from rigid structures of tables, lists and matrices. Grids of image tiles make a good start. Yet, more versatile visualisation possibilities have to be considered to provide visitors of store websites (or mobile apps) a more stimulating presentation of the variety of products the store has to offer. The interactive presentation should expose visitors to an array of products available (e.g., by type, use purpose, or brand), and lead their way from there into sub-categories and specific product models or brands.
- Virtual Reality (VR) technology may be used to emulate a view of a store in 3D space, but the equipment needed to create a truly compelling experience is not in reach of most consumers, at least not yet. The more crucial question is: why should consumers prefer an imitation or illusion when almost everyone can visit real physical stores and shops. At least one aspect VR is unlikely to provide adequately is the social experience.
Instead of treating online shopping and shopping in physical stores as substitutes competing with each other, the more sensible approach for mixed retailers is to create ways in which they can combine and complement each other. The connection can be a two-way street, especially given that shoppers use mobile devices more frequently during store visits (71% of shoppers according to Publicis study cited by RetailDive). From online to store, for example, a mobile app of the retailer used in-store can help the shopper navigate and find the way to the places of products that he or she detected and learned about in a preliminary search and study online (e.g., Home Depot). From in-store to online, the shopper may use the app of the retailer in-store to find more information about products found in the store by scanning a barcode for the product of interest (e.g., Sephora [cosmetics] allows access to product reviews, order history of the shopper, and more) [examples adopted from McAteer in thinkwithgoogle]. More technologies that help in bridging between the virtual and physical domains of shopping include beacons and augmented reality (AR).
- There are other areas not covered above in which online shopping is distinguished from in-store shopping and require more attention, such as customer service, specifically providing advice and assistance to shoppers, and the fulfillment of orders (a ‘click-and-collect’ programme is another way of linking the physical and online stores).
The physical and digital (virtual) domains have each their strengths in creating different forms of shopping experiences. Physical stores and shops have built-in advantages in evoking emotional experiences while shopping — they are tangible and more direct, can provide good personal care, and may attract and excite shoppers by means of interior design and visual merchandising in their physical spaces. Furthermore, beyond vision, physical stores allow shoppers to enact other senses (e.g., touch, smell) that cannot be experienced in the digital domain. It is unsure how much a store website (or app) can give rise to a similar emotional experience and attachment in shoppers, yet there are aspects that can be borrowed into the digital domain that would make it seem not just functional but also more appealing and immersive. Nonetheless, mixed retailers may have the best opportunity to combine the strengths from the physical and digital domains and link them to produce shopping experiences that are more productive and enjoyable altogether.
Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)