by Jonathan Hurvitz. We have seen the rise of e-commerce, the realignment of physical stores and the ‘sweet spot’ in-between: human connection and experiences.
The rise of e-commerce, while accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has been in organic momentum for the past decade, fuelled by a marketplace that is embracing widespread digitisation and the convenience of online retail. Some have called this shift the “retail apocalypse” – where the digital marketplace overtakes physical retail stores, seeing the latter steadily bow out of relevance. But a different school of thought is that where a brand has a presence in both worlds, it’s not a case of one replacing the other; but rather a realignment of physical stores’ priorities and customer approaches to work, in collaboration with their e-commerce counterparts.
While e-commerce has been flourishing in a market that is demanding faster gratification, greater levels of convenience, and a wider range of choices and options, physical retail stores still have many strengths. The human connection is one of them, where a customer is able to get the advice and opinions of a trusted shop assistant, for example, when trying on an outfit. There’s also the “touch and feel” aspect of a product, such as a down duvet or a silk dress, which customers don’t have when shopping online.
These are two of the four areas where physical stores are able to reshape themselves to remain relevant. The other two are ultra-convenience, and immersive exploration. Ultra-convenience is being able to stop at the corner store on your way home for a bottle of wine to have with dinner, or quickly buying a bunch of flowers enroute to visiting a friend. This, in essence, minimises the time between wanting/needing something, and getting it.
Immersive experience is when a retail store creates an in-store experience that almost makes the store a destination, and customers purposefully choose to go there to immerse themselves in the sights, smells, feel and sometimes taste, in the case of a chocolate store, of a retail space. e-Commerce brands can’t create these in-person experiences.
Developing experiential technology
With that said, audio visual technology is evolving to create a version of these experiences for customers. Augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) are tools that e-commerce brands will be able to use to bring some of the in-person experiences out of the physical store and into a customer’s home. Being able to see what an outfit will look like on you through VR technology removes the need to visit a store to try it on. And using AR to see what a lounge suite will look like in your living room, or a 70-inch TV mounted on the wall in your entertainment area, can cut down on the hours of shopping. This convenience, time- and potentially money-saving capabilities are big drawcards for shoppers.
Subscription becomes a hybrid bridge
Another option is purchasing a subscription to a product, and then having the flexibility of being able to test its look, feel, and fit in your home – in the case of furniture or appliances or a selection of clothing in the case of a wardrobe trial – then exchanging it or returning it if it doesn’t match your expectations. This is the model that Teljoy follows, which is a good example of offering a hybrid ‘bridge’ between the virtual and real world. AR/VR are not yet developed to the point of being able to replace many physical experiences, and the ‘touch, feel and try’ aspect that is so important to human beings.
For now, digital and physical retail experiences and customer journeys still have their individual strengths, and in the current marketplace a brand would be well-placed to capitalise on the strengths of both in order to remain relevant and serve the needs of a divided, or indeed inclusive-of-both, range of consumer preferences.
Omni-channel optimisation has become more important than ever, and a consistent visual and brand message needs to traverse both digital and physical retail spaces. Brands also need to go deeper into understanding their customers and their needs and preferences. This allows them to enhance the digital experience for customers who prioritise navigation, broader choice and options, and easy, secure payment capability; and enhance the in-person experience for customers who prioritise personal trusted advice, ultra-convenience, the touch-and-feel of a product, and an immersive experience.
Main image credit: Pixabay.com.
Jonathan Hurvitz is the Group CEO of online retailer Teljoy and a registered Chartered Accountant in South Africa.
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