Retail stores are the new edge for eCommerce

March 2020 may go down in history as the turning point for global eCommerce adoption and acceleration. eCommerce sales launched to all new heights in the immediate wake of COVID-19 shutdowns around the world. As a result of the global pandemic, shoppers turned to the internet to buy everything from grocery store basics to at-home fitness equipment and more — and they did it at rates that would have otherwise taken years to reach.

But, just like bell bottom jeans, what’s old becomes new again.

The advent and subsequent rise of eCommerce over the past two decades saw retailers around the world scramble to keep up or get out of the game. Big chain retailers who simply couldn’t match consumer behavior faced huge losses. Now a new, yet old trend is emerging: the return to experiential shopping.

Following a global lockdown, it’s understandable  people are itching to return to in-person shopping, and as consumers become more comfortable leaving their homes, they’re heading back to stores in a big way. IHL Group, a research and advisory company, found through the analysis of more than 900 chains that retailers are expected to open more stores than they close for the first time since 2017. Thanks to new privacy laws, the cost of acquiring new customers online is skyrocketing, and physical stores have become a less expensive way to attract more shoppers, especially since landlords are more willing to accept shorter and more flexible lease terms in the post-pandemic world.

For eCommerce professionals, this shift is just another in the ever-evolving retail space and presents an opportunity to deliver greater value and better experiences to customers.

Read on to learn more about consumers’ shifting behaviors from in-store to online to in-store again and how you can take advantage of this growing appetite.

Started at the bookstore, now we’re here

Online shopping has become increasingly popular over the past decade and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in particular, but its history extends farther back than this.

eCommerce arrived on the scene in 1979 with a focus on business-to-business (B2B) sales, while online shopping for the consumer as we know it entered the chat in 1992 with Book Stacks Unlimited (eventually becoming Books.com, which Barnes & Noble later acquired).

With major marketplaces like Amazon, eBay, and other eCommerce platforms beginning to emerge in the mid-90s and evolving into their present incarnations, online shopping today has become as normal as a morning cup of Joe.

Unlike brick-and-mortar stores at the time, eCommerce offerings were seemingly unlimited — Amazon, for example, could stock exponentially more books in its early days than the traditional bookstores’ approximately 200,000 titles, providing shoppers with more choice than ever before.

Thanks to the introduction of Prime and expedited shipping, Amazon further changed the eCommerce space by driving up customer expectations and forcing the competition to get creative.

What is experiential shopping and why should I implement it?

Although more and more consumers are flocking to the internet for their shopping needs, retailers around the world have dug their heels in and created unique offerings to draw customers back through their doors by providing experiential shopping.

Experiential shopping is about more than simply walking into a store and selecting items to purchase; it’s an all-encompassing experience for shoppers to engage with your brand and connect on a personal level, focusing more on the customer than on sales. The driving point is physical retailers deliver things that can’t be replicated online.

So, what is experiential retail?

For starters, it’s immersive and shareable. This could mean the use of Extended Reality (XR) tools like Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR). Experiential retail inspires shoppers to whip out their smartphones and share their experiences in real time with followers, generating buzz for your brand and building irreplaceable social proof organically.

The priority of experiential retail isn’t sales — it’s creating an on-brand experience that engages and delights a customer from the moment they walk through your doors. The goal should always be to build a relationship with your customers and focus on their needs, even if it feels counterintuitive to refrain from delivering your killer sales pitch.

Aim to provide your customers a personalized and engaging experience. Lush offers a great example of experiential retail. Head to your nearest Lush store and notice how each of your five senses is engaged, as well as how attentive the staff is to your needs and wants.

Additionally, experiential shopping completely upends customer expectations. Consumers are hardwired to expect pushy salespeople, traditional cash registers, and slow lineups. Experiential retailers are bucking these antiquated trends to build exciting, engaging spaces to shop.

Another great example of experiential shopping? IKEA (big shock). Rather than simply filling its showroom with products categorized by function or type, IKEA’s curated and fully constructed “rooms” allow customers to get a sense of what their lives would be like if they incorporated those products into their homes.

Bridge the gap between online and in-store

Creatively bridging the gap between online and in-store can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. If you currently have a storefront presence, that’s great! There are oodles of unique and fun ways to leverage the space and gain an edge. But, if you don’t have a storefront presence, don’t panic! With technology, social media, and good old-fashioned imagination, you can build amazing experiences that inspire and dazzle your customers.

Here are some of our favorite ways to link the virtual with the physical world if you don’t have a storefront presence:

1) Leverage XR to offer an in-store experience online

Virtual stores are popping up online, creating an in-store experience from the comfort of your shoppers’ living rooms. The use of XR tools like VR and AR lets you craft unique shopping sessions for your customers: They can browse your “store room” virtually or even try on items via AR tools that superimpose items like eyeglasses, makeup, and hair dye using a smartphone or computer’s camera image.

If you’re not yet ready (or lack the interest) to invest in XR tools, consider “live” social events instead. A [Your Store] live shopping event could include you or a member of your team, an influencer, and some of your best-selling items. Host the online event on your preferred social media channel and invite customers to join the party, shop top picks, and engage directly with your brand. These events can be highly personalized and curated to meet the needs of specific target audiences and offer an in-person experience without the out-of-the-house requirement.

2) Create unique opportunities to build community

You don’t need to have a dedicated retail space or storefront to foster an incredible in-person shopping experience. Partnering with local markets or other brands is an effective way to reach new customers and give your existing base a unique chance to engage with your brand.

Pop-up shops at markets or events allow customers to gain access to special deals, novel experiences, and to interact with the brand in a more personal setting. These events can be low-cost — or even no-cost, depending on your partnership — ways to attract new customers and boost exposure for your brand. From seasonal markets like Christmas fairs and Spring Flings to activity-based pop-ups like a yoga class accompanied by racks of fitness apparel, the opportunities are endless.

Whatever the event you design, keep your focus on building relationships and a sense of community among customers, and let the sales come in organically.

Make the most of your physical location

For retailers with both a physical store and an eCommerce presence, making the most of your physical location is paramount. It’s possible (and even likely) some of your online customers aren’t aware of your physical location, and vice versa, meaning you can expand your audience in both spaces with a relatively low lift.

Here’s how we recommend you take advantage of your physical location.

1) Establish a hub for distribution & in-person shopping

Regular locations can provide a hub for distribution as well as in-person shopping experiences that build relationships. With Covid-19 restrictions easing, many communities have seen a surge in #BuyLocal initiatives as a result of supply chain upsets and increasing interest in supporting local businesses.

As a distribution hub, your physical location could house a majority of your inventory, which you can update on your eCommerce platform as sales occur. Allowing in-person shoppers to see your distribution process and practices builds trust in your eCommerce branch, encouraging omnichannel growth.

When it comes to in-person shopping, your physical location lets you offer your shoppers unique experiences. Consider hosting your own pop-ups by partnering with local influencers or leveraging XR technologies to demonstrate how your supply chain process operates. Or, simply set up a destination for your shoppers to come in and engage with your brand and products.

2) Offer your customers additional choices

A great way to boost the customer experience is to let them choose their own adventure. Retail locations allow customers to select the shopping method or experience they prefer. This can include buying online and picking up in store (BOPIS), curbside deliveries for limited or no-contact interactions, shopping online and reserving to pick up and pay in store, and other options.

For shoppers who enjoy the in-person element of interacting with a brand, but perhaps lack time, having the ability to browse online and select items for in-store pickup can be an attractive perk. Similarly, the cost savings and reduced carbon footprint gained by avoiding traditional delivery fees and packaging could be viewed as a benefit for eco-conscious shoppers.

Wrapping up — The future promises a new harmony between eCommerce and retail

Just a few years ago, much discussion revolved around whether or not eCommerce would wipe out brick-and-mortar retail. On the contrary, it seems online and in-store experiences have become more closely linked as customers adopt a fluid approach to shopping. The Wall Street Journal notes the major store retailers opening today are different; they’re smaller and offer experiences beyond simply browsing products.

Although consumers have expressed an interest in and an appetite for experiential shopping as well as a return to the retail store, it doesn’t mean you need to rush out immediately and find a permanent space for your business if it wasn’t previously part of the plan. According to recent statistics, eCommerce is expected to grow another 15.9% in 2022, and consumer behaviors still show a clear preference for the ease and convenience of online and mobile shopping.

Whether or not you currently have a physical space, keeping an eye on this old-but-new trend towards in-person shopping can help you carve out an edge and expand your business. Whatever your future plans, now is the perfect time to reimagine your approach to customer service and experiences, both online and in the real world.

Be sure to focus your energy on a unique and streamlined experience for all customers, deliver on your promises, and prioritize the customer relationship at every step of their journey.