What does it take to attract and retain customers? For brands to be compelling, they need to become part of a customer’s lifestyle and develop presence. Presence is about customer experience and building a relationship over time. When customer experience is what matters, marketers shouldn’t look at each shopping choice separately. They should look at customers’ choices over time.
Online versus offline is no longer an either-or proposition. Best-in-class brands are leveraging both channels and taking advantage of the rapid pace of innovation to make shopping a seamless and compelling experience.
Where the Lines Blur
We all love an experienced salesperson who has used all the products and can explain why we need waterproof seams on our winter-rated sleeping bag. But now, more and more, we can get that information online, from customer reviews. Expertise is coming from within brands’ online customer communities.
There are emerging digital techniques for exploring products, comparing options, and discovering details.
In some cases, online can create new experiences not possible before. For example, on the Nike website, visitors can customize their choice of shoes. The number of possible combinations of colors and styles is astronomical. Customers can also choose color, comfort, and customized printed text. The key is that they get to see the result of their choices on the screen as they make them, and then select delivery options to receive their custom Nikes as soon as the next day.
Brands create interactive product pages customers can manipulate to find the right product more effectively. Social media and online reviews help customers make informed choices. The end result is that customers are more comfortable with the products that are delivered.
Mixing Offline and Online Experiences
Consumers have been creating their own mixes of online and offline experiences. For products where online cannot replicate the offline experience necessary to make a purchase online, they have shown their resourcefulness by visiting the showrooms of traditional retailers to browse. They then get out their phones, price check, and read additional reviews online. This practice has earned the name showrooming and is so commonplace that it has its own Wikipedia entry. Big-box retailers have had to adapt and find new ways of adding value and cutting costs. For example, Best Buy is now using the physical assets of 1,400 locations and eight major distribution centers to deliver two days faster than in the past. Additionally, they’re fighting against the high cost of returned items by reselling them online, at a discount. This has helped the company cut costs and stage a comeback.
Online services with local delivery are another example of this mixing of offline and online experiences. Here, customers get the convenience of shopping online with the immediacy traditionally only available offline. Google Express and grocery delivery service Instacart source locally and deliver within one or two hours of ordering. Instacart, a venture-capital-backed startup, uses a similar business model to Google’s, relying on local big-box grocery stores. It’s currently rolling out in large urban areas of the United States. Their online ordering system already lists more than 300,000 products. It is not quite instant gratification, but most of us can wait a couple of hours for most things.
The Customer Connection
To have a truly compelling presence in the market, it’s not enough to have a great online presence. You also need to provide an experience that supports the growth and involvement of a community around your brand. There is value in a store clerk knowing who we are, acknowledging our birthday, and knowing our personal preferences. Simply put, we want to be around other people.
There isn’t going to be an end to the use of retail space. Online retailers aren’t going to make offline experiences obsolete. We’ll still choose to go to the store. However, the exact use and mix of online and offline will find a new balance—one that gives brands the most effective presence in the market.