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.

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