First came home shopping via radio and cable television, and then came the Internet and online retailers. Modern shoppers suddenly discovered the convenience of ordering a product from the comfort of home, even at 3 a.m.
As more and more consumers became proficient at online shopping, brick-and-mortar retailers became increasingly alarmed. Some niches were justified. For example, online retailers like Amazon and Netflix have been largely responsible for the financial problems of Blockbuster and Borders. Among some retailers, however, the response has been to jump on the "online bandwagon" and in route, throw their brick-and-mortar stores under the bus.
The logic, as far as it goes, is sound -- give customers what they want. The erroneous assumption was that customers wanted online shopping to the exclusion of all else. In other words, if they could buy it online 24/7 while sitting at home in their pajamas, customers would always choose to do so rather than make a trip to a physical store. While this may be true for some customers, some products or some circumstances, it is not a universal truth. Brick-and-mortar stores can offer advantages that an online retailer cannot provide.
Better Customer Service
It is true that customers automatically expect outstanding customer service, so retailers seldom receive any recognition for providing it. However, customers notice when it is lacking. A brick-and-mortar store has the advantage over an online retailer -- customers can interact face-to-face with store personnel. They can ask questions and receive an answer immediately.
Strategy: Provide employees with the latest in wireless mobile technology. This allows them to instantly look up product specifics, for example, or determine whether a requested item is truly out of stock.
Seeing is Believing
Some customers simply do not like to make purchases "sight unseen", and others who might be comfortable buying a book online, for example, might be reluctant to purchase a pair of jeans. Just as many craftsmen will not buy a block of wood or piece of leather without being able to examine it, many shoppers feel they simply must touch an object (or at least view it in person) before buying it.
Strategy: Use kiosks to enhance the customer's shopping experience. No retailer has enough space to display every product available, much less every combination of size, color or other options. A kiosk allows customers to browse an entire catalog while they are in the store, look up details about products in which they have an interest or find additional products that are related to the item they plan to purchase.
Catering to Impulses
Online purchases typically require shoppers to have at least a general idea of what they want. If they go to an online bookstore, for example, they are not likely to end up buying a new shirt. However, a brick-and-mortar store that sells books might also sell pastries, gourmet coffee or chewing gum. In addition, while looking for the desired book, the customer might discover a number of other products they had not realized they wanted -- until they saw them. They might come for a book, but they may leave with a calendar, a leather-bound journal, a trivia game and a new pen as well as the book.
Strategy: Use digital signage to draw attention to displays or items that are on sale. Let kiosks suggest items that complement products that customers research. Employ iBeacons to transmit personalized offers or coupons to customers while they are in the store.
Offering Instant Gratification
Most people dislike having to wait several days to receive an item they have purchased. However, this is often mandatory when shopping online. At a brick-and-mortar store, customers can leave with their purchases. This can be of critical importance when a shopper forgets to order a birthday gift in time to receive it by the date of the party, or discovers that the printer cartridge has run dry the night before a term paper is due.
Strategy: Giving customers quick access to the desired product is important, but there may be times when it is impossible for a shopper to leave the store with the item. Perhaps it is temporarily out of stock, or it is a bulky item that requires more space than is available in the storeroom. Technology can still allow customers to receive the item quickly. A connected workforce can check to see when the item will be restocked or whether another branch has it available. For items that will never be on display, allow customers to order online and pick up at the store later that day or the next.
Although it is true that most retailers cringe at the thought of making returns easier for customers, the problems involved with returning online purchases can dissuade shoppers. They would rather make a purchase locally so that an easy exchange is possible if Uncle Otis already owns the book or Aunt Jill now wears a size 10. A fair, clearly stated return policy can encourage shoppers to take chances on items they may never consider buying online.
Strategy: A return policy should never offer customers an unpleasant surprise. This means that the policy must be clearly stated and highly visible. It might be necessary to require DVDs or video games to be unopened, to refuse to exchange bathing suits or to limit the time in which a customer can return a seasonal item. Print the return policy on the back of the sales receipt and use kiosks or digital signage to display it. At the same time, assure customers that you are happy to make exchanges or offer refunds in most instances.
The Bottom Line
In the end, the bottom line is what is most important to retailers. It is not enough to delight customers -- retailers must delight customers and still make a profit. Those who fail to do both cannot remain in business. Brick-and-mortar stores must take the best that technology has to offer and use it to enhance those aspects of in-person shopping that online retailers cannot duplicate.