The Reward Guide to Bringing In-store Experiences Online

Mitchel White
April 14, 2021

There’s an ever so slight chance that you may have heard the news this week: non-essential UK shops (along with pubs and gyms) have opened their doors again once more.

And with high streets back open, it’s fair to say that there’s quite a healthy dose of customers ready to queue up to step back inside their long-missed favourite locales. Who can blame them? Whether they’re eager to just get out of the house, return to life as it once was, or just return an unwanted item that’s been gathering dust in their drawers, many city and town centres are buzzing again with many eager consumers.

True, it’s fair to say that thousands of people are rushing out to crowded shops. It’s also fair to say that just as many people are more anxious about returning to brick and mortar stores. Hey – maybe some people just prefer online shopping and at-home eCommerce (I am definitely including myself here).

So all things considered, it’s important to not let the alarming news stories of 8.17am pints and endless queues colour your perception of what customers want. In spite of the enthusiastic shoppers that are already out and about, there’s just as much cause for bringing in-store experiences online.

A Return to the High Street

Let’s talk figures: according to recent YouGov Polls, 49% of people think that the public will probably not behave responsibly now that shops can re-open.

29% of people surveyed will only return to pub gardens later in the year, as opposed to the 7% who want to return as soon as they open.

46% of people will in fact miss some aspects of lockdown when it’s over, whereas 39% will not miss any aspect.

Granted, these polls can hardly be called the most thorough cross-study of the population, but the fact that results show that more people tend towards caution is telling. It can’t be denied – the pandemic has permanently changed consumer shopping habits. And whether or not consumers are ready or not – or even want – to return to the high street, there’s no denying that eCommerce and all of its benefits are here to stay.

And now that shops are open, it’s ironic that one said benefit is the standard of customer services that comes with an improved online in-store experience. Over the past couple of years, providing excellent customer experiences that mirror the brick-and-mortar boutique feel have become a key priority for multichannel brands. As such, many online retailers have been quick to adjust their customer service strategies in a bid to give customers the offline experience that they have so missed – an experience that they have become accustomed to even if the real thing is accessible again.

So, how do you go about bringing in-store experiences online, I hear you ask? Let’s take a look!

Bringing In-Store Experiences Online: Personalised Shopping

As more people shop from home, eCommerce has had to redefine what retail looks like. Before, the standard was that an online store looked more like a digital catalogue, with tons of products laid out for the consumer to see, to rate, and click upon. Now, your website has to take on a new purpose: it has to become the digital equivalent of a shop assistant with finely honed customer service skills.

As such, the online shopping experience has to feel personal. eCommerce may not yet be able to meet and greet its customers, but it can learn about them through their onsite behaviours and preferences.

Depending on the depth of your data analytics strategies, you can learn about your customer’s age, gender, size, in addition to more complex characteristics like shopping habits and their average spend. These insights should inform how you segment your customers.

For example, you can segment your customers based on factors like average order value or purchase frequency. Then you can layer combinations and create more detailed segments of your demographics. With these segments in place, you can target each group specifically, using the right tone of voice and array of offers to appeal to their interests.

At Reward, we’re also big fans of the wishlist discount email. Many mailing services can send notifications to customers when a product from their wishlist is on sale.

However, a step further is to tailor bespoke discounts to customers based on the items that have been sitting in their wishlist for some time. Not only do you know that the customer has the desire to own the item already – but offering a personalised discount is a way to make them feel valued and to encourage a conversion that may not have happened otherwise.

Bringing In-Store Experiences Online: Product Discovery

It’s fair to say that one of the biggest differences between offline and online shopping comes down to the browsing experience. It’s a sensation brick and mortar stores have spent decades honing – with tactics like visual merchandising and in-store music subtly influencing the shopping process.

On a personal level, I particularly miss browsing bookshops. There’s an inimitable feeling that I get browsing a bookshop. Rather than having a particular list of titles I want to walk out with, a huge part of the pleasure is when I let myself become lost in the process of exploring.

And for brands looking to add this sense of immersion to their online shopping experience, product discovery is the way to go. It’s a vital component to how you bring in-store experiences online.

The product discovery process begins with empathy. If we want to imitate that feeling of wonder that an interested customer has when browsing their favourite retail items, we need to understand their buying motivations. For example, if the customer – as laid out in your segmentation exercises – has been browsing a particular type of product (let’s say an artist’s easel), then the task is to put yourself in their shoes and replicate their train of thought. Sometimes this takes guesswork, and sometimes it’s very apparent.

So, that artist’s easel? What would the person – whose age, gender etc, you’re able to work out with data analytics – be buying next? Well, chances are they’d like painting supplies? Maybe an artbook for the new hobby they’ve picked up when aiming for their lockdown cottagecore goals?

It’s important to update your systems in real-time, letting customers see what’s running low or already out of stock. And while we want to avoid overconsumption (shopping for the sake of owning) if your customer is interested in the related product that you’re suggesting, the sense of urgency that comes with seeing items have dwindling stock numbers is a more ethical incentive – at least we know they’re likely to use the item.

Free Product Returns are a No No

Of course, there are also unethical ways eCommerce can replicate the in-store experience online. At Reward, I should hope it’s clear that we stand by ethical business practices that sit in line with the Sustainable Development Goals.

A frustrating side effect of many eCommerce stores – particularly those that use Klarna – is that they encourage shoppers to buy more than they need, despite knowing that they’ll be returning a good portion of their haul. Sometimes shoppers will be buying the same item of clothing in various sizes, returning the item that’s the worst fit.

However, each return leaves a trail of emissions from the various trains, planes, and automobiles that courier it back to the seller. That pollution is a serious contributor to climate change.

Returns in the US alone create 5 billion pounds of landfill waste and 15 million tonnes of carbon emissions annually. In the EU, packaging waste in 2016 amounted to nearly 87 million tonnes or about 170 kg per person. The majority of brands rely on single-use plastic materials. In fact, in the UK, around 40% of plastic is used in packaging, generating around 2.4 million tonnes of packaging waste per year.

Fortunately, there’s a great deal of augmented reality technology that’s currently available, posing itself as a solution for online shoppers who want to try before they buy.

Augmented reality shopping apps can let customers see what a product – from furniture to fashion – looks like in their homes or on their bodies, saving them both a trip to the store or from a potential return. In short, they may be a deal breaker for businesses looking to bring in-store experiences online in a truly sustainable way.

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