Exploring the Relationship Between Online and In-Store Shopping Experiences
The meteoric rise of ecommerce over the past decade has led many industry experts to predict the decline of brick-and-mortar retail. However, the reality is that physical stores remain hugely important, accounting for ~85% of total US retail sales as of 2021. Omnichannel retailers who strategically leverage both online and offline channels continue to dominate.
While online shopping provides unparalleled convenience and selection, in-store retail still delivers tangible value. Customers enjoy experiences like trying on clothing, testing electronics, or browsing leisurely down store aisles. Physical spaces also allow for sensory elements like sounds, smells, and textures that cannot be replicated digitally.
Modern customers move seamlessly between online and offline touchpoints during their purchasing journey. Retailers must provide a unified brand experience across both channels through strategies like click and collect, consistent pricing, in-store returns for online orders, and mobile apps that bridge the divide between digital and physical spaces.
Omnichannel retail is the future, but executing it successfully requires understanding the nuances of how online and brick-and-mortar shopping uniquely influence each other.
The Rise of Ecommerce Alongside Persistence of Brick-and-Mortar Stores
The pandemic accelerated the ecommerce boom, with US online sales growing by over 30% from 2019 to 2020. However, in-store shopping still makes up around ~85% of total retail sales. This challenges the notion that physical retail is dying. Reasons customers still heavily favor stores include:
- For groceries, clothing, furniture and more, people prefer to hand-select items.
- Customers like being able to physically examine goods prior to purchase.
- In-store shopping allows for real-time problem solving with knowledgeable sales assistants.
- Stores provide an enjoyable browsing experience online cannot replicate.
Omnichannel retailers leverage both online and offline channels strategically. Retail giants like Walmart, Target, and Best Buy all offer options like:
- Click and collect – ordering online for quick in-store pickup
- In-store returns – returning online purchases to physical stores
- Consistent pricing – matching online and offline pricing to avoid showrooming
- Store pickups – picking up online orders in-store
- Integrated apps – unified mobile shopping experience bridging channels
While digital disruption has certainly impacted brick-and-mortar stores, data shows physical retail is evolving rather than disappearing. Stores still play a vital role.
Comparing Online vs. In-Store Shopping
To understand the enduring appeal of physical stores, it helps to examine the pros and cons of online and in-store shopping:
Online Shopping Pros
- More convenience and ability to shop anytime, anywhere globally.
- Significantly wider product selection with limitless inventory space.
- Quick access to detailed product information like reviews and specs.
- Easier price comparisons across retailers with sites like Google Shopping.
Online Shopping Cons
- Inability to physically handle merchandise prior to purchase.
- Waiting days or weeks for delivery after orders are placed.
- More concerns about sizing, fit and fraudulent sellers than brick-and-mortar.
In-Store Shopping Pros
- Immediate product acquisition and instant gratification after purchase.
- Able to see, touch, try, and test products in person prior to buying.
- More able to find help from sales associates when needed.
- Enjoyable experience of leisurely browsing physical aisles and displays.
In-Store Shopping Cons
- Need to physically travel to the retail location.
- More limited product selection than what is available online.
- Requires finding and interacting with store employees for assistance.
- Exposure to crowds and long checkout lines during peak times.
When making a purchase decision in this omnichannel era, customers today often switch between online and offline touchpoints. They extensively research products online by browsing ecommerce sites, reading reviews, comparing prices across retailers, and checking inventory availability. However, many still visit physical stores to see, touch, try on and test out goods firsthand before deciding to buy online.
Conversely, shoppers also frequently browse in brick-and-mortar stores to check out products in a tactile shopping experience, but ultimately purchase cheaper online after comparison shopping. This showrooming phenomenon highlights the symbiotic relationship between online and offline channels.
Successful retailers optimize both digital and physical spaces to align with modern cross-channel shopping journeys. Ecommerce brands enhance websites with virtual try-on tools, 3D models, and digital assistants to replicate the in-store experience. Brick-and-mortar stores embrace technologies like augmented reality, smart mirrors, QR codes, and in-store WiFi to bridge online and offline worlds.
The future of retail involves seamlessly blurred lines between online and offline shopping. Phygital strategies which tightly integrate physical and digital channels are key. Leading omni-channel retailers offer conveniences like click and collect, cross-channel returns, consistent pricing, shared inventory visibility, and mobile apps uniting digital/physical shopping.
Customers have come to expect continuity across channels. They want an integrated brand experience whether shopping online, in-store or across both. Retailers must optimize merchandise selection, marketing, promotions, pricing and customer service for the nuances of online vs. offline channels. Those who deliver unified commerce will thrive in this new integrated phygital era.
How Online Shopping Impacts Brick-and-Mortar Stores
The availability of ecommerce has significantly impacted traditional retail in several key ways:
- Showrooming – Customers browse in-store before looking up better deals online. This phenomenon pressures retailers to price match with online competition.
- Webrooming – Customers research online before visiting a store to see/sample products. This shifts the purpose of stores towards being showrooms.
- Ability to check prices, inventory availability and promos online prior to visiting stores gives customers more leverage.
- Mobile access to price comparison and coupon sites like Honey means customers can instantly check deals while in stores. This forces retailers to stay competitive on pricing both online and off.
In response, brick-and-mortar retailers have adapted with new strategies:
- Price matching policies to combat showrooming.
- Emphasizing expertise and services over products alone.
- Improving omnichannel capabilities around click and collect, etc.
- Enhanced mobile apps to meet customer expectations.
- Offering exclusive in-store deals or early access to sales.
Once seen as a threat, many stores now view ecommerce as an opportunity for symbiotic relationship. Physical and digital channels clearly influence one another.
How Physical Stores Influence Online Sales
While the internet has disrupted in-store shopping, brick-and-mortar locations still very much impact ecommerce sales, including:
- Many customers prefer returning or exchanging online purchases in-store vs mailing back items. This has led digital brands like Warby Parker to open showrooms.
- For apparel, customers want to try on items in-store first to determine sizing before confidently ordering online.
- Seeing, touching or testing products in-store builds trust and familiarity that increases willingness to later buy online.
- In-store displays, signage and sales associates inspire ideas that ultimately lead to online purchases.
Essentially, physical storefronts act as billboards, providing awareness that drives traffic to ecommerce sites. A 2018 survey found ~40% of customers initiated online orders after viewing products in-store first. Physical retail also establishes credibility for unknown ecommerce brands.
Despite the popularity of online shopping, leading digital brands still opt to open brick-and-mortar showrooms and pop-ups. Why? Because data shows stores help boost online sales rather than diminish them. Phygital retail, where digital and physical work together, is the undeniable future.
Omnichannel Retail Strategies Unifying Online and Offline
Forward-thinking brands are eliminating silos between channels to deliver seamless unified commerce experiences. Examples of omnichannel best practices include:
- Click and Collect – Allowing online orders to be picked up quickly in-store.
- In-Store Returns – Accepting online purchase returns in physical locations.
- Consistent Pricing – Matching prices across online and offline channels.
- Integrated Apps – Retail apps that unify digital/physical experience.
- Order Online, Ship to Store – Purchasing online and shipping to locations for pickup.
- Order in Store, Ship to Home – Buying in retail stores and shipping to residences.
- In-Store WiFi – Providing web access in-store to check online inventory, reviews, etc.
- Shared Inventory Visibility – Displaying real-time online inventory in physical locations.
- Universal Loyalty Programs – Unified rewards programs spanning online and offline.
Leading big box retailers like Walmart, Target, and Best Buy have invested heavily in unifying their channel capabilities. Smaller businesses can also adopt omnichannel commerce through savvy use of technology and customer data.
Best Practices for Online and Offline Merchandising
Along with seamless channel integration, retailers must also optimize product selection, pricing, promotions and store layouts for the nuances of online vs. in-store shopping.
- Localized Assortments – Curating product selections tailored specifically to each channel.
- Rapid Content Creation – Frequently generating digital content showcasing newest items.
- Physical Store Experimentation – Testing endcap displays and product placement to identify best sellers.
- Regular Price Evaluations – Continuously monitoring both online and offline pricing across competitors.
- Coordinated Sales Calendars – Strategically timing promotions across channels.
- Consistent Branding – Unified logo, images, packaging, messaging across physical and digital touchpoints.
Data-driven testing is key. Retailers must embrace a culture of constant experimentation and optimization across online and offline channels.
The Importance of Inclusive Omnichannel Marketing
As retailers work to seamlessly unify online and offline shopping, inclusive representation and accessibility are crucial across all touchpoints:
- Marketing should authentically showcase diversity in age, race, ability, body type, etc.
- Websites must be optimized for those with visual, hearing, or mobility impairments.
- Global ecommerce requires localization and translation for international audiences.
- Helpful, empathetic customer service is key for both online and in-store.
Customers want to feel acknowledged and included however they choose to shop. Retailers who champion diversity both digitally and physically will gain loyalty.
Future Innovations Bringing Online and Offline Closer
Emerging technologies will allow retailers to unify online and offline shopping even further:
- AR/VR In-Store – Augmented and virtual reality will bring digital experiences into physical stores. For example, shoppers could visualize furniture in their homes.
- Smart Dressing Rooms – RFID tags will detect items brought into dressing rooms, displaying additional options on screens.
- Predictive Inventory – AI will help retailers anticipate demand and inventory needs between channels.
- Automated Microfulfillment – Smaller urban warehouses with robotics will enable faster local order delivery.
- Autonomous Vehicles – Self-driving vehicles and drones will provide affordable, fast shipping from stores to homes.
Key Strategies for Successfully Connecting Online and Offline Shopping
For retailers looking to navigate this new era of blurred lines between physical and digital commerce, here are some proven omnichannel strategies:
Embrace Click and Collect Shopping
Implement buy online, pick up in-store options. Provide designated areas in stores for quick online order retrieval. Train staff to swiftly locate and hand-off items to customers.
Allow In-Store Returns of Online Purchases
Don’t require mailed returns for online purchases. Accept online returns in physical stores. Make in-store returns fast and easy using shared order tracking systems.
Maintain Consistent Pricing and Inventory
Avoid showrooming issues by keeping prices and inventory synchronized across all channels. Prevent finding cheaper deals online vs. in-stores.
Invest in Retail Mobile Apps
Mobile apps that allow customers to seamlessly search, purchase, pick up in-store, find locations, etc. create a unified shopping experience.
Share Local Availability and Pickup Options
Allow customers to check if an item is in stock locally for fast store pickup. Display pickup locations and provide estimated wait times.
Provide Full Visibility into Omnichannel Fulfillment
Be transparent about fulfillment costs, timelines and options at checkout. Share store pickup locations and potential delivery delays.
Use Digital Signage to Reflect Online Trends In-Store
Display online star ratings, popular searches, user-generated content and suggestions from your website in-store via digital signs.
Promote Online Exclusives In-Store
Offer online-only sales, coupon codes or free shipping promotions in-store via signage and staff to drive traffic.
Visually Merchandise UGC Content from Social Media
Print signage showcasing user photos, videos, reviews, and testimonials from Instagram or TikTok to build trust in stores.
Leverage Self-Service Kiosks and Endless Aisles
Integrate online product selection into physical retail environments via touchscreen kiosks for convenience.
Key Takeaways on the Connection Between Online and Offline Shopping
The meteoric rise of ecommerce has led many to underestimate the ongoing importance of physical retail, but brick-and-mortar stores are proving surprisingly resilient. Despite the growing popularity of online shopping for its convenience and selection, in-store shopping remains vital and will not disappear anytime soon.
Offline and online channels continue influencing each other in unexpected ways. Many customers browse in physical stores to see, touch and try on products before ultimately purchasing cheaper online. Conversely, online research and reviews often precede in-store visits to examine goods firsthand.
Successful omnichannel retailers deliver seamless unified commerce across both online and offline touchpoints. Leading big box stores and ecommerce brands invest heavily in capabilities like click and collect, in-store returns, and mobile apps bridging the digital/physical divide.
Customers expect continuity across channels and resent disjointed experiences. Retailers must carefully optimize pricing, merchandise, marketing, and store layouts for the nuances of online vs. brick-and-mortar shopping missions.
The future of retail is phygital – where the lines between physical and digital shopping blur. Emerging technologies will allow retailers to unify online and offline worlds further.
Brands that embrace this new symbiotic relationship between offline and online will thrive. Those that resist adapting to the influence of omnichannel shopping journeys will slowly fade away. Understanding the surprising connectedness of in-store and ecommerce is now imperative.