Everything is online these days. While I agree that it’s right to say this, it’s also true. Of course, over the past 20 years we’ve seen the rise of internet giants such as Amazon. Companies which have been totally transformative in influencing the way we shop. But even in the so-called “real world” – i.e. bricks and mortar – stores must now have a strong online presence if they want to remain competitive.
It is no longer a matter of selling via the internet or across a physical counter: self-evidently retailers must now do both, and those that miss the boat, or misjudge the distance between the boat and the pier, are destined for an undignified splash, before sinking without a trace.
Online retailers have long put a great deal of thought into the architecture of their websites, from entering at the front door to navigating the maze of products within – but there is a tendency for real-world retailers to concentrate solely on their real-worth stores.
Thousands of hours of thought, design, consultation, research and experimentation go into creating the idealised shopping experience, in which customers are wafted through different sections and departments and presented not only with all the products they could have wanted, but many many which they had not even imagined they needed. Cutting-edge methods track shoppers through supermarkets, to the point where the most profitable lines are placed at eye level with millimetre-sharp precision.
Unless the same painstaking effort goes into the design of their websites, they are doing themselves a disservice and burdening themselves with an afterthought which will be customer-unfriendly, awkward and ultimately unused.
One of the watchwords of mainstream retail is immediacy. If a customer grows bored or frustrated with the systems they are having to navigate, and knows how to get the same product at least as cheaply and more conveniently elsewhere, that is what they will do. Blind brand loyalty to retailers is a thing of the past – you have to get service, convenience and experience right, and focus on driving customer lifetime value – and decisions can be made in a matter of seconds. If the Boots website is clunky, the customer will flick to Superdrug and buy there instead.
That’s why real-world retailers need to think of their websites as a virtual shop floor.
Customers want a pleasant experience, one they will find relaxing and perhaps even enjoy, and one which is, above everything, easy and convenient. Just as products will go unsold if they are two flights of stairs up at the back of the shop, so a section which requires four or five clicks of the mouse and a knowledge of which particular link to follow will prove barren as far as revenue is concerned. It’s got to be a smooth, snappy and instinctive experience, not a Second Life version of Grace Brothers.
To achieve this requires a wholesale shift in thinking. Too many real-world retailers have seen online sales as second-best, a grudging admission of availability to customers who can’t – or won’t – brave the “proper” shopping experience. That philosophy won’t do now. The two art forms, over-the-counter sales and online retailing, must work together, side by side, virtually inseparably.
The real world, after all, still has its unique strengths; you cannot try on shoes on the Clarks website, or feel the weight of cloth in River Island through the screen of a smartphone. Connections have to be made. You like something in the shop, but it’s not in stock in your size? The sales assistant should order it online for you and have it delivered to your home the next day. You want something straight away but you don’t want to browse or queue? You should be able to make the purchase on the internet and then simply collect the goods from the shop.
In the final analysis, retailers have to make their customers feel comfortable. Make them feel loved. Because those feelings of convenience and relaxation will disappear with even the slightest barrier – and the nearest shop is now just one mouse click away.
Martin has been working in the consumer-facing sector for 37 years, founding and chairing e-commerce consultancy Practicology, and heading up multichannel operations for brands such as Burberry, Ted Baker and Harrods. Martin is known globally as a champion of customer experience, being at the heart of end-to-end customer-centric transformation in the industry.