First, a little analogy:

Jack makes widgets. He started making widgets in his garage about four years ago and it turned out he made really good ones. So, he started selling them online. By marketing his brand on social media he built up a good client base, attracted some attention and got himself some investors. But, the cost of online advertising has gone up and the pandemic has changed the retail marketplace. So, he’s started doing pop-up stores and events and is searching for some high street retail space.

Jill makes widgets. Jill spotted a gap in the market for widgets about four years ago. She found a designer and a supplier, got herself some angel investors and set up branded high street retail spaces, and a website. But, during the pandemic a lot of her in-store customers moved online. Now she’s upping her digital game to keep them engaged with her brand and attract new customers. She’s doing online events, using her retail space for online fulfilment, and working out how to best engage with and integrate both sets of customers.

Jack and Jill have both realised that success in this post-pandemic retail landscape relies on offering a fluid branded experience to customers – whether their journeys begin in the digital world or in physical stores. 

They are working hard to understand how to build an omnichannel experience, tying together their online and real-world income streams to cater to separate client bases and those who move between physical and digital. And all whilst making sure they keep getting widgets out the door.

And you should be too

According to a recent report by Shopify, the number of consumers who look for products online and then go buy in-store, compared to those who browse a brick and mortar store and then buy online is nearly identical. Customers expect the same branded feel to the stores, access to sales advice, ease of purchase, and delivery and return options from both ends of the spectrum.

Where to start with omnichannel

What tools are available so that you can give your customers an integrated shopping experience and where should you start? 

Whether you come from digital or brick and mortar beginnings, building a community around your brand generates loyalty and customer data. This helps with targeting your marketing and, ultimately, boosting repeat purchasing. Increasingly, customers want to know your brand story – how you started, why you started and how you got to where you are now. This tells them that you share their values, like sustainability and ethical supply chains, etc. A great example of a brand community is Mob Kitchen, an online food channel that uses reactions to their online content to help develop their recipe books. Online customer communities are a low-risk space to test new products and gather feedback, and can be linked directly into social commerce (sales on a social network channel). Social commerce is set to nearly triple by 2025.

Social commerce

Social commerce goes beyond social media posts with a “buy now” button, and video is key to it. In-store retail assistants are being repurposed to lead scheduled online events, guiding groups of customers around a curated tour of what’s in the shop, promoted and organised through the brand’s social channels and communities. 

Scheduled one-to-one live video chats with personal shoppers who access both the individual’s buying history and customer profiling to personalise the experience is termed “virtual clienting” by high-end retailers, mirroring concierge or personal shopper services, but in the digital realm. Brands with brick and mortar stores are in the best position to capitalise on social commerce because they already possess the physical branded assets and the trained staff to create social media content.

Done well, social commerce can bring the human interaction of high street shopping to the online experience. Clothing brands in particular are reporting engagement improvements with customers using video. Why? Retail assistants can better answer questions about stock availability, sizing, fabrics and styles, which the customer wouldn’t get through a normal website experience. 

Shirtmaker startup UNTUCKit reported that 88% of virtual customers purchase within 24 hours of a video chat using the HERO platform.  But you don’t have to be a tech-savvy luxury brand to take advantage of virtual personal shopping. Kids Talk, a family-run children’s clothing store in Scotland, demonstrate this by using a simple booking form solution to schedule 1-2-1 in-store live chats on whatever platform the customer is familiar with, to share its 40 years’ experience clothing newborns and infants

The move to brick and mortar

Conversely, digital-native brands are setting up brick and mortar stores in order to create live customer experiences that match their online offerings. This requires strategy, a community and a standout experience. Online data is invaluable in deciding where to open your first store. Commercial real estate firm JLL forecasts that online retailers will open the doors to a minimum of 850 stores by 2023 in the US alone. New York (SoHo in particular) emerges as the top city for both pop-ups and first permanent locations for digital-native brands. Equally, experimenting with pop-ups and in-store pick-up increases footfall from online customers. Digital brands have the advantage of an existing brand community and brand ambassadors. They can harness the novelty of using a shopfront as a physical billboard, whilst making sure it’s shareable with their online community. Furniture store Burrow takes this further in their new showroom for their digital-native brand. Their store is primarily an Instagram-friendly showroom divided into four areas with only one of them focused on sales, and the rest on experiencing the furniture and sharing it online.

Brands are beginning to see the value of physical stores in combatting new privacy laws such as the EU’s GDPR and similar regulations in other parts of the world. It is no longer as simple for online businesses to gather user data, so getting customers into a store and gathering that data at the point of sale (POS), in person, can help to offset this loss. 

Companies that lack the resources to jump straight into the high street, or are uncertain which location is best for them, are using pop-up events, pop-in stores (temporarily leased spaces within existing, brand-compatible retail spaces) and eventually leased stores. Services like Brik+Clik in the US are capitalising on this trend by opening retail specifically targeted at online companies testing out a physical retail space. 

How you reach your customers and how they reach you is becoming more closely integrated. The customer data you collect online helps you design targeted in-store experiences by knowing your customer better. Integrate your in-store POS with your e-commerce platform. Share the results, but be sure to identify which data points came from which source to better understand the user journeys your customers are taking. Upselling and cross-selling are easier to do online with automated recommendations at checkout — what’s more difficult is training staff to do the same thing in-store without coming across as too pushy.

The full omnichannel experience

Customers want to have it all. In the US 55% of customers want to browse online and check stock availability before picking up from local stores. 67% add extra items to their cart if they can pick up immediately. 51% are significantly more likely to purchase if they can buy online, but return in-store if it isn’t right for them.  Many online retailers are having to learn skills and techniques that, until now, only their bricks and mortar counterparts needed – and vice versa. As Doug McMillion, CEO of Walmart says “Ultimately, customers don’t care about what channel they’re shopping in or about how we deliver them a product or service. They simply know they’re shopping with Walmart”