Retail Goes Channel-less: How Your Brand Can Keep Up

January 24, 2020

By Greg Zakowicz(opens in new tab), senior commerce and marketing analyst
4-minute read

In short:

  • Making improvements to the customer shopping experience is an ongoing effort and can serve as a brand differentiator.
  • The blending of online and offline shopping worlds is increasing, and consumers are increasingly expecting a streamlined and channel-less experience.
  • Using data effectively can be critical in providing an improved -- and more exciting -- customer shopping experience.

When a customer walks through a retailer’s door or visits an online store, they’re looking for something(opens in new tab). The retailer’s job is to provide a good experience that helps them find it. 

As consumers’ shopping habits change and shopping channels become less siloed, the definition of a “good” experience is changing. And while online and brick-and-mortar retailers interact with shoppers in different ways, their approaches to delivering a “good” experience are beginning to resemble one another even more.

Let’s look at ways retailers can evolve their shopping experiences by bringing the online and offline worlds together. 

Use augmented and virtual reality to boost shoppers’ comfort levels. 

Online retailers can’t provide the ambiance or tactile experience that comes with shopping in a store, making it more challenging to deliver an exciting, pleasurable shopping experience. For those selling apparel, providing an experience that allows customers to choose a correctly-sized product is an extra challenge.

But lacking a tactile experience doesn’t mean online retailers have to offer an informal, Amazon-like experience. Take Tenth Street Hats(opens in new tab) for example. In 2018, the r etailer of designer hats integrated 3-D product imaging and augmented reality (AR) into its online shopping experience. The 3-D imaging, available for some products, lets users rotate and flip the hats to get a more detailed (and interactive) view of the product.

On the Tenth Street Hats website, shoppers can examine hats from all angles(opens in new tab) thanks to 3-D product imaging.

The AR tool lets shoppers virtually “try on” different hats to see what they’d look like on their heads. Shoppers can even take pictures of themselves “wearing” the hats.

Tenth Street also has a "virtual try-on" tool, a spiffy use of augmented reality technology.

Brick-and-mortar retailers are also experimenting with using tools like AR and virtual reality (VR) in an attempt to improve the customer experience. Vera Bradley, for example, debuted VR in some(opens in new tab) locations to showcase a new bedding line in 2017. Since fitting physical beds into each store required too much space, the brand used VR to allow shoppers to see what different prints looked like on a virtual bed.

Vera Bradley shoppers can see bedding from all angles and in multiple patterns in the site's "360 experience(opens in new tab)."

Vera Bradley was pleased with the results of its first VR project(opens in new tab) and is looking at other ways to use VR in its stores, said Harry Cunningham, vice president of retail brand experience. Other retailers like Lowes(opens in new tab) and Rebecca Minkoff(opens in new tab) also use tools like these to help bridge the online-offline divide – most recently, Ulta Beauty used VR(opens in new tab) to launch a “lifelike online store” this past September.

It’s critical that shoppers feel comfortable with their choice of size, color, fit, etc., no matter the product or whether they’re shopping online or in-store. Without this assurance, customers will continue with their purchasing journey somewhere else. Being able to virtually “experience” products can remove this hesitation, serve as a brand differentiator, increase sales and limit costly returns(opens in new tab).

Find low-tech ways to give your brand a high-tech feel.

Using technology to offer services that bring one shopping world into the other makes shopping less channel specific. Take, for example, brick-and-mortar retailers offering BOPIS(opens in new tab).

But there are other ways beyond cutting-edge technologies for stores to connect the online and offline worlds. For example, retailers are increasingly infusing social media into the shopping experience. Some brick-and-mortar stores are using hashtags(opens in new tab) to engage shoppers with in-store promotional campaigns: Consider America Eagle’s “#AExME” campaign(opens in new tab), which launched in 2018 and continues today. Others are creating or maintaining staged displays or selfie walls(opens in new tab) to encourage shareable “Instagram moments.”

Revival Body Care(opens in new tab)'s flagship store has a selfie wall.

Having shoppers snap photos and share them on social media connects the in-person shopping experience with their online social presence. Beyond engaging the shopper, it serves as a form of advertising that can drive store visits.

In-store shoppers also have the tactile experience to help them decide what they want to purchase and feel comfortable with their decision. Online customers aren’t afforded this luxury, which in turn has given rise to bracketing(opens in new tab). Bracketing is when a customer purchases multiple items with the intent of returning most of them. For retailers, shipping and processing these returns are costly.

Recognizing this challenge, Tenth Street Hats has implemented a “buy now, pay later” option on its site. With “buy now, pay later,” the customer “purchases” products for no charge and then only pays for products they keep after receiving a shipment.

While this may be convenient for the consumer and overcome an obstacle to purchase, it doesn’t prevent bracketing by itself. But by combining “buy now, pay later” with 3-D product images and virtual try-ons, retailers can ensure consumers feel more confident in their purchase decisions and reduce those costly returns.


Use data to improve the shopper experience.

Many retailers use data to design their stores for improved customer experience. Vera Bradley's Cunningham is tasked with designing the company’s brick-and-mortar stores. His team uses online sales data(opens in new tab) to help them decide which products to design their stores around. For example, they identify their best-selling products for a store’s region, then arrange the in-store customer flow to highlight those products. They also design the flow to lead from these top sellers to an area that naturally promotes new prints without drawing attention away from traditional ones.

Online-only retailers also have a trove of customer data at their fingertips, from purchase data to email and website behavior. Tenth Street Hats collects a user’s preferred styles and wear frequency during the email signup process so it can deliver a welcome series(opens in new tab) that showcases products and content specific to those style choices. And while the company’s CEO concedes that it's not a perfect experience yet(opens in new tab), he notes combining this with the brand’s 3-D images and virtual try-on feature leads to increased conversion rates.

The bottom line

Ultimately, retail success depends upon anticipating what consumers want and delivering it. As trends, technology and consumer expectations change, stores need to change along with them.

As Vera Bradley’s Cunningham said, “The best retail is never done.”

Retail will continue to evolve into a more channel-less experience — the only question is how far it will go. As it’s evolving, know this: If you decide that you’re done iterating today, you may find yourself left behind tomorrow.

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