Digital Innovation Without Sacrificing the Physical Store

Efforts to modernize the physical store are underway, and we are seeing two primary forms emerge: experiential marketing and digital integration.

The Experiential and the Digital

Experiential marketing creates a multi-sensory product or brand experience within a physical store location. Want a kayak, a coffee table, or a new shade of lipstick? Where before you could see and touch the physical product, now you can take it for a spin through mechanical rapids, insert a virtual version of the table into your actual living room, or assess the lip color with your current summer glow or against your palest winter skin.

The digital store introduces screens where there weren’t any before: iPads, wifi kiosks, digital dressing room screens, triggered mobile notifications, mobile POS, interactive displays. These change a once-analog environment into one that resembles a blend between an online and offline shopping experience.

We know people are investing more in experiences than things and rely increasingly on technology for much of daily life. Many of the ways retailers are reflecting these trends are on point, especially with regard to experiential marketing, but some attempts to modernize physical stores fall flat because they fail to solve a real problem for the consumer.

“Start with a real problem—not an invented one—and then find ways for technology to help solve it”

We know most buyer journeys begin online, but 90% of purchases are still being made in store. Why is this? Consider a few reasons someone enters a physical store location rather than purchasing online:

  • They want to see, touch, try on, compare, and evaluate the products in person
  • They need the item immediately
  • They desire the visceral, real-world experience of offline shopping

President Obama recently presented WIRED with a list of six challenges for the tech industry, ranging from inequality to artificial intelligence to, of course, cybersecurity and terrorism. Respected tech leaders, including Tim O’Reilly, founder of O’Reilly Media, wrote responses to each challenge. O’Reilly, taking on the question of when to innovate, argued, “Start with a real problem—not an invented one—and then find ways for technology to help solve it.”

As retailers test ways to incorporate digital into their stores, the smart players will adopt technologies that add value to the business while maintaining an authentic brand experience for the customer.

Complement, Don’t Compete

Innovation doesn’t come cheap, and as retailers evaluate the potential benefits of digital and experiential strategies, they must also understand their impact on the inherent qualities of their physical store. Consider a few technologies that are becoming popular today, their impact on the offline experience and whether they are they solving a real problem.

iPads and Wifi Kiosks:

Primarily used to check stock, obtain product information and facilitate orders, this makes sense for retailers with high demand products that are often out of stock in a particular size or color, as well as for complicated or technical products that benefit from detailed feature descriptions or user reviews. Otherwise, a consumer’s needs can be better met by their own observation or a helpful store associate. Creating an ecommerce experience in your store may just frustrate the consumer who could have stayed home and achieved the same outcome.

Interactive Digital Display

An engagement strategy, the content of these screens is often triggered by activity in the store, such as bringing a product into a fitting room or taking something off the rack. Digital displays work well for retailers with a lot of inventory or expansive store layouts that make it hard for customers to focus and see featured products. In other cases, retailers may be compete with themselves, distracting customers from the physical products on their racks. Seeing a garment “on the runway” is exciting, but is it solving a problem for offline customers? It may be more economical to maintain visually appealing displays in an uncluttered space.

Mobile Integration

This typically involves using the phone to connect in real time with personalized notifications via app or sms. Using the store to drive mobile engagement and maintain a dialogue after the store visit works well if done right, and is especially effective when an incentive is involved as an entry point. However, complicated user flows or high barriers to entry will fall flat. Most app-based engagements require the customer to have downloaded the app with notifications turned on, beacons need bluetooth and mobile web needs a strong signal to work. SMS is stickier, simpler and more effective in maintaining a 1:1 connection after the store visit.

New technologies can be an excellent way to capture data from the physical world, establish an ongoing dialogue with customers, or facilitate a sale, but they shouldn’t compete with the store itself. Though much of the focus today is on their struggles, brick and mortar stores have a unique and irrefutable benefit over digital commerce: they exist in the real world and cannot be duplicated online. And as screens continue to dominate the world around us, the real world might just become the place to be.

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