Better together – why stores need to blend the physical and online world

Nowadays, you would be hard pressed to find a brand that doesn’t have some sort of online presence. Even the luxury retail sector, which arguably tried to resist the pull of the virtual world, has seemingly given into the march of modernity…

But why, for some, was there hesitancy to begin with? Ecommerce surely should be the preferable option? No extortionate rent draining your bottom line, a smaller workforce and scalable at a much quicker speed.

Yet for some, the in-store experience was exactly that – an experience. Something to be enjoyed and even savoured on its own. And for these companies the call of the virtual world signified a loss as much as it did potential gains.

Let’s return to the luxury retailer for a second – often the purchasing of their products is as much a part of their brand as the product itself. Decadent decorations, exquisite service (champagne while you browse Mr Obolgogiani?!) and a product wrapped with more care than a newborn baby (fitting as they are both pretty pricey investments). In fact it is often, alongside a quality product, one of the things that demands the high-price tag.

In this blog I will argue that the answer is not to keep these two worlds separate, but blend the best of both to make each one stronger.


Avoid clash of the clans

Ok, let’s start not with the technology involved in this endeavor but the people behind each camp. If you are going to combine these two worlds then the first wall that needs breaking down is between the groups responsible for each one.

This not always the easiest of feats as it can feel like they are driven towards different ends – in most cases the branding team are extremely wary of any aspects of commercialism that might dilute the brand value. They don’t like long lists of products, preferring to present experiences and can place great importance on details that may seem fussy and unnecessary to those trying to build a slick virtual experience.

The ecommerce team, on the other hand, is incentivised to bring money on the table. Their growth targets keep rising along with the news that more people are buying more online and they primarily want to get the visitor from the homepage to the checkout with as little friction as possible.

While it may seem that these worlds are incompatible, there are ways to bridge the gap. Firstly, put the focus on long term goals. The main friction point between brand and ecommerce is their short term incompatibility. But once you look farther ahead and concentrate on Customer Lifetime Value, suddenly their worlds start to merge. After all, the brand value is only as good as the repeat business it inspires in the long run – something the ecommerce team will obviously welcome with open hands.

It’s a cliche but one of the most important things to do to this end is make sure these teams, polar as they may seem, don’t work in silos. In fact, you should encourage codependency. It’s magical what happens to the intensity of collaboration between two teams once you build this into the system. When they’re dependant on each other to reach their own goals, their only choice is to work together.

Whether you’re applying organisational changes or shared goals, the purpose is to get the teams communicating, brainstorming and building together – pushing towards a shared reality which should be guided by a clear set of company values. When a company offers a strong set of values it operates from, all teams know the ground rules. Values may seem too wishy-washy to operate a business on, but they can offer really good high-level guidance on whether you should be focusing on ease of use and convenience (expected) or something unique and different (unexpected).


Take the best of your in-store experience online

Now that you have two teams, with expertise in their unique areas, working together – things are about to get exciting. For your online experience that means taking elements of what you have seen work well in your bricks-and-mortar stores, and in a way that fits with your UX requirements, re-create them online.

To do this you must first carefully consider – what are those little brand moments that you have achieved in the real world and how might it be applied online? The fact is there will be many things that do not have a direct virtual counterpart – but that isn’t to say you can’t take some of what made them successful and translate it to the websphere.

Take Lush as an example. As a brand they have always been one with a fantastic in-store experience – super attentive sales staff, hands-on product demonstrations and detailed product recommendations.

Go to the website and you will find many of these elements still present. The staff recommendation have been replaced by a combination of curated product lists, automated personalised recommendations and peer reviews. The demonstrations have been subsituted with a combination of video, detailed descriptions and links to explanatory articles.

The background to this product page is a video of the product in use, replicating the demonstations of the bath bombs in store.  


Some of these elements, the links to explanatory articles for example, don’t offer the smoothest UX experience from a conversion point of view. In fact, it effectively takes you away from the end goal. But this is a site that has been built with an audience and, experience and the brand in mind.

This can perhaps be seen even more clearly in a luxury setting. A few years ago I was working for luxury phone retailer Vertu, and the whole way we talked about the products revolved around in-depth storytelling and specific details. ‘This leather is the same they use in Lamborghini seating and is specifically picked from cows in the Northern hemisphere.’ Go to the Vertu website and you can see how this approach has been woven into their site, with individual elements of each item given prominence and covered both liguistically and visually from a number of angles.

 highlight the same individual elements on their website, in the same linguistic style as they do in their store.


Take lessons learned online into the real world 

While it is true that the online experience can be improved by taking into account the the brand moments available in store, it is also true that the instore experience can benefit massively by attempting to replicate that which has proved itself to be successful online…

This is perhaps particularly true for brands with a younger, tech savvy customer base who expect the convenience offered to them by technology to be inherent when they go to your shop (though it shouldn’t be neglected for other audiences either!). Take the frankly excellent example of U.S makeup brand Sephora. Noting that their customer base was relying on their smartphones for product information, tutorials and reviews when shopping in-store (all things that would be part of the experience if they were shopping online), they provided their shoppers with two possible options…

First of all they they developed the “Sephora To Go” mobile app, which is meant to mimic the experience of a personal shopping assistant by providing pricing information, product recommendations and reviews. For customers that are more comfortable with this method of research the experience of shopping in store then becomes more streamlined, easier and enjoyable. 

The Sephora app in all it’s glory.

Secondly, in some of their physical stores they have set up “Beauty Workshop” stations. Knowing that their customers are heavy users of YouTube tutorials and looking to replicate some of the features of their site, these allow shoppers to watch video tutorials, email themselves product or application tips or even take and share selfies online. As Sephora president and CEO Calvin McDonald states, “It’s not digital for the sake of digital. It’s a combination of products, services and teachable moments that support our customers’ missions.”

One of Sephora’s high-tech in-store Beauty Workshop counters.

Finally, they also display digital trend tables throughout the store which show, in real-time, which products from the online inventory are currently most popular with buyers. The displaying of best-selling products has consistently been shown to be an effective way to drive online sales, highlight as it does key trends and leverage shopper’s tendency to be driven by the crowd – taking this the shopfloor is then a natural next step!

Of course, what will work for you depends on your store and your target market. You must first identify what parts of the digital experience you offer are effective and then decide on whether they are at all translatable to the real world. This in itself is a challenge and requires some out of the box thinking, as retail, as an industry, is still at the beginning of the quest for a blended experience! Don’t be afraid to try new things.

So, there we have it – and who knows how far the blending of these two worlds will go, with the introduction of technology such as virtual reality, we already seeing the lines blurred beyond what we ever thought was possible. What are your thoughts on the subject? How are you tackling this in your organisation? I’d love to hear from you.


Like this? 

Check out “How happiness could be the secret to your business’ success and what to do about it…”

Watch a 4 minute demo
Let us demonstrate why over 2,600 leading retailers worldwide have chosen Nosto’s AI-based personalization platform.