Are brick-and-mortar stores to become a thing of the past?

With the arrival of online commerce in our daily lives, many were those who thought that consumers would abandon physical stores in favor of e-commerce or m-commerce touchpoints (including websites, apps, social and live shopping) While the pandemic was a powerful catalyst for this process, with online product sales growing by 44% between 2019 and 2021, it has to be said that “offline commerce” is holding its ground. It still accounts for a very large proportion of retail commerce, of up to 85%.

However, this position of dominance has been shaken up by the rising power of connected buying, which has given rise to unified journeys integrating stores and digital channels, all ultimately aimed at a single purpose: serving customer needs. Customers are increasingly benefiting from these developments and contributing to the unification of “on” and “off” channels, the boundaries between which are becoming ever more porous.

Two strategies to integrate digital at the core of points of sale

Stores are obviously places where people buy things (this is their primary vocation at any rate), but they can be much more. With the integration of digital in customer journeys, more and more stores are being designed to be places where people have experiences. They are transforming the way we buy and appealing to our senses, to create experiences that cannot be offered through a smartphone screen or web interface alone.

With this in mind, an initial strategy is to integrate digital solutions that meet marketing aims related to customers’ emotions, well-being and reassurance. Customers are drawn into a seamless journey that immerses them in a brand experience, with no immediate transactional or conversion aims. QR codes on products to see customer reviews and detailed descriptions, smart mirrors in changing rooms, and interactive terminals to access product catalogs or place an order in-store when a product is out of stock, are all examples of solutions used to enhance the presentation of physical products and give them a new dimension.

A second strategy is to use technology to engage customers with the brand, during both the acquisition and loyalty-building stages. Assistance provided by sales staff trained to help with product personalization, using tablet-type interfaces, is a common example of this. By adopting these kinds of approaches, retailers can access tools to collect key information about existing and potential customers and, as a result, better meet their expectations during interactions with the brand, via store staff or customer service teams. Built around these unified data approaches, and based on data gathered through customers’ online journeys and physical experiences, this strategy opens up interesting prospects for retailers, which can refine and personalize their advice.

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Reinventing brick-and-mortar stores to better meet consumer expectations

Particularly in the post-Covid age, physical stores now offer various digital means to delight customers once again and make their lives easier. This is reflected in the adoption and growing use of omnichannel approaches by stores. The growth of click & collect and ship-from-store (a logistics method that transforms points of sale into storage and shipping areas, to speed up product deliveries) are evidence of this in our daily lives as consumers.

A major friction point in the in-store customer journey remains the checkout, whereas online commerce totally bypasses the idea of queuing and fulfils the need for immediate transactions. However, innovations in the area of digital payment have emerged to make this final stage smoother. Amazon Go, for example, is deploying its Just Walk Out technology: when entering the store, customers scan their smartphone or bank card, then sensors positioned throughout the store detect the content of their basket and automatically debit them, without having to go through a checkout.

Beyond the introduction of such solutions aimed at making the path to purchase smoother, physical stores can also adopt hybrid forms and enrich the experience they offer by merging it with the e-commerce experience. This is the case of showrooming, for example, which is halfway between physical and online commerce. It involves an exhibition area where customers can discover products and ask questions to sales staff, before making a purchase via a website. Such a model does have a significant limitation though: there is nothing to stop consumers comparing product prices and buying them from an e-retailer offering a more competitive price.

At the end of the day though, if they continue to reinvent themselves and view the e-commerce channel as a complementary partner, rather than an internal competitor, physical points of sale have many bright years ahead of them. While some are predicting a major shock to come with the arrival of the metaverse, its use for commercial ends will not be happening any time soon, if the logistical and financial costs involved in integrating a brand in this vast virtual world are anything to go by.

Putting the charm back with a human touch