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How retail tech start-ups are bridging the gap between physical and digital


In a world of conflicting news (one day red wine is good for you; the next day it will lead you to a certain and early death), take comfort: both online and offline retailers are doing just fine. Of course, some brands are doing better than others, but in terms of consumer spend and revenue, ecommerce and physical stores are currently enjoying a happy co-existence.

However, they cannot, and should not, merely co-exist. They need to merge, seamlessly, to ensure better brand loyalty in an increasingly competitive landscape. Retailers are no longer just competing with other stores in the shopping mall – the emergence of direct-to-consumer brands, the utilisation of social media and its advertising algorithms to put targeted ads on a Facebook feed, and the ability of online companies to offer lower prices due to lower overheads all need to be addressed.


The art and technology of convergence

The convergence of off and online shopping in, surprisingly, has moved from infancy to mature toddlerhood. Click and collect draws customers into physical stores. AI-powered chatbots are slowly being used to build customisation and customer loyalty. Smart dressing rooms log what items have been brought in, with interactive screens enabling a customer to have a different colour or size delivered. Alternative payment options are a hotbed of experimentation – from the roaming store associate with a tablet to in-aisle checkout trials. 

While all of the above actions are positive first steps, the next challenge will be to channel such initiatives into one cohesive customer experience. Here’s where retailers need to start: 


Provide WiFi and online ordering while in store

Many stores now offer ‘free’ WiFi, but of course nothing is ever free – many stores utilise customer WiFi usage to track search listings and monitor repeat visits. But retailers can go further – why not enable online ordering for items that out of stock? Or offer a purchase-laden customer the option of having goods shipped to them?  


Merge on and offline payment, product, and CRM systems

Many of us have been there – you order items online, and then attempt to return them to the retail store only to be told that online orders must be returned by post. It often seems that every retailer has a different method for returns – others want you to return items to the store only. Customers want a seamless experience – one where there is no disconnect between payment systems, and where offline and online purchases can be managed seamlessly.


Manage disparate intentions

The Associated Press recently paraphrased the words of Robert Hetu, a retail analyst at Gartner: “Online customers tend to go to a website knowing what they want to buy. By contrast, customers visiting a physical store often make impulse purchases, even if they go in with something specific in mind.” Amazon is managing these disparate intentions in its physical stores by encouraging browsing – books are turned face out, which has been proven to lead to more sales. If the customer can’t find what they’re looking for, they can order it on their phone.


Exchange and harness data from both

Managing disparate intentions, enabling online ordering in-store, and providing a pain-free returns process are great for immediate customer management, but what retailers do with the data accrued from these different processes will be crucial. Beacons that send customised promotions to a customer nearby, personalisation, targeted promotions, and the ability of a retailer to speak to the customer against the backdrop of their every previous buying experience – whether via chatbot or the in-store associate – will be how brands build exceptional customer loyalty in the future. 

One question remains though: is the future now?


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Tagged: Points of view

Gayle O’Brien

Written by Gayle O’Brien

Gayle O’Brien started her writing career during Web 1.0 and still appears to be standing. After multiple stints in-house and agency side, her writing now focuses on start-ups, technology, and innovation. A dual citizen of the US and UK, Gayle divides her time between Massachusetts and south-east England.