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Report: Retailers Can’t Close the Gap Between Online and In-Store

The only way ahead in retail is for the ease of digital shopping to thread through every experience a consumer has.

Visiting a store and searching the floor for an item of interest while getting inadequate aid from an ill-informed employee and then waiting in line to pay for it, has become pesky work today’s consumers aren’t keen to put up with.

“The practice of creating different brand experiences in different “channels” has gone beyond being an inconvenience to shoppers. It’s the central challenge that retailers are grappling with today,” according to a new Retail Systems Research (RSR) report titled, “Commerce Convergence: Closing the Gap Between Online and In-Store.”

There are four major issues hindering forward movement in creating the store of tomorrow: Retailers underestimate just how much digital influences physical shopping experiences, store employees need to leverage mobile technology to engage the connected consumer, retailers aren’t coming around to the idea that adding to point of sale (POS) technology can create new value and that POS in its current state isn’t enough to service consumers in stores.

“When it comes to how to support that convergence of digital and the full shopping journey, retailers are stuck – waiting for something better to come along than the disparate systems they have,” the report noted. “The reality is there are options out there, but even better performing retailers are cautious in approaching them, fearing both the cost and the pain of making the change.”

Retail has entered an era of transformation and today’s consumers don’t shop channels, they shop brands. And those brands have to be able to solve the shopper’s problem, whatever that may be.

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“As consumers, we all have our favorite brands, but we’ve also developed something far more important: our own, individual ways of shopping,” the report noted. “Most of these ways involve digital devices, and each time a retailer can’t anticipate or meet expectations, we develop our own personal workaround solutions, or “hacks.” And with consumer technology enabling new and different ways to hack the retail experience, retailers are in a never-ending race not to win, but just to keep up.”

A substantial 84 percent of retailers surveyed for the study believe that a digital presence is key for building brand awareness, an indication that digitally-enabled technologies should soon gain a foothold in brick-and-mortar stores.

But retailers are honest in their admission that present POS systems and technology are holding them back from providing consistent, cross-channel experiences for consumers.

“It’s incredibly difficult to satiate a customer’s needs when, should that customer decide to visit a store (where more than 90 percent of sales still conclude), virtually all of their online pre-purchase behavior is entirely invisible to in-store staff,” the report noted.

Really, associates should have access to that kind of big data as soon as a shopper comes into a store and well before they reach the POS.

Brands seem to “get” that there’s work to be done, but the question becomes how to put one foot in front of the other to get there.

Ninety-five percent of retailers either agree or strongly agree that store and digital experiences should be united for seamless shopping and 93 percent believe they have to do a better job of accommodating a younger, more tech savvy consumer—both of which will really be key as consumer studies have shown that more than 50 percent of sales are influenced by digital shopping behaviors.

“When it comes to the things that challenge retailers the most, there can be no denying the elephant in the room: the trend for consumers to self-rely on digital devices to find the best products, know the most about them, and reveal the best price/most convenient delivery method is only going to increase,” according to the report.

Retailers cited three top challenges in creating the all-important seamless experience, including issues finding more ways for consumers to connect through the brand, needing to improve customer service without increasing payroll costs and the knowledge that consumers are using mobile as part of their shopping and that they can’t afford to not be there.

Tapping into social media outreach, call centers and online widgets have proven beneficial to establishing the human connection consumers may not even know they crave, but RSR’s research notes that there will never be a substitute for in-store person-to-person interaction.

“It’s a functional need of the human condition, and a large part of why stores have yet to (and won’t) disappear,” RSR explained. “We’ve seen what happens in recent years when retailers try to pull employees from stores to cut costs, and quite simply, that model does not work. Without equivocation, a motivated and powerfully-informed workforce will be a vital component to any successful omnichannel experience going forward.”

And the largest retailers are focused on three things to create that successful omnichannel experience: more personalized service/attention from employees, a store that is enhanced by the inclusion of more digital touchpoints, and the outcome resulting from proper execution of the two—a more convenient customer experience.

So what needs to happen next?

Retailers will have to offer store employees similar selling and productivity tools consumers have access to on their own devices, provide the ability to locate and sell merchandise from anywhere in the company, and have a mobile in-store concierge to help store staff with some of the sales burden, among other things.

Consumers expect retailers to be at least as tech-savvy as they are and a store’s offering will speak not only to its digital prowess, but to how likely the shopper is to frequent that brand because of the experience that comes with it.

Brands are batting around the idea of the “endless aisle” or extending the in-store assessment to make inventory available from other locations or outside sources. In-store beaconing or geo-location sensing technologies are also considered necessary for offering consumers personalized, value messaging.

But whatever smart-platforms retailers opt to offer, the takeaway is that today’s time-starved, information-rich shoppers no longer see “channels,” and creating different brand experiences by channel won’t work anymore.

“To respond to the new consumer shopping reality, retailers must define a brand experience that is inclusive of all the ways the consumers “touch” the brand, both in the digital world (e-commerce, mobile, social) and the physical one (the store, the call center),” RSR notes. “And this promises a massive amount of change to how they use technology in stores.”