Bridging the Gap Between eCommerce and Real-World Experiences

By Efrat Vulfsons.

As eCommerce continues to prove itself as one of today’s most lucrative marketing channels, companies should ensure that they’re prepared to double down on their online channels. The pandemic has changed the way consumers shop, with a 146% growth in online retail orders in the US and Canada in 2020 alone. In fact, it’s predicted that by 2040, 95% of all purchases will be made online. The eCommerce landscape constantly changes, and COVID-19 has ensured that this trend will remain, maybe even more so, in the coming years. With most consumers staying and spending more time at home, spending on online shopping, even for groceries and home essentials has been on the rise. For most consumers, however, the disconnect between a brand’s online and brick-and-mortar shopping experience can be disconcerting.

One of the main challenges of retailers is the fact that eCommerce, marketing, retail, and digital teams often work within silos, creating disparate data specific to their areas of focus. This leads to an inconsistent customer experience that hinders the provision of targeted campaigns and relevant engagement approaches. Unfortunately, only 8% of retail brands say confidently that they have grasped the fine art of omnichannel marketing. Bridging the gap between eCommerce and real-world experiences should start with the unification of customer data and measurement approaches across the marketing mix. This is a two-prong approach that won’t only improve the overall customer experience but also make it easier for brands to make this experience consistent and improve business outcomes.

Shifting Paradigms

Marketers have the tendency to believe that they are in the driver’s seat when it comes to deciding what customers want. However, this can’t be further from the truth. Today’s consumers are savvy enough to decide for themselves what they want, and it would be presumptuous for companies to make this decision for them. Companies should know their brand indie and out but keep an open mind regarding new practices and how these impact those around them. Sergio Frias, President, and CEO of CX Hub Smart Consulting states, “Do not assume that you know what is best for your customers. You have to make sure that they tell you one way or another. You have to deliver something that is aligned with their expectations. What you think is great, really doesn’t matter. What matters for them is what is great for them. So you have to understand what is valued from your customer perspective.”

Companies should reframe their strategies into one wherein consumers are their own navigators in the journey to conversion. Today’s consumers are more demanding than ever, and they want more than just what’s stated in your product description. “The idea is that you have to grow the performance from what you are delivering, actually delivering, to what you promised. And then you have to go beyond that because customers are not satisfied by getting what they paid for. … So we have to figure out ways to understand what are the processes that we have to change or make flexible enough so that we can go around them to deliver what the customers are expecting without bankrupting our company,” explains Frias.

Leveraging Technology Through Applications

The rise of mobile has also given rise to micro-moments, intent-rich moments when consumers reflexively turn to a device to satisfy a desire to learn, do, or buy something. Even before the prominence of online shopping, 82% of consumers in brick-and-mortar stores said they consulted their phones to help them make purchasing decisions. The problem is that, for most brands, the customer experience in-store and online are so different that customers are sometimes turned off from becoming loyal patrons due to inconveniences that range from minor to deal-breaking. in the fashion industry, specifically, there’s a common problem when it comes to clothing sizes. Heverton Anunciaçao, CEO of Universidade do Cliente (University of the Customer), weighs in on this subject: “The world of business has to fix the issue of the size of clothes for fashion websites. Most of the customers already had a bad customer experience because they bought clothes on the website, but when the clothes arrive, it does not fit.”

Stores could make use of live API’s or web services to create a seamless experience for their customers. Mobile applications are all the rage nowadays, and they could help provide consumers a pleasant shopping experience whether they decide to shop in-store, using the app, or both. Anunciaçao adds, “For example, I put in an application or on a website all the products that I need to buy. When I arrive at the store, this same application could show me the location of the product in the store when I am inside the store, or if I am on the street, show the real price and in real-time which store sells the best product or service.”

Location, Location, Location

It used to be that marketing campaigns were focused on a specific geographical location; with the rise of online channels, however, companies can no longer afford to set such limiting marketing efforts. Businesses can take a look at eCommerce and the web as “locations” where digital marketplaces bring the needed traffic back to the brand. The year 2021 is the year of connected digital commerce as more people discover the conveniences provided by online shopping and eCommerce. As such, brand growth can be vastly improved by implementing drop ship and marketplace automation. Manual processes and daily management of streamlining product data aren’t practical in this day and age, where companies gather large amounts of data every day.

An omnichannel approach is an ideal strategy because it’s a tried-and-tested one; online and mobile have been lucrative channels for years, and leveraging them to provide a seamless experience to customers will help bridge the disconnect between online and offline channels. Cymbio VP for Marketing Jolene Amit reiterates the importance of the omnichannel approach: “Brands can no longer afford to focus all marketing efforts on just one channel such as their direct-to-consumer (D2C) website or their store. For scalable growth, a cohesive omnichannel experience must be defined according to the brand’s target market, understanding this demographic and where to best target them.”

Big Data, Big Wins

With a COVID-19-related spike of 140% growth in the online retail industry in 2020, online shopping seems set to again revolutionize the retail industry. Despite this, there are still some products that can’t be sold exclusively online. According to Patrick Ward, Director of Marketing for Rootstrap, “Marketers must be aware of the retail consumer landscape and consumer expectations for online and in-store purchasing by using an effective omnichannel marketing outreach strategy. I’ve seen this with work over and over as we did with one of our high-profile clients Ownable; with this approach helping them to quadruple their Black Friday sales.”

Leveraging big data also means companies should have an effective data strategy and a data analytics solution that fits their business needs. Their approach to data should be able to ingest, unify, and transform data into business insights that will help in the decision-making process. Gaining a deeper understanding of consumer behavior will help companies identify the source of conversions within the customer journey.

Building Communities

The pandemic has, at the very least, has pushed companies to rethink their strategies in light of the changes in customer behavior. Now, it’s critical to provide shopping experiences that bring more value than eCommerce or in-store shopping alone could ever deliver. Personalization comes to the fore as consumers demand tailor-made interactions with brands, helping develop a community of like-minded customers with similar preferences, which most consumers are hungry for.

Kristen Knight of KKnight Consulting believes that for certain products, such as skin care, a product expert could help boost the value prop by sharing information that used to be shared in face-to-face interactions. “The group could join in on Q&A polls, try-one, or contests. From there, upselling, cross-selling, and content to share with their friends and family could be encouraged,” she adds. This will also lead to enhanced community interaction because novel value-added services drive satisfaction that can’t be delivered by any other element. “To top it off, the company would basically have created a focus group with richer, more relevant data that gets to the heart of NPS and value prop issues,” says Knight.

Designing Customer Experiences

Consistently providing a seamless experience to customers requires some elaborate planning. For some businesses, bridging the gap between online and offline means ensuring that experiences are fully integrated across channels. Michael Hinshaw, President of McorpCX, points out, “When it comes to meeting the needs of today’s digital-first but not digital-only customers, the customer experience winners—in fact, business winners—are those who recognize that delivering highly relevant experiences fully integrated across channels and interactions isn’t just a gap-bridging exercise. It’s an exercise in business model and customer experience design, customer understanding, and the ability to excel at the intersection of digital transformation and customer experience.”

There has always been talking of the market leaders in the retail industry, and Hinshaw says that a common thread in the mantle of these leaders is the way they look at the market and the customer. They understand what needs to be done to give customers what they want—regardless of channel. By putting the customer needs first, companies can then design experiences in such a way that complements an omnichannel approach.

Sayo Afolayan, Operations Manager at Connex One, shares the same customer-first sentiment. She says that designing customer experiences should always start with the customers. Identify what aspects they consider crucial to their online and in-store experiences; customer complaints and reviews are excellent sources of this information. Ultimately, it boils down to doing your research and leveraging collaboration. Review in-store experiences and find innovative solutions to replicate them online, and vice-versa. Collaborative efforts between cross-functional teams of in-store and online personnel will help generate ideas and strategies for a seamless flow of customer experiences.

Face-to-face, Virtually

Integrating online and in-store experiences means bringing the products, or the store itself, to the customers—wherever they may be. While convenient, online shopping removes the ability to physically examine and try out products before committing to the purchase. As such, retailers who want to remain one step ahead of the competition should take advantage of available technology to take customer experience to the next level and make it resemble the real-world shopping experience as closely as possible. “Currently, the cutting edge in this sense is augmented and virtual reality solutions that allow buyers to enjoy high-end 3D models that create a smooth and realistic representation of the products and virtually inspect or try them on from the comfort of their homes or on the go,” says Jan Guardian, Chief Business Development Officer at StayIime.

While technology is catching up with eCommerce, personalized experiences remain a challenge because there’s still a need to identify customers in-store and deliver the experiences at the right moment. The key is crafting customer experiences that are aligned with purchase behavior, making it more intuitive and convenient for customers. According to Somraj Choudhary, Retail and Distribution Partner for Wipro Limited, “There are many ways in which the shopping journeys can be enhanced, delivering enough value to the customer so that he shares more data outside of commerce and transactions. Customers today are willing to pay higher for convenience and value, and the right experience is key to unlocking a greater share of the wallet. Bridging the gap between eCommerce and real-world experience will not only provide a competitive edge but increase the lifetime value and satisfaction of the customer.”

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