Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

The new era of retail: It’s not offline vs. online, it’s offline and online

By Manlio Romanelli, President of M-Cube

Throughout the pandemic, ecommerce rates saw an incredible surge as the world adapted to an unprecedented situation. Time has now passed and the acceleration of ecommerce has begun to diminish. Shares in online businesses such as Amazon, Etsy and Shopify have fallen, and the total ecommerce transactions have declined by 1.8% compared to a year ago. On the other hand, footfall in physical stores is on the rise, up by 4.4% in the UK.

The slowdown in ecommerce sales does not mean retailers should prioritise physical stores, nor should the advancement of the online experience come at the expense of the in-store experience. What’s important to remember here is that the answer to what constitutes a successful retail model or channel of the future is not simply black and white – it does not come down to stores versus online. Rather, it’s about blending the line between the two. But how can retailers find that perfect balance?

The evolution of the high street

Brick-and-mortar retail’s loss has long been online’s gain. In the past year alone, we’ve seen huge brands such as Topshop and Debenhams be snapped up by these ecommerce juggernauts, unable to navigate the current market. With more of us than ever shopping online, does this finally sound the death knell for the traditional British high street?

The crisis of the traditional store shouldn’t be seen as a defeat, rather an opportunity to rethink current models and offers. The reality is, consumers like in-store shopping. Especially if the purchase experience offers the quality and immediacy typical of ecommerce, combined with the powerful sensations and attraction typical of the physical store. The change must therefore be led by a combination of creativity and technology, in order to propose new designs and a new look and feel.

Considering this, the savviest retailers have already spent years creating omnichannel strategies that blend physical and digital outlets to engage consumers in the channel of their choosing. Dolce & Gabbana home, for example, created an immersive, digital experience in its Milan stores to enhance the brand experience.

Using animated images, expressive videos, interactivity, worlds built with a surreal mix of settings and performers, the brand was able to create a fluid customer experience with no boundaries between digital and real. This created an emotional experience for the consumer, allowing them to completely immerse themselves in the world of the brand.

Getting phygital

Brands such as Dolce & Gabbana are no doubt setting the pace, but there are many retailers who need to play catch up and amplify their offering potential from a phygital (Physical + Digital) perspective. There are multiple ways this can be done.

Thanks to new digital technologies, brands can impress customers with a digital personal assistant. Whether via hologram staff who greet customers with a smile, or with new promotions, to personal assistants integrated into smartphones – retailers need to rethink how they can interact with consumers the smart way. Thanks to AI, these assistants are also able to personalise products and services too, adding a customised touch that keeps customers coming back for more.

The ‘endless shelf’ is another interesting initiative. With online browsing now a common habit for everyone, this new behaviour can be applied to the physical store with an ‘infinite shelf’ that provides an unlimited window for the customer. This guarantees the products availability even if they are not physically present in the store. Plus, it allows the customer to enjoy a full browsing experience without stock taking up any unnecessary space.

Digital signage is also a key trend. And it’s exactly what it sounds like: signs and screens you can use throughout your retail store that display digital ads, videos, traditional store signage, or any other message you want to relay to customers. Best of all, they can be interactive which boosts customer engagement. In fact, 68% of customers note that digital signage would make them more likely to buy advertised products.

The bottom line

It’s no coincidence that online and offline integration is vital to elevating and centralising the customer experience. Forget price and product alone, today’s challenge is guaranteeing an exciting and quality customer experience. In spite of the doomsayers who predict the disappearance of the physical store, experts maintain that only ‘boring’ or unengaging stores will meet their end.

The physical store will continue to be attractive if it is designed to be a multi-experiential hub which can operate on multiple emotional levels. Every square metre of the store can become a potential interaction and business touchpoint – combining offline with online is the secret ingredient.