By Julia Amorim, CEO  |  This article was published on the Dx3 Digest 03.22.17.

Some consumers walk into a store and immediately begin scanning for the signs marked “Sale.” Others enjoy being greeted like a regular by an associate and pointed towards the best new items. Whether they know what they came for or not, they more or less know what to expect — and unlike the digital realm, so do the merchants.

Retailers have had hundreds of years to perfect the art of making their stores engaging, immersive and inspiring experiences for their customers. The learning curve to replicate or surpass those experiences online has been much shorter — and a lot more steep.

In the last 20 years alone we’ve seen retailers faced with the demand for e-commerce options, then a completely different paradigm as shoppers began leaving their PCs at home and browsing on their phones not only on the way to a store, but once they’re inside. Now the Internet of Things opens up opportunities to collect and manage data through sensors embedded in walls, ceilings and on the shelves. Virtual reality and artificial intelligence may soon set new entirely new expectations.

According to a post on RetailCustomerExperience.com, 78% of North American merchants say it is important or business-critical to integrate e-commerce and in-store experiences. The only way to avoid feeling completely overwhelmed by that challenge is for retailers to think through the journey online customers make, where they cross over to offline experiences (and back again), and what the impact should be on their strategic planning. Consider the following a starting point.

1. Learn From Offline Best Practices

Though digital channels represent myriad new touch points for shoppers, they don’t necessarily require completely reinventing processes. Here are just a few examples of how to translate from the physical world to the digital one:

Make a strong and authentic first impression: Retailers are experts in creating well-merchandised displays when customers arrive in-store. The same rules apply online, where greeting site visitors with beautiful photos that accurately show off wares and genuine, rather than paid reviews build trust.

Create a memorable experience: From the moment consumers walk in to the moment they leave, the best retailers focus on building relationships rather than pushing sales. This could be done through answering questions, offering a discount or suggesting complementary items. Digital experiences need to do the exact same thing through things like chatbots, recommended product tools and e-mail marketing.

Let Data Tell The Story: The best retail staff ask customers as many, if not more questions than they answer. They show interest at every opportunity as to their customers’ tastes, shopping habits and personal preferences. Online shopping opens up ways to dramatically increase not only the volume of information about customers, but the actions you can take. This includes analytics on what ads they’re seeing and clicking on, what digital promotions are performing well, peak shopping periods, device usage and where they travel across your web site.

2. Your Brand Is Your Best Store Associate

In-store staff do a lot more than fold clothes or restock shelves. They watch, listen, learn and improve the physical shopping experience. The difference with digital is that your online brand represents that familiar face — for better or for worse.

A recent report from Econsultancy shows only 49% of retailers surveyed said digital permeates most of their marketing activities. That may be because merchants aren’t always certain how to ensure their investment pays off. Think of our online brand like your best associate and you’ll immediately recognize the traits that make them successful:

  • Helpful: If finding what they need online is difficult, shoppers will always go elsewhere. Digital experiences should guide consumers early in their journey through promotions, but also when they’ve actively considering a purchase through a mobile-first site design that makes it easy to make multiple purchases.
  • Unobtrusive: No one likes being followed around a store as though they’re a shoplifter. Similarly, digital marketing should be contextual, relevant but not so ubiquitous that consumers feel they can’t escape your ads. Leverage data to execute specific holiday promotions or other events that drive conversion. Can they immediately make a purchase through an ad they like? Even better.
  • Polished: If a store associate can’t figure out how to scan an item at the point of sale or forgets to ring in the sale price, we’re incensed. You likewise need a digital experience that’s not only fast but accurate. That means shipping the right item in the right size, colour or other feature. Aim for a friction-free process wherever possible.

3. Digital Is More Than Just Another Store

It’s tempting to see online retail as something separate from what happens in-store that can be siloed, but because it can be experienced anywhere, digital experiences must be well-executed everywhere.

Research from Retail TouchPoints says 77% of consumers have chosen, recommended, or paid more for a brand that provides a unique, personalized experience. That means not only treating digital as its own medium — looking for ways to offer unique benefits like virtual fitting rooms or subscription services — but weaving it into the fabric of the entire organization. Excellence in digital retail should be consistent from promotions to customer service.

Although anything can happen when a customer walks into a store today, retailers have put the time and effort in place to make sure they know enough about their customers and what they want to serve them well. It’s time to bring those principles to the digital shopping experience — an experience that, in some cases, may become the primary experience consumers ever have with a brand.